Matt Cabral
October 25, 2012 AT 01:36 PM EDT

The first thing that hit me in Borderlands Legends — the upcoming iOS game based on the popular shoot-and-loot franchise — wasn’t a face full of buckshot, but its eye-popping visuals. Adopting the same artistic approach as its console counterparts, Legends sports a vibrant, stylized look that’s nearly indistinguishable from its big brothers. Small touches, such as detail-drenched character models and crackling fire effects, further complement the familiar presentation.

Looks are pretty much all Legends has in common with its predecessors, though, as its gameplay signifies a drastic departure from the series’ defining open-world first-person shooting. Viewed from a top-down perspective, each level unfolds in a small, arena-like battlefield where the original Borderlands‘ vault hunters — Brick, Lilith, Mordecai, and Roland — are tasked with fending off hordes of ugly foes. Missions contain multiple, increasingly difficult levels, each with four waves of baddies to unload on.

More objective-based than story-driven, missions include a clear-cut goal; during my demo, for example, I was required to destroy three crates of Marcus bobbleheads — a cool call-out fans will appreciate. While reducing the crates to rubble doesn’t pose much of a problem, staying alive while attempting to do so is another story. Enemies approach from all sides and utilize different attack patterns. It isn’t uncommon, say, to have Skags nipping at my heels even as Bandits pepper me from afar with bullets.

Thankfully, Legends evens the odds by putting players behind the ass-kicking arsenals of all four protagonists. Simultaneously controlling the quartet is a delicate balancing act favoring thoughtful strategy over ammo clip-emptying abandon. Characters fire weapons automatically, so it’s up to the player to ensure they’re in the right spot to get a bead on the bad guys. In terms of controls, this means tapping characters and drawing a destination path, or touching them and then the enemy the player wants them to focus on. Legends also encourages the use of cover, littering each level with waste-high defenses to hunker down behind.

As important as getting Pandora’s most-wanted into proper position is knowing when to unleash their action skills and utilities. The former will be familiar to anyone who’s previously painted Pandora in enemy entrails. Roland deploys his auto-turret, Mordecai conjures Bloodwing to do his bidding, Lilith Phasewalks, and Brick lets his fists fly. Because all four characters are filling the screen simultaneously, though, these table-turners can all be triggered together. Pulling this off is no easy task, as each action skill runs on a cool-down cycle. However, it’s worth carefully managing their meters just to witness Roland’s turret and Mordecai’s angry bird transform battlefields into graveyards.

An additional strategic element is layered in via the aforementioned utilities. Each character possesses a specific one of these that can buff another’s performance. Roland, for example, can grant a teammate a health boost, while Mordecai can increase their damage output. Granting these utilities is as simple as tracing a line from one character to another. Of course, if all these enemy-thwarting tricks fail, there’s still the “second wind” mechanic to fall back on. As with other Borderlands’ entries, this life-saving feature allows a character to return from the brink of death if they can score a kill before gasping their last breath.

While Legends’ strategic focus engages the mind more than the trigger finger, it doesn’t abandon the series’ addiction-amping looting-and-leveling structure. Skill points are earned, characters level-up, and corpses are robbed, but everything’s a bit more streamlined for this bite-sized Borderlands. Attributed points pave a path down skill trees, unlocking and upgrading new goodies as they go. Additionally, only money — not guns — can be looted from downed enemies; players are collecting coin for all characters, though, so there’s always plenty to spend at Marcus’ vending machines on weapons and shields. Guns and gear can be purchased before, after, or at a mid-mission point, and a color-coded system rates the rarity of each item.

My only real issue during my demo of Legends was the occasional chaos that clutters the screen. Controlling all four characters — and their various skills and utilities — while enemies rush from all sides is a bit overwhelming. That said, a 30-minute demo probably isn’t nearly enough time to master the strategic nuances that could potentially complement, rather than confound, the experience. Still, I strongly recommend playing this one on an iPad, as I can’t imagine Legend’s busy battlefields being anything but a blur on the iPhone’s comparatively tiny display. Small gripes aside, I generally had a finger-blistering blast with Legends and look forward to looting, leveling and letting loose on more waves of mutants and maniacs when the title lands next week.

Read more:

‘Borderlands’ first look

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