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Borderlands, the new game from Gearbox Software, is based on a simple but inspired elevator pitch: it’s “Diablo with guns”, an attempt to craft a cooperative role-playing shooter that offers the best of both worlds.

Set on a distant planet called Pandora, Borderlands is about four mercenaries out to find a legendary vault that is thought to contain a massive store of alien artefacts and technology.

Playing one of these characters, you’ll spend your time killing off as many bandits and monsters as possible as you complete quests and work your way to the vault. This will allow you to earn experience points, level up and loot their still-warm bodies for equipment that will help you to kill off more powerful beasties bearing even more valuable treasure.

It’s the same simple and devilishly addictive formula that has allowed Blizzard to make billions of dollars off the back of Diablo and World of Warcraft. Borderlands does an admirable job of walking the line between role-playing game (RPG) and first-person shooter (FPS).

Though Borderlands doesn’t offer quite as much depth in its choice of character skills and statistics as a thoroughbred RPG, there are enough variables to tinker with to satisfy most players. The FPS mechanics, bearing the stamp of Gearbox’s experience in the shooter market, are equally tight.

Borderlands is fun played as a single-player game, but really shines when more players are thrown into the mix through split-screen (on consoles) and online cooperative play. As more players are added to the game, the toughness of the monsters they face ramps up, as does the quality of the loot. Players can aid each other in a number of ways — for example, by helping a wounded comrade back onto his feet.

Each of the four characters has a set of specialised skills and abilities that interlock nicely, though Borderlands allows any mix of characters in a multiplayer game. For example, the soldier can deploy a viciously effective turret while the hunter can set a deadly pet called the Bloodwing on enemies.

The watchword for Borderlands is accessibility. It pares back nearly all of the travel time, narrative and exploration one might expect in a game like Fallout 3 in favour of keeping the player in the action at all times.

A fast-travel system and a selection of vehicles make it simple to sign up for quests and then head to the locations where they take place. Most quests can easily be completed in the space of 15 to 20 minutes, so it’s a perfect game for those that can only afford the time for a few short gaming sessions a week.

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It’s also a game that rewards players more than it punishes them. The penalty for death — the loss of some of the money your character is carrying — is light in the context of the game.

Generous checkpoints mean that you’ll seldom need to re-do a task or quest that you have already completed.

Most players will take about 20 hours to complete Borderlands if they complete all of the quests on offer. Once you’ve finished your first playthrough, you have the option of using your levelled-up and kitted-out character to restart the game with more powerful adversaries and the promise of even more deadly guns to be looted.

Borderlands is one of the most stylish games I’ve laid my eyes on this year. Gearbox’s decision deep into the game’s development to switch from a gritty, realistic art style to cell-shaded animation (a technique that makes computer graphics look hand drawn) was an inspired one.

The earth-toned comic book visuals set the game apart from the myriad shooters to hit the market this year. Borderlands’ frame-rate holds well however many monsters the game is throwing at the player, though there is some of the texture pop-in that mars so many other games that are also based on the Unreal Engine.

Borderlands is one of the most pleasant gaming surprises of 2009. Though it has arrived with little fanfare in comparison to the likes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Halo 3: ODST, it’s a polished and addictive game that will fill at least some of the time until Diablo 3 arrives.  — Lance Harris, TechCentral

  • Reviewed on Xbox 360. Also available on Windows PC and PlayStation 3

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