When it got announced at VGX at the end of last year, I don't think a lot of people knew what to expect. So it's a Borderlands game? Kind of? But in the style of the guys behind the emotionally-crippling The Walking Dead? Kind of? Despite being a fan of both games and developers, and despite being excited for this seemingly wacky crossover, I still had no idea how this mash-up would work. Fresh out of LA and E3, I now know a little bit more.
The behind-closed-doors, hands-off, roughly 30-minute demonstration of Tales from the Borderlands at the E3 2014 showfloor introduced us to two playable characters. Rhys (played by Sam Witwer aka Crashdown from Battlestar Galactica) and Fiona. They didn't expect to run into each other when meeting with this guy:
He's called them both over, much to both of their dismays, and wants to get the story straight. That story is told twice, from the two different perspectives, both of which are playable.
In this demo, that story, set after the events of Borderlands 2, is told from Rhys' side. A splash image flashes on screen, Borderlands style, and we're introduced to him formally.
He's got one brown eye and one blue. The blue one works like a digital scanner. It glosses over people and objects and gives Rhys a fairly detailed report of what it sees. It can also be used to hack into things to gather intel. This is how Rhys, who works at Hyperion, is able to get the drop on his new boss, Hugo Vasquez (played by Patrick Warburton aka Joe from Family Guy), the Senior VP of some securities propaganda at the company.
Vasquez, you see, is in the market for a vault key. It's very expensive. And when he gets a call from his dealer about it, you can sense that he's nervous.
While the art style is the perfect meeting ground for Borderlands X Telltale—they've both got that highly-stylized, cel-shaded, painted-around-the-edges look—this aspect is wholly Telltale. Vasquez's voice fluctuates and the muscles in his face start to twitch uncomfortably. He's hiding something, and Rhys' eyebrow moves a smidge in recognition of that.
Rhys already doesn't like Vasquez—he got the big company job over him, and he generally seems like a jerk. Plus, he killed Henderson! (We barely know who Henderson is, except that he is well-dressed in a kind of Fifth Element way and probably not very tactful considering he got himself killed.) So when he steps out of the meeting with the new VP, armed with information, and runs into his friends—Vaughn (your best friend, says the splash screen) played by Chris Hardwick and Yvette (your other friend)—they immediately start conniving.
The three friends have good banter. This part feels like a good mix of Gearbox's Borderlands brand of humor but with Telltale's The Walking Dead brand of human relationships. The characters themselves are complementary. There's the protagonist hero, the man with the plan and general ruffian: Rhys. There's the nerdy accountant who second guesses Rhys' riskier suggestions: Vaughn. And then there's the cool, collected and confident Yvette.
Events fast forward and the crew has somehow already gathered the one million dollars needed to purchase the vault key right out from under Vasquez's nose. As the Telltale developer leading the demo wanders around, I can't help but notice that you seem to have a consistent inventory in the HUD. Soon enough, I'm watching as Rhys opens loot chests to gather cash. Cash can later be used to bribe certain people under certain dialogue options.
As Rhys and Vaughn search for the "world of curiosities" and the seller of the vault key, they run into a group of bandits. Unfamiliar with Pandora and its gang of hooligans, Rhys calls one out as Grease Face, which pisses him off more than just a little bit.
"Grease Face will remember that," flashes on the upper right corner of the screen.
Grease Face notices the Hyperion emblem on their clothes and this instantly pushes his mood over the edge. He tells them they're the cause for ruining his town. "Atlas were bastards, but at least they had the good sense to fail," he goes on. I feel like I'm getting a better sense of the rivalries and bad blood on Pandora from these face-to-face conversations with its inhabitants. We see a bit of Hyperion from the inside, and Pandora from a close-up perspective. If the episodes turn out the way I hope they will, Telltale's version of Borderlands will be an investigation into that backstory.
Combat plays out similarly to Telltale's The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. It's predominantly QTE-based, with button prompts and joystick moves flashing on screen indicating when you should perform them.
This being a Borderlands story, though, I wondered how exactly that would play out. Borderlands has always been about guns and loot, after all.
At least during this portion of the demo that we got to see, Rhys calls down a Hyperion-made robot. You'll recognize it if you've played the main series. Except instead of just turning around on its axis and mumbling a few short lines for flare, this guy has actual personality. As a Loader Bot, it takes out a few bandits by shooting at them, ramming them, using its shield against them, etc. Just like how a Loader Bot from Borderlands would behave. But it distinguishes itself from all the other bots straight away, when it first lands on the dusty ground of Pandora to fight for Rhys.
"Hi," it says, matter-of-factly. And then proceeds to stare at his attacking enemies until Rhys orders it to fight off all the bandits. That's where you, as the player, come in, swiping left and right and selecting targets.
Eventually Rhys and Vaughn have to run off on foot as that's happening, and the Loader yells one-liners out at the bandits. Rhys speaks to him and he replies. He says things like, "This is totally uncool." Eventually the Loader is outnumbered and down, sparking as he laments his failing. You're given two options: instruct the Loader to run or instruct it to self-destruct. Our demo leader chooses the former, and I am incredibly sad about this.
"I will name my firstborn...Loader Bot," Rhys says, staring off into the distance. "Well, you know, probably not."
Eventually Rhys and Vaughn meet up with August (played by Nolan North), the man with the vault key. He and his girlfriend are a little irritable. They're wondering why Rhys and Vaughn are late and where the hell Vasquez, their original buyer and contact, is. On top of that, our demo leader chooses a Rhys dialogue option that initially refuses to divulge his name to August. It doesn't go over well, and eventually August's girlfriend gets a bad vibe that motivates her to snatch the vault key up and run off with it.
Before they can get away Rhys stops August and tells him he can't let him go with the key. "Oh, no? And what are you going to do about it?" Rhys dramatically, Kano-style plunges his fist into his chest and takes his beating heart out with a look of triumph on his face and then...
"What a bunch of bullcrap," Fiona interrupts. Remember Fiona? I mentioned her earlier. Because by this point in the demo, I had almost entirely forgotten that we were playing through a flashback as seen through Rhys' eyes. The scene cuts back to the initial meeting ground between Fiona, Rhys, and the mysterious masked man who invited them.
Fiona says she was there. She saw the whole thing. So how did it, according to her, really go down?
"The vault hunter showed up," she says. The scene cuts back to August and Rhys, each struggling to grab the key away from the other. Then Zer0 from Borderlands 2 slices his way out of one of those ventilation tunnels and comes to the rescue.
Whatever the real story is, you'll be playing both sides of it.