This preview is built on a press build of the game that 2K Sports sent us about three weeks ago. The game wasn't optimized for performance yet and featured only part of the final game. I logged about 10 hrs in the build and played through all of the content available in the game with the soldier class (I got him to Level 17 in that time period). I also spent some time with the berserker and sniper classes.
This is a picture of Kyle Yan, John's son. Kyle is a little over three years old and fun kid with a great sense of humor who really loves his dad.
Unfortunately for Kyle he's going to lose his father in a month or so to Borderlands. I honestly feel bad for John's wife because she is going to have to change two sets of diapers when the game comes out as I don't think John is going to be able to tear himself away from the game and honestly neither am I.
If you're wondering how I know this it's because John loves two types of games, First Person Shooters and Diablo style role playing games. Borderlands merges these two genres together into a Reece's peanut butter cup of gaming goodness. Gearbox then took that delicious combination and added four player co-op, further enhancing the potency of the game for a Left 4 Dead addict like John.
Borderlands is set on the remote planet of Pandora (No, it's not the same Pandora as James Cameron live action Fern Gully). Pandora was colonized and civil at some point but has gone to hell in a hand basket as the planet has been overrun with bandits its the native life forms. While this hasn't been a problem in the past, the recent revelation that their might be a significant alien technology vault buried on the planet has sparked significant interest in the planet and that's where you come in. Despite the sci-fi setting, there's a decidedly western feel to the game that will remind a lot of folks of Firefly which I'm guessing is not unintentional.
The game opens on a truck bound for the town of Firestone, and it's here where you pick which character class that you want to play. You can choose Mordecai the sniper, Lilith the Siren, Brick the Berserker, or Roland the soldier. Each character has their own special ability that augments their weapons specialty. Brick has a souped up berserk attack which allows him to pummel creatures with this fists instead of guns, Mordecai can launch a bloodwing (a hawk like creature), Lilith has a magical speed attack, and Roland can setup a turret and shield combo. As you level up in the game you upgrade these abilities to augment not only your character but the rest of your squad.
Each of these abilities is grouped into three groups, essentially creating a subclass for each character. For example, I leveled Roland up to level 17 and spent most of my points building up his abilities with shotguns and rifles (mostly because at the end of that chain the turret got a missile launcher) but I also tossed a few points into the healing tree so that any team members near the turret would be healed by it. If I wanted to I could have built that up area even more so that the turret healed faster or put some points into the supply tree so that the turrent provided ammo to teammates. The feature really increases the variety of the game as you can have multiple people play different builds of the same character.
After you are dropped off in Firestone you are greeted by Claptrap, a single wheeled robot that walks you through the tutorial level of the game. Claptrap also provides a great deal of comic relief as you might have seen in the first developer diary for the game. He introduces you to the basics of getting around and how the save system works (more on that in a bit) and then starts you on your way. Claptrap, like the other denizens of the game, oozes with charm and personality. It's rare that I crack a smile at a joke in a game but I was grinning through large portions of it as the writing was that good. I'm interested to see if Claptrap becomes as much of an Internet meme as GLADOS and Big Daddy as he really sticks in your head when you play the game.
The majority of the missions I played in the build of the game were fairly standard stuff. Collect X number of item X, kill X number of beast Y, kill this bad guy, etc but there were a few missions that were chained together which fleshed out some of the plot of the game. There were a few more interesting missions in there that filled in some of the back story of the planet and the optional quests in the game do more than just offer filler to help you level up but I am hoping there's some more variety in the final product.
What doesn't need any work is the art style of the game. It's hard not to be impressed with the way the game looks and the change in style absolutely makes the game. Sure it doesn't feature the highly destructible environments we've seen in others and the textures don't look that great when you're two feet away from them but if you're taking that kind of time to analyze things you're missing the point. The game just looks beautiful and ran without any hitches or stuttering even under heavy load on the 360. I also like the little touches like the damage numbers that pop up when you land a shot on an enemy, sure it's a bit more JRPG but it's a cool effect when you land a burst of shots on a bad guy.
So far what I've talked about are the things that make up a good FPS, but what really separates Borderlands from the other FPS games in the world is the amazing amount of loot you're going to be collecting. Monsters, especially bosses, explode into foundations of color-coded loot when they die. General weapons and ammo are white, money is gold, and unique items are green, blue, and purple based on their uniqueness. When you are playing with friends the ammo and loot are divided between the team members while the weapons are on a first come first serve basis. It can be difficult to read some of the weapon descriptions when you're close to the item (especially when it's at your feet) but the game does hold the description open so even if you can't read it at first you can look up to see what you're missing.
The real focus of the game though is the guns. With over 1 million guns possible in the game, thanks to the game's random generato, you're not going to be attached to one gun for long. The game has a wide variety of pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and other assortment of killing devices. As you use a particular class of gun, your proficiency with that weapon will level up allowing you to do more damage with it. It is a bit hard to manage everything as you're only allowed a limited number of spots in your backpack at the start of the game so you're going to be constantly balancing your gun collection with your supply of healing potions, shields, and other items you find around Pandora. There is a bit of active management here which could get in the way of some multiplayer games but the game sorts everything in your inventory so you know what's worth more than something else.
If you're wondering how that much variety can exist I can tell you in the time I played the game I found a shotgun that fired a wave pellet, a sniper rifle that set people on fire, an extra penetrating sub-machine gun, and a pistol with blade on the front that did extra melee damage. I didn't find anything that featured an acid attack (something alluded to in one part of the game) or electricity (which I saw at E3) so I'm guessing there are more things that I just haven't found yet. Ammo is based on the class of the weapon so you don't have to worry about finding the right type of ammo for a gun as the shotgun ammo that shoots the particles is the same kind that can set a monster on fire. Sure it's a bit of a stretch but it's a nice compromise to the gods of good gameplay. Ammo, weapons, and equipment can be bought or sold at vending machines placed in well populated areas of the game.
The game controls well with your typical FPS controls in place for movement and aiming. The left trigger is aim while the right fires. The left bumper sets off your special ability while the right one throws a grenade. A is your jump button with the X button serving as your method for interacting with the world and for picking up items. If you hold the X button down while over a pile of loot the game will automatically pick everything up and if you hold down the X button over a weapon it will auto equip the weapon. The d-pad selects which weapon you want to use although you are limited to just two weapons at the start of the game. I was a little frustrated that I couldn't equip four weapons at the start and hopefully it's something you won't have to earn in the final code.
Missing, or maybe I missed it, was a button that let you use a health kit while in battle. Instead I was forced to open the inventory and use one which was a bit hectic in the heat of battle. Hopefully this is also something that's fixed in the final version of the game.
Pressing the back button brings up the skill tree, inventory management, quest management, weapon proficiency, and map screens. The map does a decent job of showing you where to go and how to get there. It does lack elevation which can make finding things in a cavernous area difficult and there were a few times that something wasn't where it was supposed to be but they weren't deal breakers. I would guess that a lot like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3 the PC side is going to be easier to manage these functions as you have the full keyboard at your command.
Death is a common occurrence in Borderlands and thankfully the penalty isn't that severe. Instead of having to hump back and make a corpse run or restart from a check point you are re-spawned at last Sav-U point which are conveniently scattered around Pandora. Death does cost you some of your money but you get everything back so that usually makes up for it. The enemies in the level will respawn most if not all of their health so don't plan on trying the die and whittle away the health of a bad guy trick that you perfected in Bioshock as it won't work here.
Borderlands also has vehicular combat which is a lot of fun. The controls for driving are Halo like and took some relearning but it was fun to ride around and run things over or blow them up with the rocket launcher. I'm hoping there are bigger vehicles in the final game that four people can ride together in but I can see a lot of fun in having two vehicles causing mayhem together.
I know that Modern Warfare 2 is the top game on everyone's mind for the rest of the year but Borderlands is shaping up to be as good as what Infinity Ward is creating if not a better change of pace. The game isn't perfect but you won't notice the few flaws the game has because you're having so much fun playing the game. I was late to work on at least three separate occasions because of "Just one more mission" syndrome and I have a feeling I'm going to be losing hours and hours of my life when the game ships in October. Of course John will be there with me but at least I won't be orphaning a child when I play.