We've seen some pretty impressive weaponry in videogames of recent years, but never anything on this sort of scale. Most gun-porn, like Black, tends to agonise over a select few pieces of weaponry, leaving us with maybe nine or ten pieces to play around with. Borderlands, on the other hand, has half a million different guns. Admittedly we didn't see every single one at the game's unveiling in Leipzig, but we did see enough to convince us that the claim holds water - and also that the people at Gearbox Software have a frankly terrifying obsession with virtual weaponry.
"There's a reason why they're called shooters," says Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox and our guide through Borderlands' first-ever showing. "It's because we like to use weapons. We love to use weapons. Our goal [with Borderlands] was to suit every possible playstyle, and always be able to improve that playstyle by looking for better guns." To this end, Gearbox has spent the last twenty months working secretly on Borderlands, developing new procedural weapon generation technology; you won't find the same gun twice with a marginally different name. Every one is different, according to its type, manufacturer, barrel length, clip size, stock weight, loading mechanism and hundreds of other tiny, baffling details. In a genre where games rarely feature more than two guns of the same type (grenade launcher, pistol, machine gun and the like), this is really quite revolutionary.
Borderlands is a sci-fi shooter from the people behind Brothers in Arms, set on a far-off set of planets where humans have made an unsuccessful colonial foray into alien worlds. Although the focus is very definitely upon the bafflingly enormous conglomeration of weaponry, Gearbox's alien word is well-developed. The game is set on an outlying planet called Pandora, part of the dangerous, desolate part of space at the very limits of human dispersion, which until recently had been fairly successfully colonised. However, the gradual onset of Spring - Pandora takes ages to orbit its sun, see, so each season lasts decades - has seen increasing numbers of weird and violent wildlife emerge from hibernation. Humans are now struggling to survive, and you, along with up to three friends, have arrived to investigate and eradicate this sudden, dangerous surge of zoological oddities.
Pandora itself is a fairly grim place. It is mainly comprised of barren flatlands, punctuated by very occasional safe settlements, which themselves are rarely more than collections of sheet-metal shacks protected by obscene amounts of weaponry. It's also very, very big. To get from the settlement where Randy Pitchford and pals are stocking up on supplies to the salt flats where their first quarry is hiding, it would take more than an hour and be insurmountably dangerous; the game's enemies operate under their own steam, so as well as the frequent, horrible-looking groups of small swarmy things and occasional large, stompy things (in which the small swarmy things often live), you're under constant danger of being attacked by passing bands of bandits, who struggle just as much as anyone else to survive on the planet.
Vehicles, then, are an indispensably important part of the game - Borderlands appears to be reasonably freeform, and will likely involve plenty of driving, and even more driving and shooting. Accompanied by director Ed Armstrong, who is decked out in some rather nice armour that he stole from unfortunate bandits, Pitchford makes his way to a garage at the edge of the settlement, where their fully-customised vehicle is ready and waiting. It's got a rocket launcher, machine gun and nitrous boost - Borderlands is very much designed for two-to-four-player co-op, and those long drives across the flatlands are invariably livened up by vehicular combat. Equipping one's vehicle with different weapons - and treads, and speed boosters - changes the flow of the game. Design a speedy, light craft and you'll probably outrun danger most of the time; kit it out with rocket launchers and you're likely to spend more time blowing up pursuing vehicles, which is undoubtedly more fun for accompanying friends - as Gearbox's gleeful employees demonstrate, careening across the salt flats whilst shooting rockets off at distant bandits with unerring (and impressive) accuracy.
Variety and adaptability are what characterise Borderlands' action. With so very, very many different weapons, so many customisation and playstyle options, the idea is that shooting things never gets dull. There's always something new to try, some new configuration, and with the added variable of other human players, it's easy to see how this could be hugely entertaining. Much in the way that Halo's unpredictable enemy behaviour made it almost inexhaustibly enjoyable in co-op, Borderlands' randomly generated weapons, enormous world and vast amounts of collectible swag should make Hitting Things With Guns a newly revitalized experience.
Halo is definitely one comparison; Borderlands seems to be shooting for the same 'ten seconds of fun' formula, and a similar mix of vehicle-based and on-foot action. The other resemblance is, oddly enough, Diablo. There's a fair amount of character development in Borderlands - the kind with experience points, not the more sophisticated, story-based kind - and your character's level determines what guns, helmets and other armour they are able to use. With hundreds of thousands of them, though, it's important to be able to tell at a glance what's worth picking up, and what's better left behind. We should be able to tell pretty much at a glance if a weapon is worth having, explains Pitchford; if it looks cheap and tacky, it's probably a bit rubbish, and if it's big and impressive-looking it's almost certainly worth nabbing. In addition, there's a colour-coding system; like in action-RPGs, items framed in purple are must-haves, those in green are marginally better than your current equipment, and those in white are equivalent. As an example, he quickly spawns a few hundred guns, which fall out of the sky like confetti; he moves among them, pointing out different manufacturer trademarks, design features and ammunition types, explaining how each will affect the weapon's spread, accuracy, reload times and general ease of use. It's unexpectedly intuitive.
Borderlands is not going to be the world's most intelligent game. Pandora is a rich world, the and what we saw of the story and characters was decent enough, but this is most definitely a game about Shooting Things as opposed to a sci-fi epic. There's nothing wrong with that, though, and with such a huge arsenal at your disposal it's hard to see how any gun-lover could resist Borderlands, especially as it's co-operative. As soon as a demo makes its way onto the Internets, it's likely to pick up quite a following.