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Portabliss: Borderlands Legends (iOS)

Xav de Matos, @Xav

This is Portabliss, a column about downloadable games that can be played on the go.

Somewhere, at any given moment, I imagine the team at Gearbox is popping champagne and fiercely patting each other on the back after striking gold with Borderlands 2. Not only is the game a commercial success, but it's also a critical darling (read our review, for example!) – a far cry from the developer's previous major release.

After loads of DLC and the inevitable three-quel, where can Gearbox go to capitalize on the money train that is Borderlands? A jaunt over to Apple's explosive iOS platform sounds like a good fit, and publisher 2K Games along with developer 2K China have done just that. The idea of playing the "mini-game" version of Borderlands didn't interest me right away, but Borderlands Legends turns out to be a perfect fit for the series and brings the franchise full circle to one of its biggest comparative franchises, Diablo.

Gallery: Borderlands Legends | 5 Photos

If the typical reference-driven description of Borderlands is "first-person Diablo, with guns," Legends can be described as "Diablo, in an arena ... also with guns." Borderlands Legends is a mission-based, top-down arena game where you control all four heroes from the original Borderlands.

As enemies enter an area, you get each of your characters into a good position to take on the wave. Since each character wields vastly different weapons, the strategy is to keep them within range – presented by a bubble around the character – of the charging wave. Mordecai, with his powerful sniper rifle, can take shots from halfway across the map. Brick's proclivity for fisticuffs, meanwhile, requires him to be extraordinarily close to his aggressors.

An on-screen notification reveals the entry point for each wave as it enters, forcing players to juggle where each of the four characters are positioned. Moving them is simple enough: you can tap a character and then tap where you want them to hole up or you can drag your finger to the desired area on the map.

Much the same as it does on Legends' console and PC cousins, the world of Pandora can get brutal quickly. Enemies are relentless and become stronger and more deadly with each passing mission. You'll face-off against your fair share of skags (this is a Borderlands game, after all) but quickly you'll come across armed bandits and giant baddies. Legends also keeps things fresh by randomly generating pieces of each level.

Initially, I failed to manage spacing as enemies would charge my positioned characters and take them out. Though you can revive allies as they bleed out by positioning another character within their comrade's radius of despair, the trick is to get the four characters to take care of each other before they are screaming for help.

Each character features a unique utility that can buff an ally's abilities. Lilith, for example, can increase another character's movement speed, while Roland can regenerate an ailing buddy's hitpoints. The balance in combat is further controlled with special abilities tied to each character. Mordecai's trusted pet Bloodwing can be called in to attack enemies; Lilith can Phasewalk, increasing her speed and damage; Brick can activate a Berserk mode giving him health and fists of steel; and Roland can drop a turret to tear adversaries apart.

What works particularly well here are the ways you can customize abilities. Each character's ability has its own upgrade tree, giving you the chance to change its properties to fit with your style of play. Roland's turret can fire more shots, for example, or it can regenerate health for any allies standing near it.

Things get less impressive when it comes to some of the more basic systems of Borderlands. There are a ton of weapons, but they don't have the same star power here. Characters only carry a single firearm and, while each one looks a little different from the last, the small screen and distant perspective make them tiny and somewhat insignificant, failing to offer the same attachment players have to their favorite items in Borderlands 2. There's also a real missed opportunity in that the iOS title has no link to the console or PC game. You cannot unlock new content in Borderlands 2 by playing Legends – and we haven't heard if that's planned. Even a simple link to a Gearbox account to earn Shift Codes (or, more importantly, Golden Keys) would have made this title a no-brainer app for regular Pandora travelers.

Legends also does away with Borderlands more complex inventory system. Rather than mix items with various properties to create your own perfect soldiers, you pick the weapon and shield with the best core attributes: damage and accuracy for weapons, capacity and recharge rate for shields. Loot drops are also nonexistent, as enemies only leave behind money, which is used to purchase new weapons and items from a vending machine that refreshes items between missions. In a sense, loot itself still exists, but it doesn't offer the same incentive as it does in the console and PC game.

It goes without saying that directing a character to attack waves from a top-down perspective is very different than the more intimate act of firing at the enemies on your own. The iOS experience doesn't replicate the same excitement found in Borderlands 2, but it's still surprisingly addictive to battle through its hordes of enemies. Borderlands Legends is a different experience, but nonetheless a fun and beautiful one that I intend to keep playing between romps of loot gathering in Borderlands 2 on my PC.

This Portabliss is based on an iTunes Store download of Borderlands Legends, provided by 2K Games. Borderlands Legends is available now on iPad for $6.99 and on iPod/iPhone for $4.99.

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