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GC 2009: Borderlands
Gearbox delivers head shots, phat loot and coop play. Why didn't anyone do this before?
by IGN Staff
August 19, 2009 - I admit that I was a little unsure about Borderlands going in to the demo. The recent coverage of the game had left me with more than a few questions about its focus and direction. But thirty minutes watching the game play out in free-form coop mode (and a quick turn at the controls myself) has me convinced that the designers' risky blend of genres, weirdly original IP, stylized art design and over the top violence has tremendous potential.
Randy Pitchford's original concept for the game was based off dissatisfaction with the FPS and RPG genres. Shooters like Halo offer tremendous opportunities to display the player's skills, but lack a sense of character growth. RPGs like Diablo are built almost entirely around character growth, but have no real room for player skill. So where Fallout 3 and Mass Effect approached this blend more from the roleplaying side, Gearbox wanted to come at things from a different direction, taking more of a shooter oriented approach and seeing just how far they could go. So while there are quests, tons of loot and plenty of leveling up in this game, Borderlands is, at its heart, a shooter. There are no die rolls or dialogue trees here; just good old fashioned Halo-meets-Diablo style action.
The game is currently in the certification process for an October release on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, so the 360 build on display here at Gamescom is very stable and polished. Four folks from Gearbox and 2K sat down to give us a look at the cooperative multiplayer component of the game. Players can drop in and out of the cooperative campaign at any time, but there's no level scaling. If your buddies have been playing for a while before you even bought the game, you'll just have to jump and go along for the ride.
The first thing to notice about Borderlands is its radically original art style. Now that developers are no longer chasing photorealism, many upcoming games are opting to embrace a more stylized visual presentation. Borderlands combines the very rough, thick outlines and strong color palette to create an almost comic book style appearance. The models are all nicely rendered with lifelike animations and the effects are just over the top enough to be awesome but still be believable.
The content, of course, is totally over the top. The party starts out in a Road Warrior-style wasteland with a mission to go and hunt down Skagzilla. But just as they set out, they get a call from Scooter on their HUD to go and rescue Lucky from some nearby bandits. But Scooter's not so worried about Lucky's safety. Scooter just wants Lucky rescued so he can kill himself for, as Scooter puts it, "messin' up my momma's lady parts." That's when I knew that this game was something special.
The team sets out in two two-person vehicles, with one player driving and one manning the massive gun on top. On the way to the bandit camp, the party is set upon by bandits mounted in their own rocket-launcher-armed cars. The action gets really intense here as the two groups fight it out, leaping over hills and dodging rocket fire, but the party finally wins the day and continues on to the camp. Things aren't any better there, though, and our group is soon accosted by mutant midget psychos and bad-ass bruisers armed with rocket guns. As the enemies fall, you can see them drop loot on the ground, color-coded with a snazzy shaft of light to indicate how awesome it is. Best of all, when you walk up to a piece of loot, you'll see an informative popup that tells you what it is and what it does.
With the bandits, psychos and bruisers down, and Lucky safe for the moment, Randy was able to talk us through some of the character advancement elements. There are four character classes in the game -- the berserker, the soldier, the siren and the hunter. The berserker is an all out fighter who can specialize among three different trees -- brawler, tank, and blaster. The soldier also does his share of the fighting, but can also specialize in combat support or medical skills. The hunter is a straight up sniper, deadly at long ranges, while the siren is great at, well, great at her own thing.
We saw the siren's power as the team moved on to collect the bait needed to bring Skagzilla out of its lair. Some bandits nearby are having a sort of jamboree and cooking up a big pig thing that would make perfect bait for old Skags. The siren can use a phase walk ability to sneak into the camp undetected, reveal herself and confuse and daze the nearby enemies while her allies rush in to kill them. With the bait now in hand, they can head off to Skagzilla's cave.
The valley where Skagzilla lives is littered with old bones and bits of loot, but the important feature is the spiked offering area just outside of the cave. Once the bait is placed here, Skagzilla comes out and begins to attack the players. This is one giant monster who makes use of a number of attacks, from jumping straight at players to shooting some kind of evil bright light out of its face. In any case, the players eventually take it out and then move to complete a number of other missions before finally being asked to confront Mad Mel.
Mad Mel runs a large camp nearby with tons of vehicle-mounted guards and as soon as the action starts, it's clearly more than the players can handle. With Mad Mel's men swarming all around them one player goes down and enters a Fight for Your Life mode. This is a bit like the pre-death mode in Left 4 Dead where players just lie on the ground shooting like crazy until someone comes to revive them. The difference here is that if a downed player can eliminate an enemy, he or she gets a second wind and can get back up and move around.
Sadly, that wasn't enough to save our little band, so the demo ended.
The team at Gearbox is taking a big risk with this game, but they've been doing lots of focus testing all through the development process thanks to new division at the studio, the Truth Team. They've been evaluating all the content in the game, both individual systems and the overall design concept, and adjusting the game to make it as accessible and enjoyable as possible. So far, they've definitely convinced me that it has the potential to work.