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E3 2009: Borderlands

BorderlandsE3 2009

“We wanted to take the games we loved – Halo, Call of Duty and Diablo – and combine them into one game. The result was Borderlands.”


Borderlands has generated a lot of attention as of late. When the game was shown last year, few people were interested in what looked like yet another generic Unreal-powered shooter, even if it did promise a million weapon customization options and a huge world. But when the team at Gearbox, working in conjunction with 2K Games, decided to completely redraw the game in a new art style that purposefully inspires thoughts of comic books, people started taking a closer look. “Pandora is a greedy, kind of dirty place. But we also wanted it to be beautiful,” said Mike Neumann of Gearbox as he led a public demo.

The game is set to take place on the planet Pandora. Humans once flocked to the planet, but after discovering that it didn’t have many resources to offer, those who could leave moved on to greener, more promising pastures. The dregs that stayed behind became fascinated with “the vault,” a secret location that allegedly contains secret alien technology. Presumably, those who acquire the secrets of the vault will gain fame and fortune and bands of lawless explorers are fighting for clues to the vault’s location. You will be one of those treasure hunters as you work your way through about 30 narrative missions and 100 side missions.


While there’s been much buzz about the fact that you can combine and produce your own weapons from scores of parts scattered throughout the game, we found out today that enemy design works largely the same way. You’ll encounter dozens of different varieties of the same species of enemies in the game as different abilities are grafted onto them. The demo opened with two of the four playable characters, Roland and Lilith, played by staff members, taking on a group of skags, which looked somewhat like gnolls. While most were just snarling, yapping beasts, another, the “bad ass fire skag” attacked the team with fire attacks.

Once dispatched, the loot from the kill scattered across the battlefield. Loot is colored ala World of Warcraft, so you’ll be able to easily distinguish rare items from the mundane without inspecting each. Experience points are also earned from successful confrontations, and in our demo, we got to see a bit of the skill tree. While players won’t be able to create their own unique characters, they can choose which skills in particular they want to emphasize to tailor the experience to their own styles.


One of those skills that we were told about sounded particularly intriguing: healing bullets. With this ability, Roland can literally shoot his teammates to heal them. But how you heal your enemies depends on what gun you’re using. If you’re using a submachine gun, you’ll give small, quick bursts of health to your allies. But if you stand back in the hills and fire down on the battlefield with the sniper rifle, you’ll restore a significant chunk of their health in just one shot.

As a treasure hunter, exploration is going to be a huge part of the game. While players can stick to the main quest, exploration is strongly encouraged to improve your skills. Pandora is a massive place and we got to see just a part how big it was during our preview. The team drove their vehicle off the quest path they were on and took a detour to a nearby shack, where inside they found a rare gun they were able to acquire after successfully taking down its two guardians in one shotgun blast. And though the game takes place across three acts with three very different environments, you’ll be able to return to any area at any time during the game.


While multiplayer is definitely the encouraged mode of play, I was assured that the game was being balanced to deliver a fair and challenging single player experience. But one of the coolest aspects to Borderlands is that you’ll have a persistent character while you play, online or off. You’ll be able to level up your character in the single player mode, equip them with the gear of your choice, and then hop into a multiplayer game with your friends. You can then take the success you earned during your multiplayer back into the single player and pick up where you left off.

The team did have some concern when transitioning to the new graphics engine. The team cited the success of BioShock with a unique art style of its own, as a reason why 2K Games was willing to take the chance with it. “When the game was so dead-serious, it wasn’t as fun. The art style allowed us to embrace what the game really is: something goofy and fun. There’s been great reception. But though we embraced a lighter art style, we also strived to create a serious first-person shooter.”


I saw Borderlands here last year and wasn’t all that interested, but after my tour of the game today, I think it’s safe to say that, at the very least, this is going to be a unique and different game than most on the market. The fusion of so many different elements into one game leads me to worry that the game could be a conglomeration of good but poorly executed ideas, but I have faith after what I saw today that this game will turn out alright. Look for Borderlands on store shelves in October.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003.

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