Last month Gearbox let me into their offices to play more Borderlands. I got distracted by a world tour of the offices. Then I played with an attack bird at my command.
I'd already tried Borderlands in New York earlier this summer, on the second floor in a Brooklyn warehouse where, below, people hired by the game's publisher were serving slices of a roasted pig. I ran that Borderlands preview in July, comparing the game to a first-person shooter take on World of Warcraft or Diablo. Readers rightly chided me for not comparing it to Hellgate, which is the other game that's tried this in the last few years.
In Texas last month, after getting distracted by Gearbox chief's grand tour, I jumped into a cave section in the game and started running around as a Level 20 version of Mordecai, the character in Borderlands' playable quartet who can use an attack bird. I sent this bird in for the kill against the cave's monsters and madmen, using its swooping assaults to eliminate enemies from afar. I had the Gearbox guys switch me to Lilith, the female in the quarter. I used her phase walk ability, which, temporarily, let her walk through enemies, shocking them with energy and sapping their spirits.
The location was different. The characters I used were different. The powers I wielded were different. But my impression was the same. Accompanied by three other players, each using one of the game's foursome, I was enjoying a satisfying, grinding crunch through the game's cave. Every attack causes little numbers to spring and sweat off the enemies, to show the damage they're taking. Dropped weapons litter the floor, mad-lib-named with funny titles like the "Weaksauce SMG" the "Terrible Shotgun" and the much more useful "Violent SMG".
I didn't pick up much of the story. I barely had a sense of who my characters were. I was lost in the co-op frenzy. I've not been on a World of Warcraft raid, but I've played enough of that game to know a lot of what I was feeling is what it feels like to be in Blizzard's game. At one point, I had Mordecai punch my teammate's character so we could duel. An energy dome formed over us and we fought, the victor being the player who brought the other one down to one health point.
I learned a few more facts. The ammo and money that enemies drop are automatically shared by your co-op team of players. Health drops and weapons, however, are available only to whoever grabs them. Of course, if you play solo, which you can at any time, it's all yours.
People keep asking me what I think of Borderlands and the answer has no need to change: If you like playing WoW, this is the shooter version, with a four-player limit. If you're into racking up experience points, finding better loot, levelling up and not sweating whether there's a deep story you'd rather be following instead of chatting with your friends while killing stuff, then this game is one for you to watch.
During my tour of the Gearbox offices, I mentioned to Pitchford and a couple of other employees that some games felt like bags of potato chips. They feel like they're designed for you to keep consuming and consuming, crunching away without thinking too hard about what you're doing. Pitchford thought that's a fair way to think about his team's game. A bag of chips. Let's hope it's filling.
Borderlands is out for PC, PS3 and XBox 360 on October 20.