When a developer whoops with surprise at his own game, it's usually a good sign. Randy Pitchford's obvious excitement at stumbling upon a gun that fires electric razorblades during a demonstration suggests that Borderlands really could deliver on its promise of procedurally generated gaming.
Since the graphical overhaul that turned this post-apocalyptic co-op shooter-cum-RPG into a concept-art-styled beauty, a new spirit of fun seems to have invaded the whole project. What was once a troublingly ordinary-looking shooter has become enlivened by a pervading silliness, from its excited proclamations declaring you've managed to "LEVEL UP!" to the inspired decision to rename the elite enemies.
You pick one of four characters, and the other three join you either as NPCs or, ideally, played by your good buddies in co-op. All four are Vault Hunters - adventurers searching for the mythical Vault of alien technology that could revitalise society. Along the way, in familiar RPG fashion, are quests and side quests, most of which will focus on shooting stuff to bits.
That's the distinct difference of Borderlands. While there are quite a few action RPGs about, the hierarchy tends to be RPG first, gun fights second. Here it's the other way around, with Gearbox using their years of FPS experience to great effect. Pitchford explains that while he loved Fallout 3, he found the combat limited, and he desperately wanted to play it with friends. Borderlands appears to be those desires realised.
That's not to say there isn't a great deal of RPG fun to be had. Each character can be rolled and built to suit your approach. If you play as Brick, the tank class, there are three skill trees for him to climb, letting you focus on brawling, tanking or blasting. You've also got a soldier in the form of Mordecai, magic-using siren Lilith, and healing support class Roland.
It's going to be drop-in-drop-out co-op, where you can leap into your chum's game with your own character at any point. You'll be playing the quests and stories of your host's game, but your own character's levelling and progress will persist when you return to your own version of the world. The ideal way to play seems to be to organise yourself with three friends, and promise not to sneak off and play without each other.
As mentioned, the graphic-novel look has inspired other outlandish, cartoonish choices. Pitchford was surprised by his own game because it's capable of generating half a million different weapons. By mixing and matching huge numbers of variables, including such special effects as electricity, fire and acid, they're able to be consistently interesting. On top of which, you can add to them and improve them, creating something unique to you. Weapon quality is colour-coded, in a style familiar to those who know their MMO lore: white for standard, yellow and blue for special, purple for ultimate loot.
When asked if this procedural generation might lead to players being given overly-powerful weapons early in the game, Pitchford grins. "Yes. Doesn't that sound good?" Fun is certainly being put ahead of finicky balancing.
Which brings us back to the naming of those boss enemies. They're called 'Badass'. Skags, for instance, are deer-cum-leopard beasts. A badass Skag breathes fire. While on fire. Badass Spider Ants - that's one bloody big insectoid/arachnid stack of chitin.
We can't wait to get our hands on Borderlands. It just looks so much damned fun, with a side order of extra fun, covered in lashings of fun. Of course, we've still no clue about the nature of the missions, nor indeed if the story will be any good. But then there's the shooting-electric-razorblade guns, you see.