E3 2009: The Five: Borderlands
After a long and relatively quiet development process, details started to emerge at E3 about Gearbox's ambitious shooter Borderlands. The sci-fi title features a new customization mechanic that could change the way gamers think about weapons. It also looks vastly different than before. Read on for a quick and dirty guide to Borderlands.
1. In Borderlands, mankind's started to explore the universe and colonize planets, thanks to funding by mega-corporations. Previous expeditions fell apart on Pandora, but stragglers hungry for fortune remained. "It's this gritty science-fiction world, so you can imagine our influences, like the television series 'Firefly,' or even 'Mad Max,'" Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford says. With RPG elements like specialized classes, deep customization and loot collection, the folks at Gearbox call Borderlands a role-playing shooter (RPS).
2. Players can control four different fortune-seekers in Borderlands, each with special attributes. Mordecai, the Hunter, is equipped with a sword and long-range weapons, and uses a pet called a Bloodwing, which according to Pitchford is like a falcon "but a hundred times gnarlier." Brick is the Bruiser, a tank who excels at melee and can keep bosses at bay while others deal damage from a safe distance. Lilith belongs to the Siren class, and her abilities hint that she may have had closer contact than most with the universe's mysterious aliens: She's able to shift into an alternate dimension where enemies can't see her. When she phases back into reality, Lilith can discharge an energy burst to damage enemies nearby.
3. The most well-rounded class is the Soldier, represented by a guy called Roland. Among other abilities, Soldiers can deploy a turret shield, which has an energy barrier that they can hide behind and a turret that will automatically target enemies. Pitchford says that Soldiers could specialize more as medics, whose skills will help the rest of the party mitigate damage.
4. Of course, you can't survive on a wasteland planet without weapons. It's here that Borderlands stands to blaze the most significant trails. Gearbox claims there'll be around 650,000 different weapons in the game. This impossible-seeming number comes courtesy of procedural generation. Rather than hand-crafting every single weapon, Gearbox created a semi-randomized algorithm for the game's weapons cabinets (as well as its enemies). It weighs your character level and skills, and jumbles the various interchangeable elements of a weapon. The results are uniquely configured firearms, like a sniper rifle with bullets that can heal, Gearbox developer Mike Neumann says.
5. Gearbox recently rolled the dice on a serious decision to change the art direction in Borderlands, complicating an already ambitious development cycle. The game's look has transmogrified from gritty pseudo-realism to a sleek, animation-influenced design. Neumann says that the team wanted to create something beautiful, and the game's new look better highlights the frantic fun and twisted humor that's part of Borderlands' feel.
The Crispy Forecast: Partly cloudy. If Borderlands lives up to the hype, gamers could find themselves with singular game experiences. But the demo shown during E3 was heavy on shooting and light on specifics about the RPG system. It's unclear how the game's genre fusion will actually play out. The verdict on whether Borderlands is buried treasure or fool's gold will come down when it hits later this year.
This preview is based on a developer-driven demo of the game at E3 2009.