E3 Preview: Borderlands

Borderlands is one of those games that has a unique status. While it remains under the radar with a continually pushed back release date, and possesses scant details on actual gameplay, the title still manages to get plenty of notice, remaining firmly entrenched in the backs of gamers’ minds no matter what other high profile games are already being released. On the final day of this year’s E3, we managed to drag our sleep deprived selves over to 2K’s booth for a look at some upcoming titles, including the cryptic Borderlands.

The game’s storyline takes place in the far future, where colonists from Earth have migrated to the planet of Pandora, baited by the promise of an opportunity for a better life harvesting the world’s rich natural resources. However, the planet is soon discovered to have little value besides some ancient alien artifacts, which apparently in the future are old news. The colonists who are unable to leave the barren planet are eventually left with a society tortured by anarchy, and an evil stirring beneath the mysterious ruins.

Our demonstration of the game consisted of a two player co-op session (the final version will support four) where a pair of characters had been tasked with raiding a Marauder camp located within an abandoned mine in search of alien artifacts. Before getting into the ensuing action, Gearbox described the kind of game Borderlands is by calling it an RPS (Role Playing Shooter) in which players can upgrade skills such as accuracy, reloading, and physical abilities by engaging in combat and completing quests. More interesting is the fact that during co-op play, even if you’re playing in your buddy’s campaign, any skills or items you accrue will be permanently accounted towards your own character’s development, helping co-op carry a meaningful purpose to every player’s core experience, rather than being a tacked-on multiplayer mode.

As the two players split up to take on the encampment, one climbing scaffolding and the other sticking to the ground, we witnessed the usual type of FPS action, but also some elements that make Borderlands something other than your average shooter. The most apparent would probably be the weapons found in ammo drop boxes that always contain a random assortment of items. So how random are they? Considering Gearbox has created an in-game software tool capable of building over 3,000 different firearms, the odds are pretty good that you’ll never find the same gun twice. In order to show just how many different guns can be created on the fly, the developers enabled a weapon spawning cheat that hurled forth a cascade of firearms, all of different variations. Just think of that scene in the Matrix where Neo states that he needs “guns…lots of guns” and you get the picture.

Some of the weapons we witnessed were sniper rifles that shot acid-tipped bullets, immediately melting any portion of the enemy’s body that they hit, and the Merv grenade, which bursts into a collection of smaller grenades before unleashing a widespread explosion. It’s pretty apparent that the rating Gearbox is going for begins with the letter “M,” as we saw plenty of limbs getting torn apart, as well as melted faces. As for the rest of the graphics, the low textured environments and weapons show that Borderlands needs a bit more spit and shine, but the prospect of players developing their characters together shows that the team has been keeping busy. In addition to randomized weapons, enemy and object placement within environments will continually change when revisited, increasing the replay potential when exploring areas such as the Marauder camp that we were shown.

The only thing we could pick at when it comes to the many weapons is that Gearbox seems to think only some very small attributes are needed to consider a gun “unique." This was seen in a variety of sniper rifles shown to us, but the only huge differences was a magazine stock located on the side of the rifle rather than underneath, or a different sized scope. Borderlands still has a ways to go development-wise; who knows if it will even make its 2009 window, but it is evident that Gearbox is doing something very fresh with the FPS genre through the cooperative play, and dynamically shifting gameplay experiences. With that said we’ll let Borderlands return to its quiet slumber, hoping that a tangible release date can’t be too far off.

Borderlands is currently expected to arrive sometime in 2009 for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC.

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