Tales From The Borderlands – Preview

Title   Tales From The Borderlands
Developer  Telltale Games
Publisher  Telltale Games
Platform  Windows PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Genre  Adventure
Release Date  Summer 2014
Official Site  http://www.telltalegames.com/talesfromtheborderlands/

Many moons ago, it looked like episodic gaming was going to be the next big thing. We imagined having all of our favourite titles delivered to us piecemeal, but at a lower overall cost. We conjured up images of being able to get everything quicker, rather than having to wait until the entire product was finished before we could play. Then Valve took forever to release their Half Life 2 expansions, and everyone seemed to sour on the idea in record time. Meanwhile, a company called Telltale Games had acquired the Sam and Max license and began making a series. While each season had an over-arching plot, the individual episodes would see the Freelance Police take on a new case that saw them travelling to new, exotic locales and putting right the many wrongs in the universe. Since then, they’ve sky-rocketed to fame with their takes on Jurassic Park, Back To The Future and, most notably, The Walking Dead.

Recently, however, they’ve decided to take a step back from adapting films and comics into episodic adventures, and have now cast their eye upon expanding the universes of other games. This summer, Telltale will be bringing us Tales From The Borderlands, a narrative experience set in the ruthless world of Pandora, and this time a bajillion guns just got replaced with moral choices and quick-time events.

The framing device is a slightly complicated one. Upon starting the game, we’re introduced to our ‘heroes’, Fiona and Rhys, who are both accosted by a masked gunman who demands their assistance in helping him activate a Vault Key. However, neither character can stand to be in the presence of the other, if their heated exchanges are anything to go by. From here the story rewinds a year to mere moments after the credits have rolled on Borderlands 2. There’s a massive power struggle going on internally at Hyperion, and Rhys has found himself smack-dab in the middle of it.

With this in mind, we’re introduced to Vasquez – voiced by Patrick Warburton (Family Guy and The Emperor’s New Groove) – who’s just sniped a vital promotion ahead of Rhys, and is only too happy to brag about it. However, an opportunity for revenge arises when Vasquez takes a phone-call mid-meeting and inadvertently reveals that he’s looking to buy a Vault Key for a million dollars. Deciding to take revenge on his newly promoted frenemy, our ‘hero’ recruits the help of two of his co-workers to enact a plan to travel down to Pandora and take the artifact for themselves. Both Rhys and his friend Vaughn are complete strangers to Pandora, and this couldn’t be more apparent when, within minutes of landing on the planet, the skag hits the fan and they’re accosted by a horde of bandits and have to summon a Loader to bail them out. One intense fight scene, a negotiation with a man named August – played by Nolan North (he’s in everything) – later, and it soon transpires that the quest for the Vault Key is going to be a lot harder than initially thought.

As it’s a Telltale game, you’d be right to expect that there will be a fair few moral decisions that need to be made along the way, but not every choice will be as you’d expect. During the negotiation, the player will be given a dilemma – either let August walk away or fight him. If the latter idea is picked, Rhys will block his way, thrust his robotic arm through August and unclench it to reveal his still-beating heart. “Looks like he had a… change of heart” he quips, while a beautiful woman pulls his arm around her and Vaughn opens the briefcase and starts flicking dollar bills into the air.

Wait, that’s not how it happened!” shouts Fiona who, until this point, had been conspicuously absent in the story, and this is where the framing device gets a little more complicated. In essence, both Rhys and Fiona are respectively telling their own ‘Big Fish’ stories, meaning that each version is full of wild exaggeration, hyperbole and outright lies, and there’s no way to ever truly know how everything happened.

Although the preview didn’t really show anything of Fiona’s personality or how she’ll play, there was plenty of Rhys’ side to show that he’ll handle far differently from any Vault Hunters or Telltale characters so far. For one, he’s equipped with a cybernetic optical implant and a robotic arm, the former of which he can use to hack into certain machinery and download data, but it’s not too clear whether this will be a repeated mechanic, or one that was used solely in the opening moments.

The sequence that definitely felt like a one-off, and was a stand out moment during the preview, came when the player was able to summon a Loader to fight for them. It can be lightly customised before landing, but the set-up used in the demo came equipped with a shield and an array of rockets. From there, the player can then decide where to deploy it, with the ideal choice being on top of an attacking bandit, complete with a gory squish. The rest of the fight sequence was more than familiar to anyone who’s been through The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, thanks to the pseudo-quicktime events that require you to swipe or move the controller in a certain direction to keep the action moving along.

Borderlands aficionados will undoubtedly be pleased to note that there is looting. Before the preview was over, Rhys had been given a couple of moments in which to ransack the world of Pandora, with one of these actually tied into a moral choice. It seems like an odd decision to tie looting in with the morality system, but as the episodes progress you’ll be able to buy weapons to outfit your protagonists, so the amount of money you’ve stolen from corpses or crates will no doubt come in handy. It was also teased that weapons bought or acquired throughout this adventure could be transferred to other titles in the series, but no further information was given.

After seeing the first half of the first episode of the series, Tales From The Borderlands still feels like a collaboration that shouldn’t work. Borderlands is all about a ridiculous number of guns and things to point them at, and yet, it seems like Telltale are going to pull this off. Thanks to being given assets from 2K, the art style is identical to that of Borderlands, and in some places it honestly looks even prettier. The scenery and environments look fantastic, the characters are superbly detailed – it truly looks ‘the business’.

Meanwhile, the humour is rapid-fire, often hilarious, and with a great deal of character-driven laughs and slapstick thrown in for good measure. Not every joke will land, but it never feels like it’s trying too hard; instead it comes across as a logical extension of the comedy rife throughout the first two Borderlands titles. Meanwhile, some of the other dialogue choices aren’t about humour but deciding what kind of personality you want Rhys to have. During the preview, there was a great degree of emulation from our hero, as he repeatedly found himself oozing the same cocksure arrogance that made Handsome Jack such a compelling threat in Borderlands 2.

So what of the morality system? It doesn’t seem like there’s much to go on in that regard, and considering that Telltale love their choice-driven gameplay, this comes across as an odd candidate in theory. In practice, it’s going to be a difficult one to get right, especially as one of the dilemmas was ‘do you or do you not loot something in a Borderlands game?’. However, the saving grace might just be the highly-exaggerated storytelling, especially if the ending is significantly altered by how ridiculous and outlandish you make the ‘how we got here’ story.

In short, Tales From The Borderlands might be Telltale’s riskiest outing yet. It’s a single-player linear narrative-driven experience set in universe populated by co-op, action-heavy games where the order of the day is to have the coolest and most powerful guns possible. Yet, despite all this, it seems to work. It looks the business, I laughed more in the first half-hour than I did during most of Borderlands, and there’s plenty of mileage in the ‘Big Fish’ storytelling format, if early impressions are anything to go by. Consider me cautiously optimistic, but I think they might nail this.

Tales From The Borderlands is set to release in Summer, shortly after The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead Season 2 have wrapped up.

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