Halfway into Borderlands' development, Gearbox Software changed everything. A game that started out a dour shower of browns, greys and post-apocalyptic shadows was fed through the Crackdown filter and came out a blaze of SEGA blues, Mario shine yellows and Jet Set cel-shading. The visual rewrite has done more than merely distinguish the game from its nearest rival, Fallout 3. It also accentuates the Mad Max humour of planet Pandora's inhabitants and scenarios, turning grisly headshots into party-popper exclamations while, to be frank, making the world a far more pleasant place to be. Any tourist of a science-fiction planet overrun by rag-wearing sand-bandits acknowledges the risk of having one's balls torn off by a pet rabid mutant hyena. So why not balance the dark risks with some bright, happy vistas?
Twisting graphical conventions isn't Borderlands' only novelty. From its unique concoction of ideas plucked from varied influences, Gearbox is hoping to birth an entirely new sub-genre, the RPS, or "Role-Playing Shooter", as they're calling it. In truth, this is really just a catchphrase way of articulating a more general trend in action games that has gained momentum in recent years: combining first-person run-and-gun combat with player-defined character progression. As with Fallout 3, your character earns experience points for every kill and mission completed. At level-up, you earn a single skill point that can be spent on one of 21 ability upgrades, increases to accuracy, fire rate, weapon magazine size and suchlike. As you spend points on those areas that best suit your own play style, so a gently unique character of your own making emerges.
Character development is, as with Fallout 3, nested within a more general RPG-style mission structure that, after the first few hours at least, provides a few slightly diverging mission paths to chase down. Agree to take on a mission, either from one of the game's surprisingly un-chatty, archetypal NPCs or one of the bounty boards found in town, and a marker will appear on your radial compass, indicating where to head. While billed as open-world game, the first six hours offer relatively little freedom to roam the planet of Pandora. Instead, the world is gated, different areas opening up gradually; play interrupted by a loading screen interstitial when traversing from one to the next. In this way, Borderlands has more in common with the most recent Red Faction than GTA or Oblivion: the scaling freedom is slow to filter down to the player.
The fact the game favours the FPS side of its split personality is revealed in the early missions you are charged with, which are generally thinly-veiled fetch-quests, often for mundane objects: collect eight flowers from this canyon, defeat eight skags (the aforementioned mutant hyenas, whose mouths flap open like lewd flesh envelopes) in that one. Conversely, the combat is furious and exciting, adopting Call of Duty's control set-up and exhibiting all the pace and spectacle of Fallout 3's shootouts, albeit with battle outcomes decided by physics calculations rather than a series of concealed dice throws.
You initially have two weapon slots and, depending on which the game's four lead characters you chose to play as, will naturally favour melee weapons, close-combat shoguns, mid-range semi-automatics or long-range sniper rifles. Where the game's RPG pretensions more than deliver is in the gigantic range of weaponry available. Gearbox claims that the game has over 17 million weapons, and although many of these are permutations with slightly different stat modifiers. Nonetheless, gun-collecting is a big part of the game's driving appeal, as even an incremental upgrade to a sniper rifle's 'sway' stat or reload time (measured in milliseconds) can make a huge difference in battle.
The world is littered with cases of weapons, with more desirable models found in each area's extremities, and these prizes are compelling enough to encourage exploration to the ends of the game-world. Borderlands also provide ammunition for the giant spread of weaponry ingeniously, by having downed enemies drop ammo of the type that was used to kill them, ensuring that you rarely run out. Of course, if ever you do exhaust your supplies then liberally placed vending machines are always on hand for a restock. In terms of player assets, Borderlands is far more generously laden than many of its contemporaries.
Soon into the game you gain access to regenerating shields, which act as a buffer to protect your core health bar. With a huge variety of shields, with different HP values and recharge rates, even here player choices can be critical. However, if you do get it wrong and find yourself downed in combat, the game offers a last chance way out, urging you to "Fight for your life!" Hunched on the floor, unable to move, you can continue to take aim at your attackers. Manage to kill one and you'll jump to your feet, a little health restored, having enjoyed a "second wind", as the game cheerily refers to it. It's a neat system but, even if you don't manage to make it out alive, the "Hyperion personal reconstruction system" will see you resurrect at the most recent respawn point. At first the Unreal-esque respawing feels at odds with the weight of the world, but soon enough you slip into the twitch restart rhythms and it all makes perfect sense.
It's not all favourable news regarding the combat, however. The enemy AI seems to be perpetually set to "Attack! Attack! Attack!" so you'll spend a lot of the time running backwards, firing full into the face of their relentless advances. Oftentimes, with a pack of skags chasing, you'll need to back through several areas-worth of terrain, madly firing into the throng as you whittle it down, blind kill by blind kill. This occasionally gives combat the wrong sort of frantic frisson, negating the possibility for more nuanced attacks and retreats as every skirmish immediately devolves into a circle strafe barn dance or Benny Hill-style game of kiss chase. That said, there's every chance this issue was due to our primarily fighting bum-rush grunts, and that a heavier emphasis on strategy is introduced as you progress and meet more advanced foes, not to mention attack the game in co-op, which we'll be doing for next week's review.
However it turns out, it's clear that Borderlands is a labour of love for Gearbox. As more games mix and match design ideas traditionally separated by genre, so the chance that a developer will strike gold with their particular balance of ingredients increases. Borderlands certainly offers a unique recipe and it's clear that many of the resulting flavours are immediately rich and interesting. If the game can sufficiently develop its characters and missions over the course of the experience, providing players with a reason to care that goes beyond chasing exp and ever better weaponry, then there's every chance the 'RPS' could find a solid foothold in the gaming lexicon.
Borderlands is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 23rd October and PC on 30th October. Look for a review soon.