At the end of our E3 Borderlands preview, Gearbox's Randy Pitchford, who's been talking for the last 20 minutes at an insane rate of knots without, apparently, ever needing to take a breath, asks if anyone has a question. Someone does, as it happens, right down at the front of the group. It's Cliff Bleszinski. And he wants to know what engine the game's using.
It's free advertising for Unreal Engine 3, of course, but it's also a folksy and rather surreal moment - an ideal conclusion for an overview of a game that's magnificently deranged, and more than a little homespun itself. Borderlands is a strange beast, however you consider it: a faux MMO, and a cel-shaded hillbilly sci-fi nut farm all rolled into one. Or, as Pitchford explains things: "A shooter, but a real deep RPG too." Actually, we prefer our way of phrasing it.
The idea is simple: Borderlands takes place on the distant planet of Pandora, a lawless dustbowl populated by nasty wildlife and crazy, long-forgotten colonists. On this grim world, a race is underway, with gaggles of competing treasure hunters fighting to be the first to enter the Vault, a mysterious room carved into the side of a mountain, which is rumoured to contain alien technological wonders and untold riches. The problem is, everybody who goes in tends to die, and nobody's quite sure where it is in the first place.
Our demo is completely chaotic - not because the game is crashing or misbehaving, but because that's just how Borderlands rolls, its focus pinwheeling between manic firefights with mutant colonists, unexpected attacks from the local beasties, and headlong scrambles to pick up the loot that's scattered across the ground after every period of breezy slaughter.
After a few minutes, Pitchford stops trying to explain the game in any meaningful way, and instead drops into the role of an enthusiastic sports reporter: "Ooh, spider-ants! Real deadly! Aim for the glowing weak spot behind them! Ouch!" Later, once we get into a car - battered futuristic tech that could have come straight from the cover of slightly dubious eighties sci-fi pulp - he stops completely for a rare minute or so, as the only meaningful commentary he could be offering would be speculation as to which gnarly life-form we were in the process of driving over.
Part of this insanity is because of the procedural generation that lies at the centre of the game-world: Borderlands boasts, for example, well over 500,000 weapon permutations resulting in an ongoing procession of bizarre firearms - some mutations merely aesthetic, others creating exotic strains of ballistics even the developer hasn't seen before. These arrive in the loot drops, while chunks of the huge environment and much of the ecology seems to be just as haphazard.
In the case of the guns at least, the shortcomings of such a system are obvious - it may be hard to feel that anything you find is really special in a game that chucks such freakish toys at you, and you're unlikely to gain much of an attachment to your equipment in a world where something even weirder will be coming your way in a matter of minutes. But it's also a charmingly eclectic way of doing business, favouring mindless experimentation and allowing for wacky shootouts in which you spin the ammo cylinder on your grenade-launching pistol and take on enemies armed with electrically-charged shotguns.
But the barely-controlled nature of the demo may also be because Borderlands pelts along at the breathless speed of a top down click-spree like Diablo. The enemies and the levelling system combine with the player turning rates and running pace to transform each gun battle into a race-tuned dash for experience and loot. Rounds go off from all angles, health bars are shredded, and any kind of strategy has to be conceived and implemented in a matter of seconds while there's still someone left to kill.
The pace isn't the only thing that's reminiscent of dungeon crawlers, or MMOs for that matter: the missions we're shown have the distinct grind-favouring inanity - "We've got to go kill five Skags! Ooh, there's one! A Badass Fire Skag! Whoa! Shoot it!" - to them which often separates such games from traditional RPGs, and there's the extensive character customisation you might expect from such titles too. (And yes, there's an enemy called Skag. "How much time did you spend on Skag during development?" we didn't ask.)
Built for four-player co-op, the game is also tilted heavily towards online play, and Borderlands' persistency means that you're free to take characters from your own game into other players' campaigns and return to yours afterwards, ridiculously overpowered and with any loot earned carried over. It means you'll breeze through areas balanced for much lower specs, but Pitchford absolutely doesn't care, seeing it all as part of the fun - more kills, more exploration, more guns to mess around with.
But beneath the appealing madness, there's also a serious game at heart, with four distinct class types, perks, special powers and chunky branching skill trees to power through. Shootouts may be impossibly quick, but the weapons have a real sense of connection to them, and the ability to spawn and customise vehicles, along with the game's massive streaming environments, makes for an experience that won't be lacking in content or diversions.
Putting aside the hokey Pandora's Box plotline, Borderlands is really about guns and shopping - shooting things and greedily picking over the scraps, searching for trinkets that will allow you to kill more things next time. It's worked well in the past, with classics like Diablo, and it's worked badly as well, with games like Too Human, and, at this point, it's too early to be entirely sure which way Borderlands is headed.
It's hard not to feel a certain warmth for what we're shown, however: the speed at which Borderlands plays is blistering, and the game sweeps you along with its gracelessly loony enthusiasm. It's rough around the edges, certainly, but it's an appealingly loopy white-trash fantasy. A freak show, then, but possibly a very excellent one.
Borderlands is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in October.