Borderlands is a shooter, but it isn't really like other shooters. Borderlands is also a role-playing game, but it's not quite like other RPGs either. Let me explain.
Or rather, let's get Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford to explain.
"Whenever I'm asked what is the game I've spent more time playing than any other, the answer is Nethack. And whenever I'm asked what is my favourite game, it's Doom II.
And Borderlands is really just Doom II plus Nethack. Or you can say it's Halo plus Diablo... but Halo's just an iteration of Doom II and Diablo is a graphical interface for Nethack."
The critical and commercial succes of Brothers In Arms allowed Randy and his team at Gearbox to take a risk with their next project. Like any hardcore gamer thinking of their dream game, Randy had wanted to make this Nethack/Doom mash-up for years. Now he had the opportunity to make that dream a reality.
I asked Randy how his team designed Borderlands to cater for the shooter guy who doesn't understand RPGs and for the RPG guy who doesn't understand shooters.
Pitchford told me he's thought about this "a hell of a lot:"
"We've done a lot of testing, recruiting people from local game stores and colleges and put them together into what we call the Truth Team.
From that we know here's a guy whose gaming experience is Call of Duty and that we can give him the controller and, without a single sentence of instruction, he can start having fun. I can put this controller in your hand and I don't have to say a damn thing to you and you'll know how to move and how to shoot and the controls will feel really good.
Meanwhile, you can take a role-playing guy who goes "Hey, that loot's purple, I bet that's an epic." He knows what that means because he's familiar with the language of a role-playing game. We needed that, because we're inventing so much in this game, we needed the fundamentals to be something you're comfortable with."
Borderlands plays like a shooter in that you're moving around a fast-paced environment and viewing it from a first-person perspective; you need to aim well to hit your targets, you need to dodge their fire and you need to seek out and take cover.
Quests, loot and experience form the basis of the RPG tropes you'll encounter. NPCs act as mission kiosks, tasking you to go there, do that, and then report back to claim your reward. Safes, trashcans, toolboxes, corpses and even toilets can all be searched for extra ammo, health pickups, guns and plain hard cash. Finally, every enemy you kill and quest you complete brings experience, ultimately levelling you up and unlocking new branches of your character's skill tree.
Pitchford maintains that if you're familiar with either genre, Borderlands will feel natural and make sense. "The fundamentals are bulletproof, they're solid," he says, "and we needed that because so much of the rest of it is just crazy."
At times, Borderlands feels like an action-heavy MMO instance while at other times it feels like an open world shooter with skill and weapon stats influencing - if not determining - your success. Ensuring they strike the right balance between the two genres is a factor that has weighed heavily on the design.
From my experience, having spent around 5-6 hours with the preview code, what's remarkable is how well Borderlands caters to your choices. Whether it's those moment-to-moment choices to, for example, strafe left instead of right or toss a grenade now at that guy or whether it's those meta-game choices of which weapons you buy and equip or which skills you upgrade, Borderlands convinces you that those choices matter.
Why choose between Nethack and Doom II, RPG and shooter, when you can have them both?