Borderlands Legends Hands-on Preview -- Pocket-Sized Vault HuntingBy Adam Rosenberg - Posted Oct 29, 2012
Borderlands Legends promises much, but can it deliver? The iOS-exclusive steps away from the first-person shooter mayhem in favor of a real-time strategy hybrid that is more friendly to a touchscreen interface, but it is otherwise Borderlands. Action skills, vending machines, skags, color-coded rarity ratings, and all.
Legends is the product of a development collaboration between 2K China, known for the recent mobile release NBA 2K Everywhere, and franchise creator Gearbox Software, which provided oversight on the project. It's a standalone game with a loose story that stands apart from the events of Borderlands and Borderlands 2. You play as the original game's Vault Hunters--all four of them at the same time, in every mission--as you take on multiple waves of enemies on a series of single-screen maps.
This is fundamentally a real-time strategy game. A given encounter sees you tapping and dragging your finger on each Vault Hunter to move them around, set up attacks, and provide aid to the team using new Utility skills. The action moves quickly and never pauses. Your four characters attack on their own whenever an enemy steps into the circle denoting their weapon's range, but you're also able to hand out individual orders at any time.
Here's how it works:
Tapping on any of the four Vault Hunters selects that character, with unlocked action skills--there are three in all for each--appearing as touch-based buttons at the top-right corner of the screen. No matter who you're controlling, there are three basic orders you can give out (not including Action Skills). Tap or swipe to an unoccupied location to move the selected character there. Tap or swipe to an enemy to attack that enemy. Tap or swipe to an ally to use your Utility skill.
The abilities of the four Vault Hunters should be familiar to anyone who played the first Borderlands. Brick, Lilith, Mordecai, and Roland all carry over a slightly revised version of their associated from the console game and each eventually unlocks to additional skills on a tree that works just as it does in the main games. While the overall setup is similar, there are a few noticeable differences that are unique to Legends.
The most obvious is the new Utility skill, complete with its own equipment slot that you can purchase new upgrades for. Utility skills are a set quantity, unique to each character. Brick boosts the shield of a chosen ally, Lilith offers a speed enhancement, Mordecai bestows a damage boost, and Roland heals.
Weapons in Legends are also specific to each character--shotguns for Brick, SMGs for Lilith, sniper rifles for Mordecai, and combat rifles for Roland--and you can only purchase them from between-mission and mid-mission vending machines. Downed enemies drop cash, but no gear. Other than that, the normal Borderlands rules apply. The color-coding on each piece of gear's name helps you to determine its rarity (white-green-blue-purple), and the best stuff tends to include some sort of elemental effect.
The first thing I noticed during my hands-on demo with Borderlands Legends is how faithful the game's look is to its big-budget kin. You view the world from an angled top-down perspective, but the characters, enemies, and environments are all immediately recognizable. The fancier bells and whistles are unsurprisingly toned down somewhat, but this Pandora certainly feels like the Pandora we know.
As far as the gameplay goes, I'm not sure how I feel about it. The Borderlands framework that wraps around everything is great, but the moment-to-moment action I sampled during my preview is best described in a single word: chaotic. It's tough to keep track of everything that's happening on the screen, especially during a mission's later waves when the challenge starts to kick up.
I blame some of this on the learning curve. The preview threw me into a later section of the game, with all four characters at level 16 or higher. Even if you're completely familiar with each Vault Hunter's Action Skill after Borderlands, there are still two new ones per character to learn. I found myself frequently confused as I worked to manage those, along with the vital, support-oriented Utility skills.
I also place some of the blame on the controls, which did not feel as responsive as they could have. Characters will only follow the straight line that you draw; they won't path-find their way around objects in the world. If you want to maneuver around some piece of cover, for example, it'll take two separate move orders to get there.
More than that, the simple act of selecting a character and issuing some kind of order didn't always seem to work. This seemed to come up more when I used the "tap and drag" control method; targets wouldn't always be recognized when I swipe over to select them. The game isn't quite finished yet so there's still room for improvement, but it was definitely noticeable during the preview.
I'm excited to play more of Borderlands Legends. The flavor of the main series definitely carries over to the smaller touchscreen interface in 2K China's efforts. I'm not convinced that such a chaotic, busy game will be fun to play on an iPhone's screen, but it looks and feels great (barring the aforementioned issues) on an iPad. You'll be able to find out for yourself when Borderlands Legends hits the App Store on October 31, 2012.