Borderlands is a relatively easy game to describe. It takes the character building and equipment hoarding of something like Diablo, gives it a quest style that makes it feel a bit like a massively multiplayer RPG, and drops it all into a first-person shooter. With a ton of guns. But that doesn't really tell you anything about how it all feels. As it happens, the feel of a game like this is a make-or-break piece of the puzzle. Because that same exact description could be used to describe Hellgate: London. That game? Not so good. The good news is that after sinking into a chair and shooting my way through the first 45 minutes or so of Gearbox's upcoming action-RPG, it definitely feels like it's on the right track.
I was dropped into the beginning of the game as a soldier class character. The game opens with a series of basic missions designed to get you into the game and used to its different systems. At the outset, you won't even have a weapon. That, of course, changes pretty quickly. As you get the feel for the action, you'll run out to collect items and repair shop machines that let you purchase your first defensive item, an auto-recharging, Halo-like shield. Eventually you'll get some grenades. Along the way, you'll be heading in and out of the game's first somewhat-civilized area, a makeshift town surrounded by bandits and skags, which are four-legged creatures that charge at you when you anger them. The game's enemies seem to behave in an MMO-like fashion, meaning if you get close enough to them (or shoot at them from a distance), they'll activate and come after you.
Speaking of shooting, the game's guns have a good feel to them, with a basic level of control that recalls the Call of Duty series by devoting the left trigger to a small and quick zoom that lets you sort of aim down the sights. Later, you'll also find scoped weapons that zoom in more effectively. You'll also have to continually pick up ammo, which is found around the world and frequently dropped by the enemies you kill. While the guns generally feel like you're playing a regular first-person shooter, the game still has plenty of RPG hooks in it, too. So where and how you aim your shots won't always correspond to hits in those locations. But moments of aiming right at an enemy's head only to pull the trigger and see a miss seemed few and far between. Also, you'll earn weapon proficiencies as play with specific types of guns, which seems like the sort of thing that would help make you more deadly with the weapon types you're loyal to, like pistols versus rifles. When you land hits on your foes, numbers of hit points bounce off of them in the traditional RPG style, with a life bar also giving you a rough indicator of how much more damage you'll need to inflict. When getting up close to enemies, I seemed to be landing critical hits more frequently. As I leveled up through the first five levels of experience, those crits became enough to take the head off of a skag in one shot.
In addition to shooting and weapon proficiencies, you'll also be filling out a skill tree as you play. It starts at level five, when you get your first skill point. You'll earn one skill point per level after that. The first point seems to go into unlocking the secondary ability for your class. For the soldier class, that's a turret with an energy shield surrounding it, providing mobile cover and a handy weapon, too. As you place points into the different disciplines for the class, you'll earn additional bonuses. For the soldier, that shield turret can eventually heal players when they stand close to the turret. It can also restore ammo when you're nearby. You can also put points into doing more damage with certain weapon types, and so on. Each of the four classes has a unique secondary ability and corresponding skill tree. Though I stuck with the soldier the entire time I played, you can also choose the ranger, which is a sniper class. There's also a "siren" class, which gives you a female character that can trigger a phase walk ability that lets her walk through enemies and deal damage to a group by materializing in their midst. Lastly, there's the berserker class, who earns the ability to dish out a devastating melee attack. The game allows for four-player co-op and uses the same characters in both modes, so you can take your character into and out of multiplayer games with ease. The different classes sound like they'll work together pretty well and fall into some standard MMO archetypes. The berserker class, for example, acts as the tank in a group and will apparently have some options that let him draw aggro and get enemies to attack him instead of the other, less-resilient classes. Of course, you can mix and match players of the same class, too.
Borderlands obviously has a lot going on on the gameplay side, but there's more to it than shooting bandits in the face. The game's story puts you on a planet called Pandora, where one of the many weapon-manufacturing corporations has gotten an edge over the others by reverse engineering some alien technology. Now there are rumors of a vault hidden somewhere on Pandora that's full of even more crazy future alien tech. You play as a vault hunter, someone who believes in the legends and actively seeks out the vault. So you'll root around the planet in search of clues that will hopefully lead you to the vault while plenty of other fortune seekers (and a certain corporation with an interest in keeping its edge) attempt the same task.
In addition to the procedurally generated gun system, the other big thing people keep talking about with Borderlands is its graphics. The "concept art" style used in the game looks great so far, giving the game a very distinctive look while still allowing for a clean, smooth frame rate. Also, the game will apparently offer more variety in its locales than has been shown so far. Most of the stuff that Gearbox has revealed shows the wasteland areas that you'll see at the beginning of the game. But in talking with Gearbox's Randy Pitchford, I learned that the game will apparently offer quite a bit of environmental variety, including snow. Personally, I was expecting it to be all Mad Max, all the time. So hearing that the game will offer some different looks sounds cool.
While it's a bit tempting to claim that Borderlands could be the big surprise release of 2009, I don't think I'd be surprised at all if this game turned out to be great. So far, it looks nice and seems really fun to play. Look for more on this one as we all inch closer to its October 20 release date.