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Borderlands Preview: It Shoots Rockets!

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Coming this fall is a game that surprises even itself, a shooter that will make you say "WoW." Maybe "wow" as well. But definitely: "WoW."

Diablo and World of Warcraft would co-win the award for games most frequently name-checked by game developer Randy Pitchford as he explained his team's October game Borderlands at a recent event in New York City.

The developers at Pitchford's Gearbox have made a cartoon-shaded first-person shooter crafted like a role-playing game, a quest-filled, loot-heavy game drawing on Blizzard's finest Diablo and World of Warcraft mechanics.


And, oh yes, it's a game that can't believe how awesome it is. As in: It can randomly generate weapons and then describe them, having crafted one gun during my time with it that the game described with the phrase, "Holy shit, it shoots rockets!"

What Is It?
Borderlands is a four-year-in-development first-person shooter supporting four-player co-op. It comes to PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 this fall from development studio Gearbox Software and publisher 2K Games. The game is a Mad-Max-looking adventure set on a wasteland planet called Pandora (trademarked to Gearbox, by the way — so don't put a planet named Pandora into your games, competitors, unless you're the people making James Cameron's Avatar game, in which case Gearbox, which is developing a game based on James Cameron's Aliens, isn't really going to protest much.)


What We Saw
Not far from where a roasted pig was being chopped and served in a Brooklyn warehouse, I was allowed to play some Borderlands four-player co-op. And then went upstairs to play single-player while Pitchford answered my question, discouraged me from comparing any element of his game to Too Human, and admitted that his Gamerscore had cracked 80,000. Until I ran into a bug, I played the post-intro start of the game, getting trained to duck, use a weapon, take basic quota-kills quests from townspeople and explore a dusty town and its monster-packed outskirts.

How Far Along Is It?
Borderlands is set for October 20 release and, given the games being delayed left and right — BioShock 2 was publicly pushed back the day I checked out Borderlands — it's bound to not slip.


What Needs Improvement?
The Revelation of a Gameplay Hook: There is a lot that is smart and solid about Borderlands, a lot that works well. But if I was pressed to say what's unique about it, I'm left to describe how it combines elements of previous games and how it can generate a nearly infinite variety of weapons. Smaller details could prove to be irksome if the game's emphasis on gathering loot isn't accompanied with an efficient system for managing a bulging inventory and swiftly selling the excess. But that's more of a guess about what to watch for than a criticism of what Pitchford showed. The game is solid, just in need of revealing itself to be special.


What Should Stay The Same?
The Gunman's Role-Playing Game: Shoot things, get experience points, level up and unlock new abilities on your character's skill tree. That's Borderlands, and that's a strong core design. One of the four characters players can choose from at the game's start is a soldier, whose skill development can improve the turrets he drops, his healing abilities or his damage mitigation. A bulkier character, Brick, can, among other things, improve his fists until he can punch money out of his enemies. A female, dubbed the siren, can turn invisible. And, with a classification like siren, maybe she can seduce enemies? Maybe, Pitchford said. So go shoot stuff and improve. Not a bad formula.

The Graphics: Pitchford said that, five years ago, he wouldn't have approved the revised graphics his game now has. Good thing he changed, because his game looks lovely.


The Promised Vastness: The game has 30 main mission chains, each ranging from one to 15 missions long, along with 120 optional side quests, according to Pitchford (kind of like WoW in the way they activate, he said). Players start without a weapon but eventually gain an arsenal, develop special powers and earn a choice of vehicles (like mounts in WoW, he said). The game re-mixes enemy types and attributes and arms unfriendlies with randomly-generated weapons — some of which surprise even Pitchford, who was shocked to see an early-game enemy using some sort of advanced flamethrower he didn't even know could be generated in the game. And lots of loot is dropped (like in Diablo, he said). All that content suggests this game will be long and satisfying to our species' hunting and gathering instincts.

Co-Op: Borderlands was good in single-player but seemed even more promising in co-op. Gamers can't fake co-op and play with the three other main characters as AI partners. But they can have real players join and adventure with them. When we were doing this, missions were dynamically made more difficult. I enjoyed a mechanic that, while I was downed and dying, earned my character a health-restoring second wind if I could kill an enemy. Aside from this kind of co-op, the game allows any two players to fight a duel. Bump into each other and a dome drops to enable a one-on-one test of abilities, kind of like... WoW.


Final Thoughts
Before my demo with Borderlands, I didn't know much more about the game than that it could render lots of weapons. After playing, I get it. It's true that, as a console game based on loot-gathering it's in lonely company. The experimental and unconventional summer 2008 Xbox 360 game Too Human tried to load players up with a grand loot-quest. Borderlands presents a more conventional design in more generic trappings. It looks good and plays well.


Will Borderlands ultimately need a gameplay hook to win gamers' support, or can it thrive by combining the core draws of shooters, RPGs and its Blizzard inspirations? The game is a straightforward proposition. It can amaze itself. Here's hoping it can amaze gamers too.