In light of every developer ever's recent decision to set their game in the aftermath of a fictional apocalypse, it's easy to assume Borderlands is much the same. It's got barren, desolate plains, the locals are dressed up in rags and desert goggles, and all the jibber-jabber's about settlements and bandits.
As you will know if you were paying attention during the Borderlands reveal at last year's Games Convention, however, that's not the case. This is actually a distant planet called Pandora, where failed colonisation has left disparate groups of maladjusted individuals to fight over the scraps on barren, desolate plains in rags and desert goggles while talking about settlements and bandits. Completely different, see?
If you can get past the theme though, you may be richly rewarded, because Borderlands is an interesting-looking cross between first-person shooter and role-player. You take on one of three roles (two of which we see during our demo), each with unique skills, abilities and backgrounds, and developer Gearbox Software is pushing the RPG angle heavily.
For starters there's an experience-points bar at the bottom of the screen, and as you level up you get to make decisions about how to develop your abilities (using a software interface to hack into your existing hardware augmentations), and improve your proficiency with specific weapons based on their use. Shotgun-lovers may learn to absorb recoil and get better results at range, for instance.
Your character is also persistent across different game sessions, which brings us to the co-operative angle. Gearbox demos the game in co-op and says it's meant to be played that way, and in order to promote and encourage that you will be able to take your character - whatever his current level, equipment and abilities - into another player's game, however much progress he or she has made. Any progress you make there and any items you collect can then be transported back to your single-player game, or indeed taken to another friend's co-op game.
But hang on, you might say, if you're just replaying old bits with a friend, won't you already have all the stuff the two of you discover? And won't you feel a bit bad nicking his loot? Not a bit of it, says Gearbox, for a number of reasons. The big one is that in-game weapons are procedurally generated, which means that Gearbox has laid down a range of parameters (loading mechanism, stock, barrel, etc.) and the game itself creates the guns. The system can produce over 650,000 variations.
So not only will the guns you find probably be new, but you'll covet them. Wooden handles are rare, electrified ammo has a BioShock-style stunning impact, sniper rifles with revolver mechanisms are plain old sexy. When you move towards a dropped gun, a pop-up box allows you to quickly survey its stats and see whether it's better than the one you've got in any crucial area.
Guns aren't just found on your enemies and hidden in caves, either, but can be located in randomised RPG-style "drops". The local wildlife enjoys munching down on the odd bandit, and what's left behind often yields bonuses, as do treasure chests with random contents - grenades and ammo, yes, but also guns.
The experience itself varies, too, thanks to Diablo-ish randomisation of combat within specific levels, which might as well be instances. We're shown the Iridium Mines level, which splits the two players up on different paths. The bandits inside are holding hostage an alien artifact, which is a valuable commodity on Pandora, and the administrator of the nearby Newhaven Settlement wants you to get it back. The quest's the same across game sessions, but what happens isn't: in our case, the two players converge on a bunch of bandits sat around a campfire roasting a dog-like "skag", and while one player distracts them with a sniper rifle the other assaults from the flank and cleans them out.
Combat itself is bloody as well as dynamic. Gearbox has no problem getting an "R" rating, so there's dismemberment galore - flying heads, twitching legs - and lots of gibs from cluster grenade chain explosions. On the defensive side, players have a recharging, Halo-style shield and can pick up things like orb shields to augment that. Your ally's health is shown in the top-left, too, so you can keep an eye.
Outside the mines, we're promised Pandora is vast, taking hours to traverse. Vehicular transport and combat will play a big role to assist. Inevitably one player drives and the other rides shotgun, but you can switch places at any time without stopping, and the things you do in the vehicle also contribute experience points. You'll also be able to customise your ride with different weapons and other add-ons.
That's all we're shown for now, but it leaves a decent impression. The incursion of MMO and RPG ideas into FPS thinking is nothing new (Rage and Fallout 3 may be new examples, but Deus Ex can stick its hand up among others), but the promise of procedurally generated weapons and persistent characters across online co-op games (which will support four players total) is shinier, and we enjoyed the blue-tinted mines with their shantytowns and Ewok bridges, strewn with body parts.
And whereas other developers contributing to the new wave of RPG-influenced shooters run the risk of scooching too close to the cape-and-armour-clad inventory clerk side of things, Gearbox's background is in shooters - the excellent Brothers in Arms, most notably - and Borderlands is a shooter first and foremost. "What we're trying to do is add a persistent character to a shooter experience," Gearbox president Randy Pitchford said recently. That works best for us. Look out for more closer to the game's release next year.
Borderlands is due out on PS3, 360 and PC in 2009.