There's no denying that Borderlands is ambitious. When we first saw the game at Games Convention 2007 we were blown away by Gearbox's attempt at making an open-world RPG FPS, complete with four-player co-op. It had gorgeous visuals, an intriguing story, over 500,000 weapons and giant monsters that dwarfed even those seen in Sony's awesome Shadow of the Colossus. It was one of our favourite demos of the show and left us desperate for more. Game development isn't a quick process though, with the game more than a year from release at this time last year. So, at GC 2008 last month we were eager to see how close the game was to completion and if Gearbox had managed to make the game it was so very passionate about 12 months ago.
Our GC08 demo started on the Pander Barrens, a rather desolate landscape full of rolling brown hills and steep-sided mountains. The Gearbox guys were playing two-player co-op on the Xbox 360 version of the game, and they'd been told to head to a nearby mine in order to rescue an artefact stolen by some bandits. They hopped in a two-seater off-road buggy-like car (equipped with gun) and headed off. It wasn't long until they encountered enemies, but they were no match to the fire-power bolted to the roof of their vehicle. Of course, the game features impressive physics, so enemy vehicles were sent flying when shot at. When playing cooperatively it's good fun to take turns with the driving and shooting, so Borderlands allows you to switch seats while on the move, saving you the hassle of stopping, getting out and then changing seats. It's little touches like this that make us think Borderlands will be an unmissable co-op experience on its release.
The game world appears to be completely open, but our demo was brief and tightly rehearsed so the guys headed straight to the mine. From here they moved forward on foot. At the entrance to the mine were some alien creatures called Scags. These beasts scurry around like demented, hyper aggressive warthogs, but they're not too much of a problem to two players during co-op play. We didn't get to see many of the alien creatures, but Gearbox assured us that there'd be dozens of different animal types in the full game - presumably of varying sizes. We did get a chance to see an Alpha Scag though - a glowing version of the standard Scag that is much more dangerous and harder to take down.
Being an FPS crossed with an RPG Borderlands features levelling, so as you progress through the game you'll increase your stats as you would in an RPG like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy. After taking out the Scags our Gearbox reps each levelled up. Throughout the game you'll also come across upgrade skill stations, allowing you to upgrade your skills. We've only seen a tiny portion of what the game has to offer, but it certainly seems like it'll appeal to FPS and RPG fans alike. For example, the guns in the game are generated using some tech Gearbox developed effectively giving the game hundreds of thousands of gun types. So, as the guys pointed out as they took down bandits in the Iridium Mines, you'll pick up different dropped weapons during your game than a friend will in his. Weapons vary from region to region, so you'll get hold of similar makes, but exact stats and abilities will vary.
Being big on online co-op play you'll be able to hop in and out of games with other people, taking your character with you. You'll also be able to share weapons with your friends, either by dropping them or by using a trading system. As we saw in the recently released Xbox 360 exclusive Too Human, collecting loot and levelling up adds a lot to even a fairly disappointing game, so the RPG elements of Borderlands can't be underestimated in their importance. Something worth pointing out is that the game doesn't support AI co-op play. Unless you're playing with another human Borderlands is a solo experience. Having only ever seen the game played cooperatively we'll have to wait and see if this lessens the experience.
A year ago Borderlands looked incredible. A year on it still looks impressive, but it's understandably not quite as incredible as it was. It's still easy to be impressed by the open world environment and the detailed character models, but it looks very much like an Unreal Engine 3 powered game. That's not a bad thing at all; games have just come on a surprising amount in 12 months. Something Borderlands does really well is brutal combat. A shotgun blast to the face looks and sounds as violent as you'd expect it to, and it's hard not to laugh as you run over the smaller animals that litter the landscape, with squelches and screams coming from your tyres.
Borderlands still has a way to go in development but it's coming along very nicely indeed. As a co-op experience it appears to offer pretty much everything, and the RPG elements give the FPS gameplay a refreshing feel that the genre really needs. While games like Mass Effect and this year's Fallout 3 appear to offer action-based RPG gameplay, they are still RPGs at heart with combat to match - Borderlands is most definitely still an FPS that plays like you'd expect, with the added bonus of RPG elements. We can't wait to go Scag hunting with the final game.