See How Much Borderlands Changed By Reading Our Original 2007 Cover Story
10 years ago to the day, Gearbox and G.I. teamed up to reveal the developer's RPG shooter hit, Borderlands. Join us for a look back at our original story, complete with an updated cover from 2K.
A lot about Borderlands changed between our initial 10-page cover story reveal and the final release, to the point where you might not even recognize the game from our 2007 cover. Borderlands' most obvious and oft-discussed transformation was the art style, but a lot of other elements that former G.I. editor Bryan Vore discussed in the original cover story changed as well, from A.I. characters that you could customize and command, to procedurally generated loot caves. Brick, the punch-happy melee character, hadn't even been planned yet, and Roland and Lilith went through some major design changes as well (interestingly enough, Mordecai remained almost exactly the same).
What didn't change, however, was the core concept of Borderlands: mashing up the intense, fast-paced action of the first-person-shooter genre with the endless loot and progression of RPGs. The story spends a lot of time spelling out what that experience would and wouldn't entail – a reminder that the now commonplace "shooter RPG" subgenre wasn't really a thing back then.
You can read our entire cover story below, complete with the original screens of what the game used to look like (you can also jump to page two for images of the original magazine layout). Before that, however, 2K whipped us up a special treat in honor of the anniversary: A remake of our original 2007 cover image, updated with the series' now-iconic art style.
Without further ado, here's our original Borderlands cover story from 2007.
BORDERLANDS: THE FINAL FRONTIER
In the distant future, seven colonization ships depart for the edge of the galaxy. Their passengers seek a better life and the untold mineral resources of the remote planet Pandora. After years of travel, the caravan finally reaches its destination. The mix of settlers, prospectors, scientists, and corporate lackeys set about dismantling the ships and converting them into makeshift settlements. It eventually becomes clear that there is little on the desolate planet outside of decrepit alien ruins. Those who have the money leave, and the remaining stranded population devolves into lawlessness. Some seek to get rich by hunting down remnants of alien technology. Most are just trying to survive. After seven Earth years, Pandora's slow orbit finally enters spring and countless horrifying creatures emerge from hibernation. Just when the colony is set to implode on itself, a beacon of hope emerges. One key discovery has the potential to change not just Pandora itself, but the entire galaxy. Welcome to Borderlands – a game unlike any other, yet still innately familiar.
While working on projects in the Halo and Half-Life franchises and its own Brothers In Arms games, developer Gearbox Software has been kicking around another idea. As huge fans of the Diablo series, team members wanted to blend that level of addictive loot grinding and leveling up with the fast-paced action of first-person shooters. Gearbox had proven itself in the FPS realm, but how would it satisfy that insatiable RPG desire for a constant flow of new weapons and items? Borderlands utilizes a revolutionary weapons system that features over half a million guns. Combine that with rich frontier lore, violent vehicle combat, and gameplay built for co-op from the beginning, and that Diablo-caliber level of addiction doesn't seem so far out of reach.
"I love [Diablo] because I always want a bigger sword or more armor," says Gearbox president Randy Pitchford. "The thing is, it's really almost a stupidly simple game. You just point the cursor over the icon and click, and that's what it takes to play Diablo. But it didn't matter because you were so addicted to all of the stuff."
With Borderlands, Pitchford hopes to combine the obsession that led him to max out several characters in the RPG classic with the twitch skills and immersion of a first-person shooter. It's clear, however, which side the focus is on.
"This is, first and foremost, a first-person shooter," clarifies Borderlands producer Simon Hurley. Gearbox is careful to distance its game from gun-based RPGs like Mass Effect and Fallout 3. Players won't be pausing the action to select attack points or worrying about hit percentages. Anyone who's ever wielded a shotgun in Doom or an assault rifle in Halo will be able to jump right into Borderlands' interesting mix of gameplay. But instead of raiding dungeons, Gearbox has created a world filled with Deadwood's frontier grit, Mad Max's deadly vehicles, and some Indiana Jones-style fortune hunting.
The story follows three characters, Roland, Mordecai, and Lilith, as they pursue their own motives on the volatile planet of Pandora. After years of struggle on the recently populated world, the citizens are rallying around the discovery of a mysterious metal vault carved into the side of a mountain. This massive structure is thought to be from the same ancient alien race whose technology has been discovered elsewhere in the galaxy. This tech has not only pushed science forward by leaps and bounds, it's also made those who discovered it extremely rich. The vault is thought to contain all of the aliens' secrets, drawing those in search of wealth, power, and scientific advancement. The trouble is, the people who discovered it were completely wiped out by some kind of protective force. Only a scattered radio transmission remains – hinting at the vault's majesty, but not its location. The main characters aren't necessarily after the vault's contents at the outset, but their personal quests will most assuredly lead them to it.
Our demo begins in a settlement called New Haven, an appropriately named town that's managed to secure itself from roaming Brigadiers (known more commonly as bandits) and indigenous creatures. Unofficial mayor Helena Pierce makes the rules in this dusty settlement that consists mostly of ramshackle metal huts cobbled together from the good ship "Haven." She's been having trouble recently with attacks from a flying species called rakk and tasks Roland to destroy a hive with explosive cesium charges that only bandits have. In the distance, you can see Mordecai sniping a stray rakk with a tracking device.
While stopping to load up on guns and equipment, the shopkeeper asks if you can activate a transporter holed up in a bandit-infested military bunker so that he can get his stuff out of it. On the way out of town, Helena offers you an extra reward for assassinating a bandit leader, since you'll be swiping the cesium anyway. Gearbox is specifically structuring the game so that players will always be juggling several quests of varying length and complexity. "We're encouraging the player to just play five more minutes to get something new," says Hurley. "Sometimes it's just a new gun, sometimes you finish a quest, and sometimes it's another piece of the story that clicks into place." This simultaneously allows players to make meaningful progress even in brief bursts while also encouraging the "just one more" kind of gameplay that can unintentionally lead to marathon sessions.
As we head out to the ominous canyons, the game generates a unique instance for the road ahead. While the general path remains consistent, things like barriers, caves, bunkers, towers, enemies, and explosive cacti will be different every time you return. Sometimes there will be a cave to explore. Other times it'll simply be a blank wall. All of this occurs with absolutely no loading whatsoever. In fact, players will never see a single load screen once they've entered the game.
A bandit camp appears up ahead, but there's already a scuffle in place. A four-legged beast with a natural metallic plating over its head and back is attacking the bandit group. Again, this is not scripted. This "skag" happened to be generated next to hostile forces so it decided to get aggressive. Roland mows down some distracted troops while the rest of them aim for the tender spots on the skag's side and unload clips into its mouth as it jumps at them. Once the beast falls, the bandits turn to face us. Though the A.I. is still unfinished, we're able to get an idea about how these untrained rebels fight. Since they're just a bunch of common thugs with no military experience, the bandits shoot from the hip and aren't all that concerned with cover. They clamber over walls and hop gaps to get a better shot at you.
After the smoke clears, a bounty of weapons, gear, and items lies scattered across the ground. All of the resulting loot was actually equipped on the troops during battle, so if you see an enemy with a particularly flashy gun, it can be yours the instant you take him out. As you pass the aiming reticle over loot, its name and stats appear in a color-coded box similar to what you'd see in an MMO (dark gray indicates weak, green means better, etc.). The variety of handguns, shotguns, rifles, and machine guns is staggering. Throughout our time with Borderlands we never saw the same gun twice, and Gearbox claims the same will be true when players go through the final game.
"Back when I first started making shooters at 3D Realms on Duke Nukem, the rule was the PC keyboard had one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and zero. That's how many guns you could have in your game," says Pitchford. "It's going to be all different now." He boasts that "you can take every shooter in this entire generation on the Xbox 360, all of the weapons that every one of them has, add them all together and this game has more – two orders of magnitude more."
Thousands upon thousands of barrels, grips, knife attachments, ammo, and clips are mixed and matched resulting in over 500,000 unique weapons. "There are a lot of strong checks and balances," says director Matthew Armstrong. "It's very procedural as opposed to completely random. These guns are being built intelligently." Every gun will have a unique name that suits what it does and its own mix of sounds, including reload and fire noises.
We saw a ridiculous amount of guns, but perhaps the strangest was a revolver that fired shotgun shells. Gearbox is constantly surprised with what the system comes up with. They've seen rifles shoot everything from homing darts to rockets. "One of the guns tracks onto something and locks, and after three seconds [the target] suddenly explodes," Armstrong says.
Even though guns are the focus of Borderlands, items and armor tally up to a half million as well. Every piece of armor alters your appearance in a different way, including a custom accessory type that's specific to each of the three main characters. Additionally, you'll need shields, energy generators, storage decks, and glove microchips that allow you to program grenades to do many strange things like track vehicles, steal health, and rain down fiery death from above.
Of course, players can choose to take all of the loot for themselves or they can share with up to three friends in full on and offline co-op. Basically, one player will start up a game and the remaining players will visit that world with their persistent characters. All loot and leveling will be reflected when the visiting characters return to their own game. But with only three different characters, how will the game support a four-player mode? "Early on we had a very strong discussion [on whether] we should limit this to three character co-op and say you pick one of these characters," Armstrong says. "Except if I talk to Simon and say I'm playing this new game and it's great, and he says 'Oh s---, I'm playing that game, too.' 'Great, I'm playing as the soldier.' 'Oh, then we can't play together.' That's awful. The fact is, fundamentally, we want a fun game and a lot of things we'll bend down for fun."
Even though it's possible to have four Liliths running around in a party, it may not be the most effective way to play. All three characters have unique focus skills that are meant to complement each other. Armstrong points out that you could have a bunch of Rolands with health regeneration skills maxed, but you're going to wish someone had ammo-generating skills once you run out of bullets. Even if there are some repeated characters in your party, however, everyone will be wearing different armor and helmets anyway, so it's not like you'll have to worry much about the clone trooper effect.
Even if you don't have any friends, you don't necessarily have to go it alone. A.I. allies will crop up from time to time to give you a hand if you'd like. Depending on the mission ahead, players can select from among a medic, sniper, or gunner for support, in addition to the other two main characters. Squad commands are simple: "stay close," "stay far," and "stay here." Allies will wait for you to shoot first before they attack or they will return fire if shot at, so you shouldn't have to worry about them broadcasting your position. You can also equip them with weapons and gear and decide how they'll level up. "We're building this game from the start as a co-op game that you can play by yourself," Armstrong says.
After several of the choicest goods are raided from treasure chests and fallen bandits, it's time to spend the skill points received from leveling up. Players can choose to increase any number of stats like health and ammo capacity, dash speed, jump distance, accuracy, or critical hit damage (a.k.a. headshots). Outside of these general boosts, each character also has three unique focus skill trees to develop.
With cesium charges in hand, Roland activates the transporter found in one of the bunkers to get his reward from the shopkeeper. A vast network of transporters will be scattered all throughout Pandora to make traversing areas you've already visited that much simpler. When venturing out to new territory, however, the best way to travel is by snagging a vehicle.
Roland and Mordecai hop in a desert buggy and take off in the direction of the tracking signal. Upon entering a vehicle, the view pulls out to third-person and you can decide whether to man the wheel or turret while leaving the other role to the A.I. or a human player. Unlike most FPSs, you're not shoehorned into being the driver all of the time. Gearbox is putting a special focus on properly functioning driving A.I. "The A.I. actually understands the terrain that it's driving on as well as what type of things equal cool," says Hurley. We witnessed this A.I. in action in a wide-open desert area with plenty of bumps and hills. Mordecai provided a steady ride for aiming purposes, found some nice jumps, and managed to steer clear of any walls or head-on collisions with other vehicles. But if you'd like to take the wheel at any time you can swap roles at the press of a button. This goes for co-op as well. "In co-op mode if you both hit the melee button at the same time you can swap seats, which is nice and convenient if you like a little Mario Double Dash action in your first-person shooter," Armstrong jokes.
Early on, players will mostly have to rely on stealing bandit buggies, but eventually they will receive higher end models worth hanging on to. They can select the paint job or wheel type and, once again, choose from tens of thousands of turrets. We saw the basic rocket in action, and while it can take out buggies with one well-placed shot, rocket launchers take some practice to hit speeding rivals with. If you do connect, however, shards of metal and ragdoll bodies go flying in a blast of smoke and fire. Perhaps the most impressive display is the errant tires that will continue to bounce and roll until they hit a particularly sizeable bump or get run over.
Once the roaming bandits have been dealt with, Roland and Mordecai proceed towards the hive. Several aggressive rakk appear as you speed through the canyon. The hive must be close. But once you emerge from the canyon, it's clear that the rakk don't come from some nest stuck to a wall. A towering beast built like a trunkless elephant stomps through the plains as rakk squirm in and out through gaping holes on its back. We stare in awe for a brief moment before this living hive turns to notice us. It unleashes an earth-rumbling roar and a rush of rakk come streaming out.
Mordecai hits the gas as we unload turret fire into the cloud of screeching rakk that's quickly approaching. The flying beasts tear at us and attempt to flip our buggy. Once the skies are mostly clear, Mordecai guns it towards the hive. It rears up to stomp us underfoot, but we swerve to safety at the last second. We take aim at the hive's eyes on one side and they explode into a goopy mess. It roars again to summon another swarm, but this time a particularly nasty bull rakk leads the pack. It swoops in and smashes into the side of our buggy, sending it cartwheeling though the plains.
We land among some rocks, but Mordecai is left exposed without cover. We run out to blast away the bull rakk and drag our comrade back to shelter. After patching him up, we toss a MIRV grenade that fragments and creates a series of explosions. This distraction gives us just enough time to hustle up to higher ground. We pick off attacking rakk while Mordecai snipes out the hive's remaining eyes. Another roar and swarm cycle ensues. Mordecai whips out a couple of pistols to stave off the angry swarm and we ready our rocket launcher to take the hive down once and for all.
We won't spoil the rest of the boss fight, but we can say that it ends with ever-increasing intensity. Just imagine battling this thing alongside three friends and a couple of vehicles. Everyone can take on different roles in the battle according to the way they've customized their character up to that point.
"Every item, all of the gear you get, all of your skills, and all of your weapons add up to providing an experience that we hope, if you're smart about it, is going to support your style," Pitchford says. "We want the styles to be really different. We want everybody to play the game the way they want to play."
Pitchford wants to walk through a crowd of enemies like the Terminator, with bullets pinging off his character while he leisurely blows goons away. Armstrong prefers to snipe everyone from a mile away and stroll through a body-littered meadow.
"So you hear Matt [Armstrong] talk about the guy he wishes he was and the guy I wish I was and how different those guys are," Pitchford says. "If we were making Doom or Quake or Half-Life or a game where you're the character, and your identity's fixed by your capabilities and your weapons and the world's very confined by that, we'd have to argue about that and one of us would win or we'd compromise. But we don't have to in this game, because I can be my guy and balance my skills to be the way I want to play, and he can be his guy. We can both exist in this game and that was the goal. However I want to play my FPS, I can do that."
But perhaps the most intriguing element of Borderlands is the uncertainty inherent in having half a million guns. After all, Gearbox is mostly working on real-world guns right now. Once they throw in alien guns and all of the strange powers that go along with them, all bets are off. "It's going to freak us out," Pitchford says. "We have no idea. There's no possible way we could know all of the weapons and equipment that are capable of being generated. The only people who hate what we're doing is our test department."
"Someone's going to find the alien gun that does something ridiculous and amazing," says Armstrong. "My first reaction isn't going to be 'Oh, well that breaks the game.' My first reaction is going to be 'That is the game.' Looking for that gun is your goal."
For more on the development of Borderlands, check out our bonus features from our Borderlands 2 cover story, or below to see the original layout of our 2007 story.
Want to get real old school? Here is Game Informer's entire 2007 Borderlands cover story, in its original layout. Note: You can (and absolutely should) click on each spread for an enlarged version.