Borderlands Preview: Exploring Pandora In A Warehouse In Brooklyn
There is something to be said about pulling inspiration from three of the biggest games of the last few years… but what about creating their love child? From the very second gamers get their hands on Gearbox’s upcoming opus, “Borderlands,” they’re going to draw some pretty close comparisons to fellow 2K Games franchise “Bioshock,” Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic “Fallout 3,” and Valve’s zombie massacre “Left 4 Dead,” but it won’t take long for it to become apparent that “Borderlands” is its own, truly unique experience.
A few weeks ago, I was summoned to a warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, not really knowing what to expect – both of the preview event, and the game itself. I was going into the demo tabula rasa, as the only thing that I had managed to know about the game in advance, was that it had a cell-shaded art style, and its release date recently got pushed back to Q4 of this year (now officially 10-20-09). Other than that, “Borderlands” had managed to escape my collective gaming knowledge, as some games occasionally do (there’s a lot of games out there, you gotta give us a break sometimes). So, with a clear head I walked into an unmarked warehouse in Brooklyn looking to find out just what “Borderlands” is about.
The first thing I noticed wasn’t the game; it wasn’t even the giant pig that had been roasted, chopped up, and was being served for anyone that felt a bit peckish… no… it was the biggest damn fan I had ever seen. In an attempt to cool off an increasingly warm warehouse, a (and I kid you not) 30 foot fan was spinning overhead. I realize this has absolutely nothing to do with the game, but it needs to be noted, it was a big ass fan – and it even said so on the spinner – “Big Ass Fan.” Anywho … I digress.
After staring in awe at the big fan, I then proceeded to go through a standard demo of a game, the only thing was, I went through this one backwards. Generally, most demos start with an introduction to the game, and a brief look at the single player, before building on that by introducing the game’s multiplayer. But not this time. I just happened to plunge right into the game’s multiplayer, which, as it turns out, is also a pretty solid look at the game’s single player as well. After a brief chat with Gearbox’s Vice President of Marketing, Steve Gibson, about how the big ass fan wasn’t cutting it, and they had to bring in separate, smaller, oscillating fans to keep the 360 dev kits from freezing, I was off and running in “Borderlands.”
I started of alone, as a soldier, souped up to level 19 courtesy of a debug cheat, to see just what these characters could really do. Before I jumped into any gameplay I upgraded my character, the soldier Roland, with better shooting accuracy, and some extra health courtesy of the game’s upgrade tree. Essentially you spend the skill points that you receive after leveling up to upgrade your character (it’s your basic RPG structure), and in “Borderlands” the upgrades increase using a tree structure, forcing you to decide which path you want to take as you upgrade your character. Very shortly after I started, I was joined by two other players, and we were exploring this level of the game together.
The fact that I was seeing this demo in the reverse order of what I considered a “traditional” demo put me at a distinct disadvantage while playing multiplayer, mostly because I pretty much had no clue what I was trying to do. However, at the same time, it allowed me to focus on the gameplay, and really get a feel for how the game flowed. What looked like it could have been a rather confusing game, actually offered up simple, and intuitive controls, especially for anyone that has spent any more than five minutes with an FPS. The unique thing about “Borderlands”’ multiplayer mode is that it’s co-op. In actuality, the entire game is four-player co-op from start to finish. “Left 4 Dead” may have nailed down how to do a four-player co-op FPS, but the game itself was relatively shallow, and almost looks like a tech demo next to what “Borderlands” is – a fully fleshed out, co-op, RPG-FPS. So, while I was sitting down playing the multiplayer “level” with those two other journos, I was also actually playing a level from the single player campaign. It might not be “groundbreaking” but the sheer size of the game did impress me, and it was very interesting to see just how an RPG FPS works with four players. While it seems like it could be a pretty pretty standard experience, there’s an obvious issue with splitting up the experience points, which are essential to building up your character. Gearbox figured that splitting the experience points up was the best way to go, basing everyone’s cut on their contribution to the kill. In the end, it’s a deep FPS, where you are able to share the story experience with your friends, instead of only having the option to blow their brains out in deathmatch.
After spending quite a bit of time with the multiplayer, where I attempted to start a mission that was actually turned off in this build, and I managed to spot the in-game roasting pig that inspired my supper, I headed off, upstairs, to check out the single player, where I finally got the backstory of the game, information about the characters, and learned about what my motivation to play the game was.
“Borderlands” takes place in the world of Pandora, a planet where, in a vault inside of a mountain, a piece of alien technology was once discovered. This tiny discovery lead to a futuristic gold rush of hunters looking to find more of the alien tech, as it turned out to be extremely lucrative, and highly sought after. Each of the game’s four characters have storylines that touch on, and weave themselves in and out of that basic plot, but more information about each of them gets revealed through the game’s twenty hour campaign (that number jumps to one hundred when you start playing sidequests).
The single player gameplay is the same as multiplayer, as they are pretty much one in the same. Both allow the player to collect loot from their kills, as well as discover it throughout the game. The loot that is tied to equipment and weapons can be equipped and used, but if it is unnecessary, can be sold for money to purchase other upgrades, including better armor, weapons, ammo, and health.
I took a spin through the game’s tutorial, up through the first minor boss fight. The game starts off by having you work your way through a boarded up town, taking out bandits along the way. You’re guided from one end to the other by a small robot called a “claptrap,” and there’s a good chance that these guys are going to be up for the cutest NPC award come year end. As you go through the settlement, you’re introduced to a few of the game’s characters, and you’re asked to perform some fetch quests to learn the game’s mechanics. Once those are all figured out you eventually make your way to your first major battle with Nine Toes. He’s kind of the bandit ruler of these parts, and it’s up to you to dethrone him. It’s at this point that you finally start to comprehend just what the game has to offer in terms of weaponry, and firefights. It becomes your first real challenge in the game, and you’re rewarded handsomely when you are able to take him down. Nine Toes’s sidearm shows itself off as being quite powerful, and as you fight him, you’re going to need to be creative in terms of your attack. At this point in the game, your character isn’t going to be leveled up enough yet to take him down easily. However, once you do defeat him, you can take his gun, and really start to do some damage. You’re also awarded with a couple of cases loaded with randomly generated weapons and ammo, which could work out in your favor, or force you to collect crappy stuff just to sell. That was essentially the end of the demo, which only really gave me a glimpse into the first 30 – 50 minutes of the game.
“Borderlands” has taken cues from some of the biggest titles in gaming, and produced what is shaping up to be a stellar FPSRPG. It’s not necessarily a new take on either of those genres, but it blends them so seamlessly that FPS fans are going to realize they have a lot in common with RPG gamers pretty quickly. The four-player co-op seems like the next natural steps for fans of “Bioshock” and even “Halo,” because, as it was explained to me, “Master Chief is still the same as at the end of the game as he was at the beginning,” and “Borderlands” is looking to change up that entire experience.