Gearbox Studios celebrated its 10th birthday earlier this year. It's a major milestone in the life of any game maker, and one the Texan developer no doubt celebrated heartily. So how is studio head Randy Pitchford, the man who has steered Gearbox from its origins as work-for-hire Half-Life expander to today's multi-tasking operation, feeling?
"I'm terrified!" he shrieks. Advancing years can do that to a man. But Pitchford is terrified, specifically, about his studio's latest project, Borderlands. Because it's the biggest creative risk Gearbox has ever undertaken, an open-world FPS/RPG mashup with cel-shaded graphics and a sci-fi setting knocked up from scratch. And not just that, but it's sailing head-on into the Q4 maelstrom, which has sunk more than its fair share of worthy new ideas in recent times. Remember Mirror's Edge?
"When people take risks and it's not rewarded, in the case of Mirror's Edge, it's makes it harder for others to be comfortable taking risks," admits Pitchford. "We're taking a shooter and saying, hey, we think it's compelling to get loot, and we think it's compelling to level up, and we're going to put that on a shooter. That's a risk, right? And it's with an original brand, too, so it's even more risky."
The run up to Christmas is already enough to unsettle the sturdiest gaming constitution. And that's before you consider the game this year that - whatever they claim - everyone wants to avoid.
"We're all going to get Call of Duty this year, alright?" Pitchford concedes. "That's going to happen; so it makes it really scary. But there are those of us that play everything and we're begging for fresh stuff, so I'm hoping that helps. And if it's good, it'll get noticed."
Raise a glass, then, to creative bravery and publisher balls (don't go delaying it now and making me look stupid, 2K). But before we get too intoxicated, what of this "risky" endeavour?
Set on the remote planet of Pandora, Borderlands thematically blends the lawless wild west and Mad Max-esque industrial desolation with alien technology and creatures. And structurally, it seeks to merge the intensity of a first-person shooter with the customisable depth of an RPG and the exploratory freedom of an open-world adventure. Add to that random weapon generation (with hundreds of thousands of possible combinations), and you not only have an awful lot to get right, but also a fair amount that could go wrong. So, yeah. Risky.
Gearbox's previous games have typically been one thing or another. Mainly first-person shooters, admittedly, but not without the occasional sortie into unfamiliar territory, as with last year's Samba De Amigo update for Wii. "Brothers In Arms; Samba Di Amigo - I can't think of two things that are further apart," Pitchford chuckles. "But I'm a gamer. Look at your own collection and it's probably got things that far apart on the shelf, right?"
It's a fair point. And there's no doubting his gaming credentials, with an Xbox gamerscore currently in excess of 80,000. So having proved itself as a safe pair of hands with existing brands, and creator of a successful original franchise - within the relatively less risky confines of the WWII shooter genre - this time, for Randy, it's personal.
"On one level we're definitely coming at this game from the vector of a shooter," he explains. "When I play shooters, I don't really expect any growth." But that's not enough for a man who has sunk hundreds of hours of desperate grinding into Diablo. "When you play Diablo, there is no skill. You put the cursor on the icon, you click it and it goes. But there's a compulsion to it. I couldn't not. I wanted the next level."
Borderlands attempts to reconcile the two. The promise is a game that, if you're a shooter fan, you can rattle through in 15 hours to your taste, with 30-odd mission chains to the core story. "That part is about the length of a typical shooter," Pitchford adds. While for the buccaneering spirit, there's an additional 120 missions which are, he maintains, "optional", with all the rapacious, smack-head levelling-up that implies.
To sample the single-player, I am plonked onto Pandora near the start of the game as a Soldier (one of four available character classes, the others, Tank, Hunter and Siren). Character-customisation (appearance, name, and so on) is there if you want it, otherwise you can just skip on as the default character.
Before I have time to take in the apparently deserted, derelict dustbowl I've landed in, I'm joined by an amiable, jabbering droid whose purpose is to tutor in the game basics. And it does so in a surprisingly charming manner, redolent of C3P0 on Tattooine, which is a smart alternative to the bog-standard tutorial, sucking you straight into the world.
Progression at first is gentle and logical. Collect a weapon; kill bandits; venture beyond the town's perimeter to hunt for loot in the dangerous wasteland beyond; fight off packs of savage skags (alien dog things); take on your first missions from other mysterious residents for cash and kit; learn to use vending machines to stock up on items; gain enough experience to level up and explore skill trees.
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