"I'm asking for a quick invite, to drop you some loot," said the voice message at 1 p.m. "You were on my list; I have to cross you off." It was Mikey Neumann, the Gearbox Software creative director.
Neumann, you might recall, promised three weeks ago to "play BLs with you and give you loot" if you preordered Borderlands and showed him proof. I and somewhere north of 200 people took him up on the offer. Thursday, Neumann found me - just a level 7 hunter out trying to retrieve some guy's missing fake leg in Skag Gully - and proceeded to deliver on his commitment to all Borderlands day-one buyers, myself included.
"Here you go, dude," said Neumann, who plays as a Level 50 Hunter - the maximum. And suddenly the Pandoran's Guns & Ammo fantasy came to life at my feet. The DVL Pearl Sniper (Level 28); an LB U Blast Wrath sniper rifle (level 25). Plus a Ranger class mod that I can't use until I hit level 22. Right now I'm wondering whether to sell or hoard them. They do carry a serious price tag.
"Nah, don't worry," Neumann said when I shamefacedly asked if there was anything I could offer in return. "I have so much stuff. I've got like $1.5 million in cash already. It costs me $220,000 at the New U station when I respawn."
As of 3 p.m. U.S. Central time (the timezone for Gearbox's Plano, Texas headquarters) on Thursday, Neumann estimated he'd logged 72 hours in Borderlands. That would be more hours than have passed since Borderlands' release on Tuesday. Of course he'd been playing it pre-release, but still, it's a lot of time spent on a game - especially since this week, like mine, is Neumann's vacation.
"Thanks for your patience guys. I need to stand up and do something for like 20 minutes so my ass doesn't cave into my body," he tweeted about 16 hours into Borderlands' official first day.
"I'm like Santa Claus, man," he told me.
"A Truxican wrestler Santa Claus," I added, referencing Borderlands' title sequence, and the bus driver's description of Mordecai's look. "What the fuck is a Truxican wrestler anyway?"
"Oh, that," Neumann said. "Originally, the script had ‘Mexican wrestler,' but Randy [Pitchford, the Gearbox CEO] was like, ‘This game takes place not on Earth, so why would he say, ‘Mexican'? Come up with something else.' That's what we got."
Neumann and I set off on a very routine mission for him, barbecuing some Skags, the Pandoran dawgs with the venus-flytrap heads. "I've been through Skag Gully so much," Neumann said.
Neumann went to work on a couple beasts, not noticing the spitter Skag nipping at him from behind. I opened up with my incendiary submachine gun and proudly awaited a compliment.
"Ah, The Clipper!" Neumann said, naming the gun I picked up from Nine Toes, the game's first boss battle. "Everyone remembers their first unique weapon!"
And as we shot the breeze about Borderlands, the early reviews (Gearbox is fired up), and DLC (no specific details, on the record anyway, but stay tuned) somehow I managed to complete two quests and level up twice.
"Oh, that's a nice rifle," Neumann said as I opened a weapons cache and found the GGN40 Sniper, one of the few new weapons I could use at my level. It's kind of gun that, in the reverent words of Insidious Tuna, "will light shit the fuck on fire."
"Oh, you- you don't want it?" I asked, deferring to the ranking player as usual. But of course Neumann didn't want it. Not when he has a weapon that regenerates ammo, plus a goddamn falcon than can take down seven foes at once.
He hasn't completely outclassed everyone in his user-friendly trips through the wastes so far. Neumann came across a day one user who had logged some serious time in Borderlands, to the point that the loot was almost moot.
"Somehow I ended up with this guy who was, like, a Level 30 Brick with like a level 3 lightning punch," Neumann said. "We were on a serious loot run and he'd go in to use it and there would be a cloud of electricity and shit flying everywhere - I was laughing so hard ..."
Despite the time he's spent in game - and, of course, preceding it as the Gearbox team worked on Borderlands over the past two years - Neumann has not seen it all. Borderlands boasts some three million different weapons, and while many are slight modifications, in color, appearance and/or attributes, of a basic configuration, some have completely eye-popping properties.
"God, so many weapons - there was one, a name weapon, I had no idea it was in this game," Neumann said, "but it shoots out these mini-mushroom clouds, like a nuclear weapon." Neumann said there are about a dozen unique weapons named in the game that are named for Gearbox developers.
Just be careful what you do with them.
"One guy, he'd gotten one of the legendary weapons, which are like orange in your storage deck," Neumann said, "and he said, ‘OK, I'm gonna drop it,' and the way he was standing, he tossed it off a cliff. I was like, ‘You did not just do that. There's no getting that back.' "
Toward the end of our run, having thoroughly wiped out the Skag packs that had torn me asunder on my own, Mikey and I chatted at the entrance to Skag Gully. "Hold on," he said, turning to a vending machine, "Let me see what's in here. There's probably a lot of stuff you can't afford." And he went to work, buying up a TRG-30XC Impenetrable Tough Guy Shield and tossing it at my feet.
Although Neumann's gambit seems - to me anyway - completely spontaneous, its effect is quite devious. By dropping superweapons you can't use until you hit high levels, Neumann's out there creating a tremendous incentive for you to play Borderlands more. And there's also the 10 Gamerscore "And They'll Tell Two Friends" achievement, which you earn for playing with a Gearbox dev on Xbox 360. (The achievement is also viral; anyone who earns it will give it to you if you drop into a multiplayer session with them).
"I went through about half my list," Neumann said. "And I was thinking, ‘Where are these other guys?' Then I realized, ‘They're probably all in Europe, which doesn't come out until tomorrow. And they're six, seven hours ahead ..."
But hey, Santa Claus works a 24-hour day too, doesn't he?