Friday, 25 July 2008

E3 Preview: Borderlands

Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
Formats: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Release Date: Q1/Q2 2009

Borderlands is a game that quickly shot to the forefront of everybody’s conscience when it was announced at the Leipzig games convention in August 2007. Mixing RPG elements within FPS parameters, Borderlands was something strikingly different with its promises of 500,000 weapon combinations and a Mad Max influenced open world setting. Supporting its own hype with a nice selection of screenshots, concept art and rhetoric, Borderlands was set to become one of 2008’s most talked about games.
However almost a year on and aside from the occasional screenshot here and a cryptic trailer there, the only notable thing about Gearbox Software’s newest project was its ominous release push backs. Frankly with Gears of War 2 and Fable 2 on the horizon, Borderlands had somewhat dropped off the radar and much of those early promises were beginning to look like worrisome gimmicks.
Those that did keep the faith were rewarded come E3. Corralling some serious screen time, Gearbox Software, noted primarily for their Brother’s in Arms series, were able to present a meaty 11 minute demo which covered an extensive range of the gameplay elements we can expect to see come launch time.
For those not in the know, Borderlands is set on a planet named Pandora located in the farthest regions of humanities space colonies. With vast mineral riches said to be found, Pandora became the scene of a futuristic gold rush. However the settlers soon discovered the planet was a vast, barren dustbowl with nothing to offer. Lawlessness and banditry quickly overcame the penniless unable to leave and that was the least of their worries. Owing to a slow orbit, Pandora’s seasons run decades in length. Having been colonized for seven Earth years, its ragtag population experienced the passing of winter into spring. Spring is the time when hibernation ends for Pandora’s wildlife and it is not cute little hedgehogs immerging from the ground. Suffice to say slithering aliens with more tendrils than you can fire half a million guns at is the order of the day.
Increasingly setout as yet another online co-operative shooter, Borderlands promises 2-4 player co-op with players being able to drop in and drop out of their own, and friends games whilst maintaining their own XP. This was evidenced at the 2K booth as two Gearbox staff made their way through a previously unseen backdrop called the “Barrens.” As suggested the Barrens is a less-than-verdant landscape pot marked with jagged outcrops and pipelines. Necessitated by the vast openness of Pandora, vehicles will be a major part of the game and this was shown early in the demo with the two players entering a nimble buggy with a fixed gun turret and what seemed to be boosters for hill climbing. Utilizing the co-operative gameplay, one takes on the driving duties whilst the other acts as gunner. A particularly neat aspect shown in the presentation was the ability for the two players to switch positions in the buggy during lengthy drives.
Another reason to commandeer vehicles is the swarming wildlife that has awoken in Pandora’s spring. Whilst the towns act as heavily armored sanctuaries, out in the Borderlands dog like creatures called “Skags” roam the wilderness. The minions are small and dangerous, particularly if you’re on foot but they are frightened by vehicles and easily run over; the daddies however dubbed “Alpha’s” are considerably fiercer. Looking a bit like the Ant Lion Guards seen in Half Life 2, Alpha’s are significantly bigger than the other Skags and required some taking down.
Lucky then that you have plenty of weapons at your disposal. Now bumped up to 650,000, this has become the undeniable selling point for Borderlands. Described as being “Procedurally Generated,” built in software actually creates weapons using parameters to fulfill the ultimate gaming arsenal and provides an unending set of artillery options when entering into battle. Still the demonstration contained your usual suspects, sniper rifles, shotguns, pistols, magnums and a deluge of machine guns as well as a grenade type reminiscent of the cluster bomb in Worms. Nevertheless, these are not just minute variations on a theme. Instead the guns and explosives are colour coded with some having electronic, poison or acidic effects aside from the searing impact of a bullet. Weaponry will also be available for sale, upgrade or customization so you can simply beef up your favorites from the many hundreds of thousands to choose from and ship out the dross for some much needed dough.
Also touched upon was the various RPG elements Gearbox are trying to thrust into their FPS world. Players will begin by selecting a character class and this will shape your approach to combat in the same way as Mass Effect or Oblivion. As you make your way through the story, players will be able to level up in the various weapons categories earning XP through kills and gunmanship. Furthermore, Borderlands systemic nature will see each player’s individual evolution of character suggesting the leveling up mechanic will take some other form than just weaponry skills. Side quests will be widely available in what Gearbox describes as a grand adventure and the general layout of the narrative has a distinct air of Mass Effect about it in its current guise.
Indeed, partaking in one of the games hopefully many optional missions, the demonstration saw our two heroes make their way into Iridium Mines to seek out alien technologies. Alien technologies have become the major source of what little wealth Pandora has to offer and the various brigands running amok in the Borderlands have taken to hoarding these commodities having left the towns in search of food and fuel. Entering into the Mines one could be reminded of the various caves and dungeons seen in Oblivion, only with guns and considerable gore. During the presentation many an unfortunate bandit found himself exploded by some brutally powerful hardware.
Considering that the demonstration code was still pre alpha, Borderlands has certainly shaped up better than many had expected. With upwards of eight months of development expected before anywhere near complete, Gearbox has time to cure a few of the kinks in its early build such as the dopey AI which seemed more like fodder than foe.
Running unexpectedly smoothly at such an early stage the game, built up from a heavily modified Unreal 3 engine, is already looking pretty smart and with added spit and polish should look great. There is still a concern whether Gearbox can pull of a complete planet whilst still keeping it entertaining; with huge barren landscapes being the order of the day, one can only hope there is sufficient gun totting enjoyment to be found out in the wastes. In the meantime, Borderlands still strikes a pose as one of the most interesting looking games in development. Whilst not innately unique, as a sum of its parts, Borderlands could be something special when it arrives on our shores in Q1 of 2009.

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