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Borderlands E3 Impressions: Style, and Substance

A lot has been made of Borderlands' new art style. The unique Gearbox shooter-RPG recently made the switch from a fairly bland brand of realism to a look reminiscent of concept art, to general applause.

Following a live demonstration of the game at E3, I can report that the "hand-shaded" textures look just as visually interesting while in motion as they do in static shots. Though we only got a look at one brown-heavy, almost monochromatic environment, any source of color immediately popped, easily justifying the effect. But moreso than the style, I was eager to see another slice of gameplay. The co-op title, which impressed us with its debut at last year's show, now has the benefit of another year of toiling. The result is a blend of straightforward shooting, detailed RPG mechanics, and some smart interface touches that combine for a very attractive package.

Loading up the game to a crusty desert locale, Gearbox's Mike Neumann first introduced us to a number of dog-like creatures called Scags. Borderlands' general feel is easiest to compare to Diablo; you gain levels by shooting things, you pick up loot from the dead things, and you find more things by exploring the world.

After blasting a few of the four-legged beasts, different Scag variants emerged, including one that was entirely on fire.

"You guys have heard the shit about our guns," said Neumann, referring to the ridiculous permutations that produce Borderlands' weapons--over a half-million at one count, and now far higher. "What most people don't know is our other content is generated like that."

Neumann described spiders that can spawn as leapers which latch onto a player's face, while another variant has the spiders curling up and rolling like a ball in its attack. There won't be a half-million spider species, of course, but the team is aiming for some pretty wild combinations.

As the enemies were turned to corpses on screen, a sort of holographic display would appear above each, with a small box outlining the loot available to pillage. This logical addition allows the player to take a quick glance at the treasure pickups without the need for an action-stopping menu.

We also got a biref look at the game's skill tree system, which provides each of the four classes with specialization options. Brick, the slow but beefy tank, was shown specced out with the brawler abilities, giving him the power to flip out and punch enemies in the face with glowing fists.

Later on, Gearbox demonstrated the game's co-op connectivity. Up to four players can play at once in the game world, and characters are persistent between offline and online modes. After saving the character inside the singleplayer instance, the game was almost instantly switched to multiplayer by way of a menu option.

Now joined by a co-op companion, the player spawned a vehicle from an in-game station--customized in stylish pink by Gearbox marketing VP Steve Gibson--and rolled up to a massive firefight, mowing down creatures for experience points on the way.

After offing a few enemies with grenades and sci-fi blasters, a giant "LEVEL UP!" message was slapped diagonally across the screen like a commercial for a Presidents' Day sale. Neumann explained that one side-benefit of the new art style was a relaxing of the game's tone.

"We realized that plausibility can eat shit and die," he said simply. Weapons that at one time seemed silly, such as guns that came loaded with "healing bullets," now fit in the world.

It's that attitude which has prematurely sold me on Borderlands. The Diablo-meets-Halo concept has always been sound, but taking it too seriously might have put a damper on the whole thing. Instead, Borderlands is looking like one of those no-frills, pick-up-and-play co-op titles. The extra hooks of RPG progression, quests and PVP make it a game worth watching.

Borderlands is expected later this year on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

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