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.