Borderlands 2 keeps getting better every time we see it. Barely a fortnight after showing off a new build at E3 2012, Gearbox turned up in London with an even newer, shinier one that showed off those promised PC features and resolutions to advantage. It's as crisp and colourful as it is thoroughly badass, but it turns out that our hour spent exploring the town of Sanctuary, customising our characters and collecting crumpets for an insane thirteen year old demolitions expert didn't give us much time to marvel at the graphics.
Before we even had time to sit down, however, Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford had something new to show us. Borderlands 2 will feature a profile-specific metagame known as 'Badass Rankings,' which effectively allows players to level up right along with their characters. Everything you do, every challenge you complete, will gradually unlock Badass Ranks linked to your player profile - and in turn provides persistent stat boosts that will affect all of your classes regardless of their level. There's no Badass Rank level cap, so even players who've sunk hundreds of hours into the game and completed the campaign countless times will still be able to work towards becoming the ultimate Borderlands 2 player on the leaderboards. If you thought the original Borderlands was addictive, you ain't seen nothing yet.
Handsome Jack and his Hyperion corporation may have assumed dominance over Pandora (thanks mainly to their advanced repurposed technology and looming moon base), but the natives are getting restless. An armed resistance opposes the charismatic megalomaniac at every turn, led by none other than Roland, the soldier from the original game. Helped by Lillith and Mordekai, these so-called Crimson Raiders hunker down in the humble town of Sanctuary, which players will call home for much of the adventure.
Please be aware that the following preview contains some spoilers and so many crunk crumpets that it's going to be a crumpocalpse. Tiny Tina's words, not mine.
Sanctuary is a much more lively and bustling place than the ramshackle dusty hovels we're used to. The blue-tinged streets throng with ornery inhabitants, all of whom have something sarcastic or hilariously referential to say, while buildings and shops are packed with familiar faces. Doctor Zed runs the town's clinic, asking you to 'assist' in surgery by smacking a Hyperion spy around on his operating table. What Hippocratic oath? Markus' shop offers not just vending machines, but a full firing range to try out new weapons and test experimental elemental Maliwan weaponry for him as a favour. With captured bandits instead of targets, naturally. Insane scientist Tannis can refine raw Eridian shards for you, providing powerful new artefacts to equip. And, not to be outdone, Claptrap is riding high on new delusions of power, challenging his "minions" to take part in a massive multi-part sidequest (including collecting rocks, killing the Destroyer Of Worlds and dancing to the beat) that predictably falls flat when players discover the quest reward before even leaving the town: a communal locker that can be used to store and share weapons and items between party members. Gearbox promise that Borderlands 2 will be stuffed with subquests and optional objectives, and true to their word, practically everyone had something for us to do.
We've already covered Borderlands 2's expanded skill system and four new classes - Gunzerker, Siren, Commando and Assassin - in great detail during previous previews, but up until now, Gearbox has been somewhat cagey about the new customisation system. Approaching a new customisation console will allow us to equip our characters with a selection of unlockable outfits, skins and facial types, including an epic Dwarven braided beard for the Gunzerker and an eyepatch for the Axton. Players will be able to stamp their own identity onto their avatars, helped by grenades and class mods actually being directly represented on their models.
We had bigger fish to fry, however. Talking to Roland revealed that Handsome Jack was hot on the heels of resurrecting an ancient Eridian warrior and using its power to crush the resistance, so we had to act fast. A train heist was in order, but to derail the locomotive, we'd need to locate and secure the services of a dangerous ordnance and demolitions expert first.
Leaving Sanctuary behind, I equipped Axton with a fetching white outfit and set out into the Arctic Tundra, which one again demonstrated Gearbox's commitment to providing a more varied and engaging visual experience with Borderlands 2. This environment looks different depending on when you enter it, with a stark white and blue night-time giving way to glorious red and orange sunbursts in the day time. After waking up the hungover Hunter Mordekai by setting some Varkid alight (you can read more about these menacing insectoid scavengers here), he pointed us in the direction of the explosives expert, who turned out to be quite different from anything we expected.
Tiny Tina will fit right in with the rest of the whacked-out Borderlands cast. She's a bizarre mix of thirteen-year-old innocence and profanity-laden cynicism, being irrevocably warped by her parents' death and having to live alone in the harsh Pandoran wastes. Seeing her merrily sing and dance around a captured psycho strapped with dynamite, singing "pop goes the bandit!" as the pushes the plunger, is jarringly hilarious, especially when you notice that she's wearing a bloodied mask like some youngers would wear a Hello Kitty barrette. Upon hearing my request, she gladly offered to help... but there's always a catch.
See, Tina was planning a tea party. The table was set, cutlery was out and nameplates were written. Princess Fluffybutt was invited. Sir Reginald Bartleby had a place set for him. And the seat of honour was reserved for "the bastard who killed my parents." It was clear that this seemingly innocent afternoon gathering had a more sinister motive, but there was little time to ponder this worrying revelation since Tina tasked the vault hunters with rounding up the guests.
I was also instructed to find crumpets, which are a core component of any worthwhile tea party. "Crumpets are crunk," she informed me. "I'm gonna eat so many crumpets that it's going to be a crumpocalypse." It's hard to argue with that.
Sir Reginald Bartleby was apparently attending the stuffy Buzzard Academy, which trains prospective aerial aces to become daredevil pilots. As well as encountering heavy resistance from Varkids and ground forces, the skies thronged with Buzzard attack planes, which circle players and bombard them from unsuspecting angles. As we've discussed previously, Borderlands 2 will be a much more three-dimensional affair than its predecessor, forcing players to continually switch up their tactics and work together to defend against assaults from above and below. Since I was playing as Axton, my rocket-equipped turret quickly earned its skill points, Upon fighting my way to the back of the base, it became apparent that Sir Reginald was in fact a tiny Varkid trapped in a bell jar, onto which an enormous fake moustache, monocle and top hat were affixed at jaunty angles. His mother, apparently called Madame Bartleby, turned out to be an enormous Varkid Queen, providing a stern airborne challenge. A little more adventuring yielded Princess Fluffybutt, an adorable doll whose head was replaced by a hand grenade.
I then located the crumpets. Never mind the potential hygeine issues, because they're the most beautifully-rendered crumpets in videogame history. So crispy and fluffy. Piping hot. It's enough to make you hungry. Did I mention that I like crumpets?
Once safely back at base, Tina introduced us to one of Borderlands 2's new mission types: failable objectives. Certain quests can be attemped an infinite number of times until they're completed, in this case, luring a bandit named Flesh-Stick to the tea party without killing him. This took a couple of attempts (the urge to murder him proved too strong, and my rockets' splash damage too large), but doing so allowed the 'guest of honour' to take his rightful place at the horrifying tea party. As Tiny Tina set about avenging her parents with many thousands of volts, the vault hunters were forced to defend the bombmaker's headquarters from waves of bandit reinforcements, including hulking Goliaths who could be mutated into indiscrimately-attacking 'Raging' versions by beheading them. All four classes will have a role to play here: Axton can lock down the entrance with his turret, Maya will phaselock priority targets to take them out of play, Zer0 can delight in silently assassinating badass units and Salvador... well, he'll shoot stuff. Followed by flipping enemies 'the bird' with both hands as part of his aggro-attracting Come At Me Bro! class skill.
My latest Borderlands 2 escapade at an end, I was able to make a couple of key observations. Firstly, Gearbox is set to improve on every single aspect of the Borderlands experence: combat, pacing, graphics, characters, late-game content, humour, boomsticks and the sheer scope of its ambition. Every day without Borderlands 2 is becoming increasingly difficult to bear, impartiality be damned.
But more importantly, more profoundly, Borderlands 2 has the most delicious crumpets ever, of all time. It's the crump dump. You heard it here first.
Borderlands 2 is slated for a September 21st launch on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. Why not check out our two-part Borderlands 2 hands-on preview, interview with art director Kevin Duc and E3 2012 Assassin/Commando preview for more details?