Once upon a time, there was a teaser trailer for a game called Borderlands. It was brown, gray, and featured a mysterious woman saying ominous things to the camera. Did it look good? Sure; the concept of a free-roaming shooter was appealing – but the new direction the game has taken will really make Borderlands stand out. The visual style is something Quentin Tarantino would come up with after watching too much anime. The opening music is Cage The Elephant, and the characters are introduced in a wacky revenge-film manner. The east-meets-west grindhouse movie aesthetic blew me away as I watched the opening cutscene.
Of course, the style would be fairly moot without meaty gameplay to back it up. Borderlands plays like a cross between Fallout 3 and Call of Duty – the controls are simple, tight, and clearly oriented to standard first person shooter fare. However, the underlying mechanics are far deeper. Borderlands lets you choose from four starting classes, each represented by a unique character model that can be tweaked slightly at a “New-You” machine. (these also serve as respawn points) The slick controls ease the player into the experience; however, enemies have RPG-style health bars above their heads, guns all have their own statistics, and missions are handled with a quest-list that is strikingly similar to something that would be found in an MMO.
The graphics are coming together nicely, matching the schizophrenic editing style. Thick, inky lines cover the murky browns and deep reds, turning the otherwise muted color palette into an eye-popping affair. The game had a few anti-aliasing problems; however, with these early demo builds, finishing touches like that are usually present – let’s just hope the jaggies are smoothed out before release. People keen on playing splitscreen needn’t worry, either – Borderlands appeared to look just as attractive and ran just as well as the single-player game, at least on the Xbox 360 build I was testing.
Given that the rest of the gameplay mechanics are so dolled up – the classes, the respawn, the number-crunching – the blunt quest messages are a little jarring. However, the characters providing the quests are so lively that it’s easy to forgive the “read paragraph, go here, do X” mission structure. It’s even easier to forgive when the game is playable as co-op with a friend splitscreen, or four people total over LAN or Xbox Live. The zany action is only better with teammates, and kudos need to be given to Gearbox for remembering splitscreen. Some of us have at least one friend, you know.
I left Borderlands feeling pleasantly surprised. While the recent trailer had clued me into the game’s irreverent style, playing the game sold me on the whole title. It’s especially impressive that the experience is multiplayer – after all, the game has more in common with Oblivion than Halo. As long as the version I played wasn’t hiding any crippling flaws, consider Borderlands a success in the making.