As we coast into the holiday season, it's safe to say that the idea of a new genre in video games is about as dead as the idea of coming to a bipartisan consensus on health care reform.
Perhaps that's why so many game developers are taking to building hybrid games, putting together two different genres already well-known in an attempt to disguise the fact that what you're playing really isn't anything new. You've got survival horror shooters like F.E.A.R 2 and your sandbox RTS games like Brutal Legend, which are successful to varying degrees, but it's the action RPG we're going to discuss today. And by discuss, I mean talk about how Gearbox's new Borderlands is somehow achingly familiar yet dynamically satisfying.
I don't quite know what it is about Borderlands that works, but it does, and does it well. It's as if someone took the most interesting parts of titles like Mass Effect, Fable 2 and Doom, put them in a blender and made a wholesome smoothie out of the mix.
I'll spare you a detailed rundown, only to say that the quasi-cel-shaded Mad Max landscape of Pandora is populated by one of (or all of, depending on multiplayer servers) four character classes: a soldier, an elemental, a hunter and a brute. The character levels up like an RPG, completes missions like an RPG and advances in the gameworld like an RPG. After that, thankfully, all the grind of an RPG is somehow smothered in relentless action that is more satisfying than any recent shooter, save Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (we'll be looking for that sequel next week).
And while I could waste all of your time discussing the various ins and outs of Borderlands, which hit the streets on Oct. 20, it's precisely the intangible fun of it all that struck me. I've never been a big RPG fan, but somehow — packed in among some 17 million different weapons and a multiplayer component that is fascinating useful and enjoyable — Gearbox found a way to make the RPG leveling grind a joy. Considering the anemic storyline, characters are memorable and objectives are simple to pursue.
It makes me think of the also-recently released Brutal Legend, which received a lot of hype for its marquee employment of Jack Black and a dozen monsters of rock. Maybe I'm just not that into metal, but the whole was not the sum of its parts, with sloppy combat, obscure objectives and incohesive story.
Or take into account any of a number of this year's genre mashups: Wolfenstein flounders from backtracking and stale execution; Red Faction ended up being Grand Theft Auto on Mars, sans the interesting personalities; and inFamous was really simply a high-powered Bionic Commando. The 1988 version.
Maybe it says something about the current gaming zeitgeist that most games still can't get past the most basic "rescue the princess/kill the aliens/avenge your family" formulas, but try to convince you they do (I imagine a giant EA logo with the word "HOPE" in front of it). But Borderlands proves that solid gameplay and interesting execution can develop the one thing our overnetworked and interface-challenged generation seems to lack: an attention span.
Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.