If you've ever been given the choice of Cake or ice cream you have probably asked yourself, why not cake and ice cream? I imagine that line of thinking prevailed as Randy Pitchford and his team at Gearbox Software thought of the concept for Borderlands. A first person shooter set in distant frontier world complete with addictive co-operative play, classes much like a role-playing game, skill trees and plenty of loot as well as insane amounts of weapons (over 16 million!). Cake and ice-cream, and lots of it!
Borderlands has been in production for quite a while now and I have followed the progress intensely ever since it was announced. When a game has been previewed over and over again for years, I sometimes feel like I have already played the game when it finally arrives. I've seen so much of it, screenshots and trailers, played the preview code, and when I finally get the full game in my hands I'm not that excited to play it anymore. Perhaps this would have been the case with Borderlands if not for a major visual overhaul that took place midway through production.
The artists at Gearbox had watched on as the game moved from their initial slightly cartoony concept sketches to a more realistic look and they wanted to bring back the look from the concept drawings. They managed to prove that it was possible to achieve the transformation without having to scrap too much of Borderlands and the publisher 2K Games also agreed to it. A wonderful decision in my view as Borderlands is a game players will spend dozens of hours on and a visual style that stands out and feels fresh is key to making that journey a feast for the eyes.
The co-operative element of Borderlands is what really gets my attention. Talking to my German colleague Christian, a fellow Phantasy Star Online addict from back in the Dreamcast days, we both agreed that Borderlands reminded us of those days with its premise. Of course it also ads the shooting element and vast environments as well as vehicles to traverse the wastelands. Joining a friend in one of the sandy buggies lets you either man the turret och handle the wheels, you can switched positions at any time on the fly.
I have seen Borderlands several times, but at Gamescom Gearbox showed of a mission chain that will be part of the main story (made up of a total of 30 mission chains or 15-20 hours of gameplay). It started out as a mission to take out a beast called Skagzilla (not the one I met last Saturday). First the Gearbox crew had to rescue a fellow called Lucky in order to gain information about the area. A few bandits attacked them as they closed in, but they were quickly taken out.
After saving Lucky they learned that they could use a big roasted hog that some bandits had prepared to lure out Skagzilla and take him down. At this time we were given some insight to the degree of tactics you can employ in Borderlands. The player using a Siren called Lilith, the Borderlands equivalent of a mage, used a stealth ability that concealed her from the bandits and also allowed her to move very fast. She used an ability to stun the bandits and the rest of the team moved in to finish the job swiftly. It was a 5 second massacre. Highly satisfying.
As they lured out Skagzilla we were treated to a typical mini-boss encounter. Circling around her the Gearbox crew shot her full of bullets. As the creature her "pink fleshy stuff" (Randy Pitchford's own words) there was an opportunity to score a critical hit (I can't believe I'm writing this). This is a perfect example of how Borderlands handles skills versus stats. Your aim determines whether or not you do damage or in this case whether you score a critical hit, your level and the weapon then determines the amount of damage it causes.
During this particular demo, one of the Gearbox crew (Steve Palmer) who was playing as a Brick (Berserker) scored a particulary efficient shotgun (the best one Randy Pitchford had seen so far) and Skagzilla was taken down quickly. Later on in the mission chain the crew ran up against a much stronger boss in Mad Mel (Gibson?) and his truck inside the fortress. They were obviously not equipped to handle him and the demo ended in defeat.
I mentioned Steve Palmer's Brick character. A special ability of that class is the Berserker Rage that always you to throw some incredibly powerful fists to take out the enemies. An ability that can come in handy when trying to keep enemies away from weaker characters with ranged abilities. An interesting aspect of the ranged class (hunter/ranger) is that they can have a Bloodwing pet - similar to a falcon they can bring down to attack their foes.
There is only one class I haven't discussed so far. The soldier, your typical middle of the road class, but one interesting ability of the soldier that Gearbox showed off was healing bullets. This certainly gives the term friendly fire a new meaning.
Randy Pitchford ended his presentation by almost pleading with the gathered journalists that we should tell our readers and friends about Borderlands. "It's easy to write stuff about sequels", the veteran developer told us, "but if you liked what you saw spread the word". I guess I'm doing my part now. Borderlands looks like the perfect marriage between a first person shooter and the addictiveness of an action-RPG. At least from what I've seen so far.