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.
Besides, the whole scavenging-for-toys aspect feels like it should work with the game's plot. Borderlands' backstory is still a bit vague, but essentially the gist is that you're a hard-boiled treasure seeker on the alien planet of Pandora. Once upon a time Pandora was a happy place attracting flocks of human settlers and colonists, but eventually people realised that the planet was also home to a whole bunch of nasty creatures who only emerge during certain seasons. Anyone with cash hopped back onto a departing space ship, leaving an intergalactic Wild West for those who were left behind. You're now searching for something called The Vault - a mythical stash of alien technology that's; supposedly squirreled away somewhere on Pandora. Unfortunately no-one knows where it is, because everyone who finds the place seems to disappear.
Despite the RPG touches, Borderland's gameplay tent looks to be firmly pitched in the campsite marked "Kaboom!". In other words, it's fast and brutal. Some of the quests shown off during E3 seemed to have an MMO-like feel, requiring the player to kill a certain number of Skags - angry jackal-like creatures that leapt about the desert landscape. Other missions seemed more like traditional action fare, with the players raiding a mine populated by trigger-happy bandits, laying down explosive charges to blow the place sky high. There was a decent variety of enemies too, even within the brief demo we were shown: spider-like insects, heavy gun turrets and midgets with axes. It all runs very slickly too, the arcade-like pace contrasting with the more chin-strokey elements like the XP scores and colour-coded loot drops.And thanks to the stand-out art style, it looks pretty damn sexy, too.
Lest we forget, this is a game that's been designed for co-op play. While Brick was the only character I got a good look at, the four classes seem to be naturally designed to work with each other. There's a sniper named Mordecai who apparently can befriend some form of alien pet, a mage-like woman who used alien psychic abilities and a fourth character who seems to be a general-purpose all-round soldier. You can drop in to a friend's game at any time and join them as they play, then return to your own campaign with all the new kit you've found. You might expect some kind of system to prevent you from abusing this system, but Randy Pitchford himself has said that he likes to go back to the early bosses with advanced weapons, killing them in a matter of seconds. Why? Because it's fun.
Clearly there are still lots of things we have yet to see in this game. It is known that vehicles play an important role, but so far we've only seen a two-man buggy that largely serves as a quick transport. It's quite possible that randomisation will come into play here, and the same may be true of the game's monsters - similar beasties will attack in different ways. It'd also be nice to know about how the competitive multiplayer will shape up, although we already know that you can challenge your co-op pals to arena duels by smacking them about during a game: punch your friend and you will "demand satisfaction" from them. If they respond in turn, you'll both warp to some form of neutral battle ground and duke it out.
There were a lot of FPS titles at this year's E3 - Home Front, Modern Warfare II, Singularity, Bioshock II, Halo ODST, Red Steel II and Brink, off the top of my head. The latter was probably the game that most stood out to me (though I didn't get to see MW2 in person), but I must say that Borderlands certainly made a fairly lasting impression. It feels different and exciting, and it certainly looks stunning. If you've read my interview with Randy Pitchford you'll know that he's said a lot about taking risks, and it's certainly fair to say that Gearbox is taking a gamble. However, as a man who likes the odd wager myself, I'd be happy to back Borderlands as a potential winner. Gearbox has a lot of decent experience in this genre, and if the new ideas work well then they should do, the final game should be well worth the wait.
Borderlands will be out later this year on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.