Robots, Varkids, Skags & Bulldozers
In the first part of our Borderlands 2 preview, we covered the Siren's deadly new class skills, the revamped interface and the all-important boomsticks. However, our hands-on time with Gearbox's upcoming sequel introduced us to Pandora's new and deadly selection of foes and natural hazards - running the gamut from cutting edge robots to disgusting polyp-extruding Varkid. When we last left our heroes (or more accurately, me playing as the Siren Maya backed up by a Gunzerker), the veteran Hunter Mordekai tasked us with rescuing his beloved pet Bloodwing from the clutches of Handsome Jack's Hyperion Corporation.
Bloodwing was secreted away in a fortified wildlife reserve, but to get there, we had to fight our way through a Hyperion staging area. The industrial titan boasts a range of re-purposed mining robots deployed from their moon base headquarters, with several different variants that pose unique challenges when encountered in a group. Menacing yellow PWR Loaders (somewhat obviously) resemble automated Power Loaders from Aliens, but sport wicked helicopter-like blades on each arm that spin at massive speeds, deflecting incoming firepower unless you're able to flank or Phaselock them during their slow yet relentless advance.
In contrast, agile GUN Loaders swap blades for powerful cannons; leaping around the environments to secure lofty vantage points and surround the party. As discussed previously, Borderlands 2's AI is much more ruthless and canny than ever before, which requires players to think in three dimensions to avoid being overwhelmed. Which is easier said than done when suicidal EXP loaders attempt to charge players and detonate their vulnerable warheads at point-blank range.
Most terrifying of all, though, were the BUL Loaders. These durable melee combatants pack a punch at close range, but can transform into an actual bulldozer in order to close the gap at breathtaking speed. Getting caught in their rush attack is a surefire way to get taken out of action quickly, with the Siren's Phaselock skill and copious strafing becoming first order strategies.
Targeting specific body parts allowed us to cripple the Loaders, blowing off their legs and forcing them to grub around on the floor. However, hovering engineering drones are able to repair and augment damaged troops, as are human Combat Engineers. In an interesting twist, we were tasked with crippling a certain number of loaders without killing them outright in order to trick Hyperion into dispatching a repair squad (thus opening the front door in the process), demonstrating that Gearbox are willing to offer much more than standard 'go to point A, kill enemy B' objectives this time around. Airborne engineers can also bombard players with lightning-fast hit & run attacks, with Badass versions packing electric elemental damage that shreds shields in seconds. Dealing with such a reckless variety of different opponents simultaneously proved to be more intense and challenging than the majority of encounters from the original game, and twice as unpredictable.
After a grueling protracted battle against these mechanised goons, Handsome Jack personally welcomed us to the wildlife reserve - which was the perfect excuse to check out the local flora and fauna. Pandora is a truly hostile natural environment, and the variety of indigenous enemies has been thoroughly ramped up in Borderlands 2. We were quickly introduced to the Stalkers: disgusting reptilian creatures who can fling needle-like projectiles from a distance or close in for lightning fast assaults depending on the situation. Their ability to become invisble for short periods made them powerful and unpredictable opponents, featuring advanced AI that allowed them to hunt in packs, retreat when appropriate or flank us with impunity.
No Borderlands game would be complete without Skags, the ferocious canine critters. They're much more capable than you might remember, however, since they now have the ability to leap enormous vertical distances and scale previously-impassable walls. Elevated platforms you thought were safe can teem with Skag reinforcements within seconds, meaning that nowhere is safe from their snarling, slavering brutality. New variants such as the disgusting Puker Skag (use your imagination) and elementally-imbued minibosses force players to switch up their firepower (and evade like crazy).
After facing untold legions of these foes and penetrating the deepest recesses of the wildlife park, our labours were for naught. As is so often the case, our princess was in another castle - or more accurately, Handsome Jack had moved Bloodwing before we'd even arrived. A fade to black was our sole reward, but as mentioned, we were left wanting more rather than disappointed.
Which was convenient, because Gearbox had another new level lined up. In stark contrast to the green grass and gunmetal prefabs of the wildlife reserve, our second session took us to a disgusting network of caverns set in a toxic, polluted wasteland. Roiling pools poisonous sludge abound in this noxious wilderness - featuring such locales as the romantically-named Oozing Discharge - so players will need to contend with the environment itself in addition to some terrifying new enemies. Running backwards will get you killed just as quickly as advancing too far, too fast.
We quickly encountered the insectoid Varkid, who used their wings and powerful legs to dart around the scenery and pounce at unaware vault hunters. Juveniles pose little threat due to their weak attack strength and fragile chitinous shell, but left to their own devices, these tiny bugs will cocoon themselves into a gestation pod. Fail to destroy this vulnerable chrysalis, and an adult Varkid emerges, complete with radically increased health, size and ruinous damage potential. Badass versions can even extrude these pods mid-battle, making mopping up just as important as focusing fire.
Threshers are bound to become 'the foe we love to hate' in Borderlands 2. These enormous subterranean worms can strike out of nowhere, ripping through the soil and attacking unwary players from any angle before disappearing from whence they came. Sirens beware: as underground burrowers, they're immune to Phaselock, meaning that the class skill will be best saved for its useful secondary functions such as long-distance revivals. Be sure to coordinate attacks with teammates to take them down before reinforcements join the fray.
Volatile Crystalisks were another new foe, and they favour brute force over any form of subtlety. These slow-moving quadrupeds boast an impenetrable armoured shell, but constantly regenerate vulnerable gold crystals at the base of their legs. Not only did these four weak points challenge us to continually relocate around the target, but damaging them resulted in a constant shower of gold shavings that were automatically added to our bank accounts. Taking down these lumbering brutes will be a challenge, but the rewards start flying in before they even hit the ground.
A seven-story tall Crystalisk called Blue was the final creshendo to the hectic action, who went down smooth and easy thanks to the Siren's aforementioned ability to Phaselock targets of any size (we hope that this won't present a potential balance issue if the entire party is made up of Sirens). Picking over the carcass, we discovered a safe embedded in its rocky flanks, which contained some saucy pictures of returning seductress Mad Moxxi. Players will have the choice of returning them to the fickle burlesque madam or to Marcus, which will unlock different rewards and affect mission progression depending on your decision.
Well, that's what was supposed to happen, at least. Pre-alpha code is always full of accidental surprises, and what actually occurred was Blue deflating like a balloon and flying off into the horizon. It was a massive glitch, but for the record, we thought it was brilliant. Keep it in, Gearbox. Keep it in.
And with that, my time with Borderlands 2 was at an end. We're still months from release, but it's evident that Gearbox are working on a truly improved sequel: one that's better, bigger and more ambitious than its predecessor in every conceivable way. There ain't no rest for the wicked... though these next five months are going to pass by very slowly indeed.