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App of the Day: Borderlands Legends HD

Four's company.

In some ways, Borderlands has always been interested in choices. Little choices for the most part. Bouncing grenades or healing grenades? This six-round shotgun, or that corrosive SMG? The biggest choice has generally come at the beginning: which of the game's collection of rootin' tootin' vault hunters to choose from? (Sorry about the rootin' tootin' thing.)

This is the choice that Borderlands Legends does away with. Why spend time picking a favourite, when you can play as all four of the original game's heroes at once? Four classes, four characters, one player, and a new top-down action RPG approach for iOS. That sounds weird, right? Weird and kind of interesting.

Weird and kind of interesting would be correct. As touchscreen reinventions of living room classics go, this is an odd and frequently unwieldy beast, slavishly on-message one minute, bizarrely cavalier the next. It features character designs, sound effects, action skills and even shards of UI from the original game, but it changes the pace completely, switching out the exploration of Pandora in favour of a series of single-screen horde arenas, shuffled together to make up rudimentary missions.

One thing it most definitely shares with the first Borderlands is that it makes an underwhelming initial impression. With four heroes to look after, the game offers a couple of different control options, allowing you to either tap or swipe a character to move them around and select targets. Pathfinding can be rather vague at times, however, and those vault hunters are small enough to pose identification problems in the early stages when you're still getting to grips with things.

Lovely audio work ensures that Legends sounds like an ambitious theatrical mash-up of Rocky and Rambo, taking place inside a washer-dryer.

It doesn't help that, alongside action skills, each character now comes with its own utility - Roland can heal, say, while Mordecai can increase damage. These are activated by tapping or swiping, too, drawing a line from the character with the utility to the character they want to buff. Sure, it's nice to have a few extra options, but with movement, attacks and utilities all handled with the same actions, when the battles get frantic and the screen grows busy, the whole thing becomes fairly confusing.

It grows less confusing once you start to think of your heroes as one big unit rather than four little ones, though. While you can move them around independently of each other and prioritise different targets as they flood onto the battlefield, for the first few missions, before you've earned the cash to buy any decent equipment, you'd be better served allowing them to stick together. Manage them as a gang, and the game starts to click: you're soon assigning buffs and piling in on specific threats, and with everyone within healing range of each other, stragglers lose their nasty habit of bleeding out while you're not looking.

Then, once the loot starts to come in, you can buy more powerful weapons and shields and the game becomes a little more entertaining. (The shop interface may not be particularly elegant, but it's surprisingly good when it comes to the important stuff like comparing stats and letting you equip new purchases.) At the same time, you're levelling up at the end of almost every mission, and each vault hunter has a pruned-back skill tree for you to pick through, too, starting with their iconic action skill from the main game. Lilith can still Phasewalk, for example, while Brick can still punch people to pieces, eventually allowing you to juggle between a handful of distinct skills each.

The game can be fiddly to read and control on an iPad, which doesn't bode well for the iPhone version.

These skills give you a little more direct control over the action when fights become too hectic to easily monitor, while the cooldowns offer you something tactical to think about at the same time. Ranged skills like turrets and the good old Bloodwing also make up for the spars of slightly annoying on-screen cover that complicate each of the arenas. Cover's presumably been dumped into the maps to stop you from simply plonking your squad in the middle and never moving, but while it's an understandable inclusion, it still makes the game a little fiddly to navigate, particularly if the AI isn't playing along when moving from A to B.

Luckily, the shooting remains pretty entertaining even given the slight distancing effect you get from the shift in perspective, and there are nicely balanced waves of Pandoran wildlife to face off against, along with the odd boss. Each mission is essentially a series of different kill rooms to move through, but they look pretty enough, quietly encourage varied approaches, and occasionally throw in different objectives to boot.

For all its nods, Legends doesn't really feel very much like Borderlands. With four guys to move around at once, there's much less room for the kind of split-second improvisation you get from the main games, and the loot element feels a lot more restrained. In its later missions, it still creates a chaotic muddle of explosions and gunfire, however, and still provides a blunt kind of hillbilly spectacle to make up for a distinct lack of precision. After a day of playing, this feels like it's an update or two away from being really enjoyable. Luckily, with iOS, that's not an impossible proposition.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments. For daily app coverage, check out our sister site Modojo.