It's fair to say that Borderlands caught a lot of us off guard. From curiosity to cult hit, it was one of those rare games that comes out of nowhere and establishes an exciting new franchise without being pushed along by a freight train of industrial-strength hype. It succeeded on its merits, a wickedly funny blend of post-apocalyptic shooter and loot-drop RPG, and was all the better for it.
The warm feelings continued when it became one of the best-supported shooters for DLC. A steady stream of new content, each episode with its own flavour and style, kept fans busy on multiple play-throughs, always looking for that next random weapon combination that would kick those all-important stats up a few notches.
Borderlands has thrived because it has made a habit out of surprising us. Perhaps that's why Claptrap's New Robot Revolution feels like a let down. This is the first DLC chapter that has felt like it's treading water, going through the motions, making do.
A couple of nights ago I hit the jackpot. Borderlands had been quietly chucking the odd new gun my way for the past few weeks, of course, but suddenly, wandering around Crazy Earl's Scrapyard, it started lobbing them at me with dangerous abandon.
This wasn't the cheap stuff either: after months of dusty repeaters and initially-alluring SMGs let down by duff scopes, Gearbox was now tripping over itself to give me the arsenal I'd always wanted. I found myself knee-deep in massive crit boosts, elemental powers, roomy clips and speedy reloads - all with a nice blade whacked on the front to increase melee damage.
It was delightful, obviously, but it was also a little worrying. If you ever suspected that beneath the hillbillies and crosshatching Borderlands buries you alive in experience points and new weaponry to distract from the ceaseless grind, it would be easy to perceive a freakish spell of generosity as a confirmation of your fears. Beneath the wit and character of the delivery, could Borderlands really just be the game that bribes you to keep playing?
The shooter genre needed this. Elements of role-playing games have been creeping in all over FPS games in the past few years, but in Borderlands it's a wholesale hybridisation. Not, I should point out, in terms of choices, story and consequences - that remains with the likes of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - but with loot, levels, stats, skills and fiddling about in your inventory to max out your character. Gearbox says it's created a role-playing shooter, an RPS (which sounds strangely familiar to my ears), and that means you'll be playing a shooter that feels a lot like, well, like an MMO.
The common touchstone for talking about Borderlands' RPG influence has been Diablo, but I think until the third Diablo game comes out it's probably just as - if not more - valid to mention that Borderlands exhibits a large number of MMO-like characteristics. This feeling is at its strongest in the opening areas of the game, where you're picking up missions, running back and forth across small areas of the map, collecting loot and killing low-level punks and mutant dog-lizard things. Just like most mainstream MMOs, Borderlands takes time to hit its stride, and you're hours in before you really start to appreciate the approach Gearbox has taken. That's not to say it's not an entertaining game from the outset - because it is - just that it really does take time to unload all its tricks and have you revel in them.
There are a couple of reasons for this slow build. One is that you're probably going to play the first bit of the game on your own. And that's fine: single-player in Borderlands is entirely valid, and fun. But the sense remains that there's something missing. This is filled when you start playing co-op, because one of the most obvious mechanisms in the game suddenly makes sense.