PAX Prime: Hands-On Preview of Tales from the Borderlands

By Published August 30, 2014 at 4:50 pm
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While walking out of the PAX Prime venue, I suddenly had a revelation about my demo with Telltale Games’ Tales from the Borderlands.

“Wait, these guys usually make dark games,” my internal voice informed me.

By “dark,” I mean that the studio behind The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us borrow from and expand upon thematically disturbing, gritty material. It’s surprising to me how well this studio -- in conjunction with Borderlands developer Gearbox Software -- have created a game that feels authentic to the Borderlands franchise. Borderlands’ wear-and-tear environment details and tongue-in-cheek humor shine through. That authenticity lends itself particularly well to a dialogue-driven experience that Borderlands 1 and 2 don’t weigh as heavily as gunplay, customization, and exploration. And it just may be enough to convince Borderlands fans to cross over to the Telltale style, and vice versa.

Here’s a recap of what I came across in my PAX Prime demo / preview with Tales from the Borderlands Director Nick Herman. 

And a quick note for anyone unfamiliar with Telltale Games: This studio has worked with iconic franchises such as the Sam & Max and Monkey Island series. More recently, they have perfected a cinematic experience for adventure gameplay with The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us.

Tales from the Borderlands is a unique brew of a cross-studio collaboration. On one side, you have an established, over-the-top, explorative first-person shooter, and on the other side, you have a story-driven studio that deals out action scenes as quick-time events. Telltale does not compromise its character development with constant, frenetic action, but it constructs the Borderlands universe so that the same attention to detail is always surrounding the player. The color palettes, post-apocalyptic detailing, and depictions of a faction-controlled wasteland are strikingly similar.

But as someone who journeyed through The Wolf Among Us, I can instantly tell that this is a Telltale game. The visual presentation has that Telltale graphic novel edge, not quite mirroring the cell-shaded-inspired Borderlands, but accommodating a story-driven game with character-emphasized scenes. Telltale’s animators put a lot of expression in their characters, from their body language to their fashion sense…and indeed, there are some head-turning appearances on Pandora. Best of all, each new principle character enters the scene by delivering a gripping one-liner, prompting the scene to pause and a stylistic banner announcing their name to play for a couple of seconds, just like other Borderlands titles. All in all, the universe feels right for the franchise, and for two studios typically creating different types of games, that’s worth remembering.

What sets apart Tales from the Borderlands from other Telltale games and Borderlands 1 & 2 is that we, the players, uncover the story from the perspective of two characters instead of one. My demo only featured Rhys’ account of a piece of the story, but by the time he got through, his foil Fiona – the other character who players assume – countered his recap by introducing her own. I don’t know how much they’ll oppose each other in the overall storyline – or how much a player can sabotage one character’s story – but it’s an exciting way to keep the player guessing as to what truly happened.

Rhys and Fiona are two intriguing characters who fit in well with the Borderlands universe. Fiona carries an understated intimidation with convincing dialogue, commanding the scene she appeared in during the demo; I could easily envision a character like her in a previous Borderlands game. Rhys is different, but in a way that opens up the universe’s personality. Working for Hyperion, a weapons conglomerate, he understands the business side of things but is hesitant to interact with Pandora’s inhabitants. His dialogue with Vaughn, a kind and supportive sidekick, carries weight from the get-go, as I began considering Vaughn’s well-being after just a few exchanges.

Interacting with characters well beyond the franchise’s quest giver limits is a perfect task for Telltale, but Tales from the Borderlands would not be a franchise-marked installment without borrowing from the core gameplay. As Director Nick Herman pointed out, some of the action scenes are a big step forward for his studio, but I found that they do a fairly fluid job of tying in core gameplay elements.

A clever way that Telltale quenches a fan’s guns-blazing thirst is through making use of Borderlands’ Loader Bot, a character-controlled entity capable of dispatching a pack of bandits. Here’s where the Borderlands gameplay elements start to emerge. Before an action scene, the player selects the Loader Bot’s weapons; I chose between a large shield and a minigun for my primary weapon, and for secondary weapon, I chose between a rocket launcher and grenades. My loadout reflected how the action scene played, so rather than fire directly back at enemies with a minigun, I opted for a shield that my Loader Bot used resourcefully.

tales-borderlands-1

Different quick-time moments correspond to how the Loader Bot uses its weapons. For example, one instance prompted me to align my cursor with three reticles so that I could fire my rockets. Toward the end of the action scene, I was prompted to make use out of my degrading weapons by optimizing them, combining them together to form a super weapon that could wipe out all remaining enemies in one blow. I’m hoping that Telltale gives some more customization options at this point so that the Loading Bot’s finishing moves can vary depending on the player’s choice.

Tales from the Borderlands has already got the Telltale and Borderlands fan in me grinning. Unlike games that start with new gameplay mechanics and become more mainstream in their sequels, Tales takes the franchise into a new direction that, while risky on the surface, delivers promisingly thus far. The characters we’ve come to love in the first two games finally influence how the player shapes the story. Plus it’s worth another trip to Pandora to get some laughs. I actually threw Herman off guard by choosing an unpopular option for the demo’s final decision, but the signature Telltale cliffhanger ending it produced gave me no sense of regret. A heads-up to those who play this game later on: In Episode 1, let Rhys “Blow His Mind” to get the key.

As a little side note, Telltale recruited one of its best-known voice actors who last worked with them on Poker Night 2. Patrick Wharburton, the voice of Joe Swanson on Family Guy and Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove, lends his voice to Rhys’ Hyperion boss, Vasquez. This is just one example of the game’s high-caliber voice talent.

Episode 1 will release this fall on multiple platforms. Telltale has not confirmed the number of episodes, but with each season of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us producing five episodes, Telltale might have a formula worth not stirring anymore.

- Nick "stuBEEF" Pinkerton.

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