It’s a hot day, and dozens of weird creatures and men with guns are dashing around a Mad Max landscape. People are getting bitten, shot and blown up, and in-between the bouts of carnage there’s a lot of chatter about something called The Vault. But this isn’t Fallout 3 - it’s Borderlands, the new shooter-RPG hybrid from Gearbox and 2k Games. And oh boy, doesn’t it look pretty?
Yes, yes it does. Borderlands has been in development for several years now and was originally due to arrive in late 2008, but at some point along the way things got a little muddled. In April the game re-emerged from the shadows sporting its distinctive new look, but it was only later that Gearbox boss Randy Pitchford revealed that he had almost been ready to pull the plug at the time the graphics were switched. It sounds odd that a new lick of paint could help to reverse such a drastic decision, but then this is no ordinary art style.
If you look at the pictures dotted around this page you’ll get an idea of what Borderlands looks like, but only a rough one – to get the full effect you’ll need to see the images in motion. Gearbox calls it “concept art” style, presumably in reference to the broadly colourful designs that crop up in the early stages of planning a game; personally I think its fairly reminiscent of the rotoscoping effect that Richard Linklater used in his film version of A Scanner Darkly. The bottom line is that it’s a bit like cel-shading, but with a greater degree of detail. Borderlands resembles a 2000 AD comic that has sprung to life, fresh and larger-than-life but with a hint of something wicked underneath.
The game itself appears to be a similar mix of familiar elements and ingredients being put to work in unusual ways. Borderlands is primarly a first-person shooter, a co-op action game with support for up to four players, but underneath that there are several RPG-like qualities. For a start, the game is class based, offering a quartet of diverse characters who can be further customised via branching skill trees. For example, much of Gearbox’s E3 demo was devoted to Brick – a hulking great meathead who acts as the obligatory “Tank” class. Brick’s strength can allow him to go on an adrenaline-fuelled murder binge, but with a bit of tailoring you can adjust how he brings the pain. The “Heavy Handed” skill (which is coincidentally the name of a character trait in the original Fallout games) will up the brute force of his attacks, while “Sting Like A Bee” will presumably allow him to make a single, painful attack before immediately collapsing dead on the spot.
All of these skills and abilities will be fuelled by experience points, so expect a cheery little XP score to pop up every time you blow away a critter or marauding gunman. That’s all fair enough – we see this kind of thing In lots of action games these days – but things get a bit hairier once you start to look at Borderland’s approach to loot. If the words “epic” and “drop” cause you to start dribbling like one of Pavlov’s dogs then it’s time to grab a towel, because this game will have lots and lots of shiny things to pick up. In particular, Borderlands is packed to the gills with guns. At one point Gearbox claimed that there would be half a million different firearms in the game; now they’re claiming that there are more than 650,000 different weapons to try – enough for everyone in the vicinity of Nottingham to have their own unique shooty-bang stick.
It’s sounds absolutely ridiculous, but apparently its true: there are more guns in Borderlands than in all the other games that were at E3, put together. There’s a randomisation process at work here, one that automatically constructs new boomsticks using an array of variables and qualities. You might stumble across a sniper rifle that just happens to have a bigger clip to the one you’re already holding, or you might find something really weird – like a scoped double-barrel shotgun that electrocutes your enemies, or a pistol that fires grenade rounds. Of course, one could argue that the sheer mass of weaponry could make each individual firearm feel a bit worthless (though of course there will be ultra-rare items to hunt out). It’s certainly a risk, but with any luck this setup will cause the player to re-evaluate their approach to their armaments: you’ll constantly shop around and switch weapons, rummaging through the pile of stuff that appears whenever an enemy hits the deck. We’re used to this kind of thing in more traditional RPGS, but for an FPS title it feels like an interesting approach.