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Borderlands Legends imagines the franchise with fewer guns, less loot and more characters

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

One of this season's best selling franchises is getting an iOS spin-off.

Borderlands Legends, a single-player action game for iPhone and iPad, is intended to capture the essence of the Borderlands universe.

The game lacks some of the franchise's most beloved features — loot drops, for example, are limited to cash — but its creators might win over fans with a number of unusual hooks.

The game stars the four adventurers of the first Borderlands. It takes place between the original and this year's predecessor, Borderlands 2. In a twist exclusive to Legends, one player controls the entire quartet of renegades at the same time.

"We wanted to make sure people understood that this was still tied with the original game," James Lopez, Producer on Borderlands Legends at Gearbox Software, told Polygon, "and that these vault hunters were legendary as they opened up the vault (spoilers!) in the original game and this was a continuation of that game."

As Lopez infered, the game once again takes place on the fictional planet of Pandora, on which the team fights the psychopaths and critters that roam the land. Using touch commands, the player taps each hero to command them to attack enemies or support teammates.

Missions are set in static arenas and are viewed from the top-down perspective. Each mission contains numerous static battles, some of which have peripheral goals other than kill everything. In a demo, we were shown a mission in which the four fighters needed to protect a non-playable character. Borderlands Legends also includes boss fights. We were shown a particularly grueling battle against a Crimson Lance Devastator, a giant red mech that pulverized the gang in seconds.

Each hero has a unique set of abilities, activated by on-screen hot buttons. As in the other Borderlands games, spending experience unlocks different abilities from a skill tree. Ability options should be familiar to players of the original Borderlands, with Mordecai having Bloodwing, a lethal bird, and Brick having berserker rage, a summonable super human strength.

Each character also has unique support maneuvers, like the ability to heal, strengthen or shield a colleague.

Managing the on-screen action can be overwhelming, flipping through the four characters, each with their own abilities and maneuvers. The person operating the demo, who had had more time with game, was able to command the squad more efficiently, setting Mordecai to snipe from the perimeter, while dispersing health and shields between the other characters. When one hero went down, fighting for his life, the player would dispatch another hero to revive the the fallen soldier. The players fingers moved with the grace of a ninja. This is one of the later levels, he assured me.

The weapons that are at the heart of the Borderlands franchise have been slimmed down to one weapon-type per character. Lilith uses machine guns, for example, while Roland is a rifleman. Weapons are not dropped as loot, rather they are purchased in a pre-mission store, or at vending machines that appear sporadically between the stages of a mission.

"We really hope to reach our dedicated fans of the series, but also reach another audience that may not be totally in the know of the Borderlands universe."

The weapons still have unique ratings and effects, from explosive to corosive. Weapons in the store are randomized, making each visit a chance to find a particularly rare and helpful gun. The stores also carry shields and ability buffs.

When asked about these changes, like the new loot system, Lopez told Polygon, "We are really excited to see player feedback and adding extra lootables is something we may look into in the future."

Borderlands Legends looks like Borderlands, but the gameplay is, in many ways, a decided departure. A first-person role-playing shooter has been reimagined as a third-person action strategy game. All that genre talk is enough to scare off who Borderland Legends feels most geared towards: the app store surfing iOS gamer.

Borderlands Legends takes advantage of the tablet, making proper use of the touch surface, rather than shoehorning uncomfortable console controls. Developed by 2K China, who's responsible for the visually-impressive port of the NBA2K series, the game would be interesting with or without its franchise.

But will it appeal to the fans?

"We really hope to reach our dedicated fans of the series," Lopez said, "but also reach another audience that may not be totally in the know of the Borderlands universe. The mobile platform really invites a brand new audience to games and we are excited to introduce many of them to the badassness of Borderlands."

The next level of puzzles.

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