Please release me: Borderlands and Bomberlands, Hook Champ and Earth Dragons

Were it any other week I might be lamenting the lack of high profile retail releases, but as it happens, both the release of a demo for Valve's upcoming Left 4 Dead 2 and one other game have been eating up nearly all my spare time (and a good deal of non-spare-time as well), that game being: Borderlands [Gearbox, Xbox 360/PS3/PC] Gearbox's promise to deliver the first person, dungeon crawling shooter that Hellgate: London was panned for falling short of appears to have gone without a hitch -- the result is one of the most compulsive plays I've accidentally fallen into since I first thought I'd see what this whole 'Fallout 3' deal was. Take that game and add in a dash of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (for its less overtly emphasized narrative structure, though its own barren post-apocalyptic world is more Mad Max wildstyle to the former's dreary Chernobyl hot zone) and you've got a game that's split into a series of "one more go" pursuits, as you push yourself past that next hill and then the next, hoping to stumble across that next, procedurally generated, best-gun-ever, which in turn leads you to pushing on to just see what that one is capable of.
Its best conceit so far, though? The one-two punch of its dynamic music that kicks in a tribal hum when you've clearly got yourself in over your head -- the perfect soundtrack to a hasty retreat to safer ground -- and Second Wind, a mechanic that gives you some 10-15 'posthumous' seconds to take down the enemy that 'killed' you, resulting in a quick boost of health and the chance to truly rescue yourself. The generated drama is as visceral as any I've played this year -- don't miss your chance to take it on for yourself. Hook Champ [Rocketcat Games, iPhone] Apart from spending time in Borderlands wilds, the other game burning up most of my time is Rocketcat's debut iPhone game Hook Champ. The easy and lazy description reads: Spelunky meets Bionic Commando, and for once maybe lazy says it best. Your only goal is to travel from one side of a cave to the other, snapping up coins along littered throughout its branched paths, with two hitches: 1.) your walking speed is fractional compared to your clip when you get a steady swing working, and 2.) that wouldn't be as much of an issue if you didn't have a razor-toothed demon slowly pursuing you from start to finish. Retro styled and far more complex than it first appears -- particularly when you start to spend your winnings upgrading and unlocking new items and powerups -- Hook Champ's a perfect example of the App Store's overlooked gems. Alice in Bomberland [Sonic Boom, iPhone] Alice in Bomberland is the first iPhone game to come from an indie dream team consisting of programmer and designer Chris DeLeon (creator of ngmoco's Topple gone indie post-Electronic Arts) and David Hellman (artist on Xbox 360 cult hit platformer Braid), and is quite what the name would lead you to believe: an explosive dodge-em-up set in Lewis Carroll's fantasy world. Why? It's not exactly clear, nor does it seem to matter: the Looking Glass world is rife with artifacts that translate perfectly into gameplay (think: eat me/drink me cakes and potions, and a cup of the Mad Hatters tea to crank up the speed), and DeLeon's provided a fantastic amount of variety across its nearly 50 levels. Get past the essential loneliness of a score-based game without any of the now seemingly ubiquitous social elements and you'll find one of the best App Store surprises of the month. Earth Dragon [Chaim Gingold, iPhone] In another former-EA-turned-indie move, Earth Dragon is the first full game from Chaim Gingold, former Maxis dev best known as the original prototyper and designer of what would become Spore's Creature Creator. A slender game that encourages break-time repeat play, the game makes full use of the iPhone's accelerometer to help fly (by 'flapping' the device itself) and tilt-guide your dragon through various challenges from coin- and princess-collecting to laying waste to the kingdom's strongholds. Built out of simple but tremendously expressive shapes, Gingold manages to capture the spirit of earth-shaking devastation with perfect-pitch in every frantic thumb-press. Arkedo Series - 01 JUMP [Arkedo, Xbox 360] Fresh off from creating one of the DS's most wildly original and stylized shooters (2008's Big Bang Mini, a neon- and flourescent-lit game of firework-flinging), France's Arkedo have set about to bring that hyper-style to the Xbox 360's Indies channel with a series of quickly produced downloadables based around one core theme. The first, JUMP is still the best (and shares some basic Pitfall-type influence with Hook Champ above) -- a simple but gorgeously neo-retro bomb-defusing and coin-collecting platformer. They've followed that up with tile-matching puzzle game SWAP, and promise six more in the near future -- more if the audience demands it, which they very well should.


  1. OK I don’t usually make this kind of dumnbass request – but does anyone know what the soundtrack is to the Borderlands vid?

    I and some friends are thoroughly addicted to BL and have a three xbox and TV setup in our living room. It’s toasty and saves on heating bills…kinda.

    1. The song in the vid is “no Heaven” by DJ Champion.
      There’s another great song during the intro to the game itself, Cage the Elephant’s “No rest for the Wicked”.

      Check them both out on the you-tubez

  2. I see Borderlands follows the old computer game / superhero team / children’s cartoon character format of:

    1 X Standard Size Muscular Serious Leader Type
    1 X Hulking Muscle-Bound Lunk
    1 X Skinny “Oddball” Outsider Guy
    1 X Sexy Pouty Skinny Leggy Booby Token Woman

    Come one computer design people – let’s mix things up a bit, shall we?

  3. In the same vein of Borderlands but closer to the Diablo/Rogue roots is Torchlight.

    It’s a Diablo clone with the pedigree to back it up (it was developed by the co-designers of Diablo and Diablo II). One particularly neat thing is the ability to find side dungeons via scrolls and quests. It goes a good way towards making the main dungeon more unique and lets you play in chunks if you’d like. Either way at $20 on the download service of your choice it’s hard to find a better value.

    1. I agree with Agies, Torchlight is definitely belongs among the other top time-demanding releases this week. So much great stuff came out in the last few days, it’s hard to know where to start. Although, that’s not a bad problem to have.

      1. Also: ZoneAlarm users actually make sure their firewall is currently running, and set it to “game mode”. Having it closed does not prevent it interfering.

        I properly forwarded my ports but was unable to host until I booted ZoneAlarm back up and set it to game mode.

  4. “without a hitch”? The Borderlands forums are filling up with PC owners who can’t get it to run (including *me*) and a long, long list of incredible game-breaking bugs that only a blind and incompetent QA process could have missed.

    I’m left wondering when I’ll be allowed to play this game I paid for.

  5. Borderlands looks great, but does it overcome the Fallout 3–clone pitfall? If Fallout 3 was Oblivion with guns, then is Borderlands just Fallout 3 with better guns and a nifty soundtrack? Is there more?

    1. Haven’t played it yet, but Borderlands is more of a shooter with RPG elements than an RPG with shooter elements. As far as I can tell the stats of your weapon determine how much damage you do, while your skill determines whether you hit or not.

      Despite having a similar setting, I think Borderlands is closer to Deus Ex than it is to Fallout 3.

    2. Borderlands is like vaguely like Fallout3, except fun*.

      *…with the notable exception of shitty online matchmaking. Of course, you occasionally catch a low-lag server that also has people on it that are playing the game as a team and a host that doesn’t switch missions before finishing the final step of the one you’re on and who doesn’t spontaneously quit on you (both freezing you out of the final hit of XP you earned), and you forget that it took ten tries to stumble upon it.

  6. Multiplayer on the PC is indeed unnecessarily difficult to get started. In order to host a game that people could actually join I had to set my comp to have a static IP, change my router settings so that it was a “DMZ”, forward a series of seemingly randomly chosen ports, and turn off my windows firewall. Luckily my friends don’t have to do the same to be able to join my game; only the host has to do it.

    In all fairness it is a very fun game. I haven’t personally experienced any bugs yet. And my internet seems to work a lot better now that I have a static IP.

    1. Just as long as you understand that now that your PC is in the dmz area of your router that it is WIDE OPEN TO THE INTERNET and not behind any firewall at all. If you’re ok with having yourself open to every hacker in the world… all the power to you my friend. Enjoy your game!

    2. Yeah, like Anonymous said, turning on DMZ isn’t a great idea. If you forward the correct ports (and I had to turn off my Windows firewall as well) you should be good.

  7. #1 – It’s “No Heaven” by DJ Champion. You need to get some Google-fu, it took me 5 seconds to find.

  8. Here’s a link to the actual theme song from the Borderlands opening cinematics…..

    Gearbox did a great job of selecting music for this games marketing (Canuck DJ Champion) and for the ingame audio.

  9. Borderlands is crazy brilliant. The Hellgate comparison is inevitable, but it’s equally fair to call it lowbrow Bioshock, or a blend of Left4Dead and WoW, or any number of things.

    The mad weapon randomness/awesomeness mixes it up and just about makes it impossible to plan the “best” build for your character. I went from thinking pistols were best, to sniper rifles, to shotguns, back to pistols, and now I’m on an SMG kick. I have one SMG that regenerates ammo and fires very slowly and precisely, and another that sprays lead like a firehose and shreds bandits in milliseconds. Probably with another couple hours’ playtime I’ll find a different weapon that’s even more ridiculous and will change my playstyle again.

  10. Fang Xianfu @7

    a) Thanks
    b) My google-fu is weak today. I burned it all out trying to figure the asnwer to a question Scalzi poised.

    We were trying to dicsuss the addictiveness of BL today – when it comes down to it, it is just a “Get quest, find/kill token, return quest” system; yet we can’t stop playing.

    The crux is possibly that we jumped straight in as co-op players, and we’re still only about 60% of the way through the game (We restarted a few times, various, odd reasons).

    The enjoyment of teamwork – the L4D elements mentioned, and the urge to slightly one up your friends with a particularily good sniper shot, or in my case a massive siren incendiary pulse (the Diabloesque my weapon is bigger than yours bit) just makes you want…one….more hour…

  11. @ arnodick:

    Man, if the price for not having to play on a DRM infested, copyright enforcement machine with limited controls options (hereafter referred to as a console), means that I have to go through a couple of extra steps in order to set up a server, then so be it. Anything is better than having to play on a machine that can only be upgraded by buying a brand new one every few years.

    People who play Modern Warfare on consoles can’t understand the big uproar about not having dedicated servers for PC platform for MW2. They can’t understand it because they don’t know how awesome it is and how the whole thing helps to keep your clan together and makes mods possible. But Infinity Ward wants to enhance our experience so that they can jam DLC down our throats to the tune of thirty dollars a pop. Trying to make the PC platform easy like consoles is not the way to go. You want easy, get a console. You want a game your way, on your terms, get a PC.

    1. “Man, if the price for not having to play on a DRM infested, copyright enforcement machine with limited controls options (hereafter referred to as a console), means that I have to go through a couple of extra steps in order to set up a server, then so be it.”

      Do you not play PC games? Most PC games have DRM and there have been plenty of examples of DRM on PC games screwing up people’s computers. If you’re going to use DRM as a comparison point, the PC has the worst history of it and a console has the smoothest implementation of it. It’s seamless on a console.

      “Anything is better than having to play on a machine that can only be upgraded by buying a brand new one every few years.”

      I think you have that reversed. Cost of gaming on a PC is way more than a console from a hardware perspective.

      Control system, free content (developer and community mods), and hosting flexibility are generally the areas where a PC wins over a console.

  12. @ pelrun. ‘Without a hitch’ might have been referring to a console version. Not to disparage but pc games dropping with bugs is hardly unique to Borderlands.

    I would recommend the game to anyone. I thought the weapon randomness would be an irritant, but Crashproof nails how this effects the game. It’s terrific.

    I’d agree with Agies that Borderlands is a shooter with RPG elements. Here ‘elements’ means inventory and stat management, not forking dialogues, plots or character development. I ducked Fallout in part because of disappointment with how Oblivion handled the role-playing elements of dialogue/plot/development, so while I chafe at the idea of BL as an rpg I think they were wise to shift the emphasis as they did.

    Plus the style of the game is !@#$ing gaw-geous. It’s like playing in a Gorillaz vid and keeps the tone of the game fun. This is a liberty Fallout couldn’t take because of it’s post-apocalyptic setting. Despite visual similarities, BL takes place on a distant planet so it’s more frontier exploration than lamenting the destruction of civilization.

    If you can play multiplayer, the game does a great job balancing foes whose numbers and stats boost in proportion to larger parties. The skill trees provide a really good teamwork encouraging framework, which I had not expected.

  13. Borderlands is a great game, but the PC “port” is severely lacking in terms of polish. I’ll parrot what other people said and that I had to setup my PC as a DMZ to be able to host games. Singleplayer is fairly boring, but three or four people blasting away is really what makes this game fun.

  14. The only thing I find lacking in Borderland is a bit of personality from the non player characters. Some voiceover plus more quest lines that makes you feel something for the NPCs would have been great. Fallout 3 did that better. But overall great game and I haven’t had any technical issues on my console.

  15. I haven’t received my copy yet. This talk of playing only in the DMZ isn’t great. Has anybody tried using GameRanger yet? Supposedly it eliminates the need for exposed ports.

  16. I tried GameRanger out and it seems to work great. All it requires is that UPnP be enabled on your router.

    It’s basically just a front end for hosting, finding and joining multiplayer games, like old school Gamespy. It actually seems to replace the terrible Gamespy network and friends system that is in place by default, and multiplayer games seem to run better in general. My conclusion is that the crappy Gamespy network thing they chose is terrible and stupid.

    Anyways, with GameRanger multiplayer hosting works without having to go through the whole DMZ and port forwarding thing, which is nice, because I was getting worried about vulnerability.

  17. Agreed Hadlock, the biggest issue I had with the PC version of Borderlands is the UI. The PC port needed smaller fonts with more on screen and quickbars for switching out weapons/shields/grenade and character mods.

  18. here’s why borderlands cannot possibly be the same pile of crap that is fallout 3 (and i say that as someone who waited eagerly for 10 years for a fallout sequel.)

    Borderlands uses Unreal Engine 3. Fallout used whatever oblivion used. That means that borderlands is running on a true FPS platform.

  19. I finished Borderlands last night, though the ending was just unbelievably disappointing. But I won’t drop any spoilers about what happens.

    I played through as a Hunter, and once I got Krum’s pistol, well that was basically the only gun I ever used for the rest of the game. Completely insane little pistol, worked great with a class modifier that gave me regenerating pistol ammo combined with throwing a bunch of skill points at rate of fire and pistol magazine size.

    Aside from the ending, I found the game incredibly fun, as well as being addictive on a scale I don’t think I’ve encountered ever before.

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