Borderlands 2 is a sexual Tyrannosaurus. Not only is this actually a class skill for the Gunzerker, one of the new characters that players will lead to anarchic loot-centric mayhem, but Gearbox's MMOFPS sequel is causing a stirring in more than a few gamers' pants. Big guns and big fun makes for a potent combination, and marketing VP Steve Gibson was on hand to give us a guided tour of how it's shaping up.
Back in 2007, the original Borderlands was announced to derisory snorts from industry analysts who felt that it was "sent to die" amidst a sea of sequels and competing first person shooters. Us journalists - and more importantly, gamers in general - thought differently and proceeded to make the first game a runaway success (and give Michael Pachter a bloodied nose for good measure). The slew of sequels didn't stop Borderlands from selling... but now that Gearbox are launching a sequel of their own, they're putting an emphasis on making sure that Borderlands 2 is much more than "just a few levels and some new textures slapped in a box."
The Marrowfield tundra played host to our guided demonstration; a pristine blue and white wasteland that instantly provided a breath of fresh air from the traditional brown dust and grime. Gibson explained that Pandora will be a much more vibrant place this time around with colourful contrasting environments and horizons that show off areas of the game that you can actually visit. Strolling to the modern Hyperion City, verdant green grasslands and other (as yet unannounced, Gibson was keen to stress) areas is as easy as heading towards these distant vistas, marking part of a new open mission structure that will allow players to cooperate between bouts of singleplayer without feeling separated by unsynchronised quests and character levels.
And there's an on-screen map. Lovely.
There was no time to enjoy the scenery, however, because we had a job to do. A "friend" of ours needed to be liberated from the abandoned Dahl Dam, and a herd of ferocious yeti-like Bullymongs were standing in the way. Rather than just sprinting towards the player, these furry fiends sought out boulders and icicles to throw or shinned up the icy walls to leap down in devastating pounce attacks. The AI has been vastly improved, resulting in enemies who will intelligently use the environment to devastating advantage.
Guns. Oh mercy, the guns. Boomsticks lie at the very core of the Borderlands experience, and Gearbox felt that the various manufacturers in the original only felt like statistical changes rather than Each gun manufacturer now offers a different gameplay advantage and unique visual motif, providing even more variety to the already ludicrous number of procedurally-generated weapons.
Tediore are now known as the "Walmart of guns": i.e. they're cheap, nasty and completely disposable. Instead of reloading them, you'll simply throw them away and grab another one... which is much more than just a humorous aside. Empty guns can stun enemies on impact, which was soon demonstrated on an unfortunate Bullymong who was quickly finished off with another weapon. Partially-expended clips, however, actually explode on contact - causing damage dependent on the number of unused bullets and elemental effects if applicable.
Vladof, on the other hand, manufacture high-end weaponry that focuses on fire rate. Every single one of their weapons features a spinning minigun barrel... including pistols, shotguns and even the rocket launchers. Devastating and potentially overpowered amounts of steel rain are compensated for by the time taken for rotation to reach full speed.
Bandits aren't known for the subtlety and intelligence, which is reflected by their incredibly low-tech firearms. They're thrown together from scrap and duct tape, but pack an in0rdinate number of rounds into their oversized clips. Gibson quipped that since Bandits were everywhere on Pandora, why shouldn't they make guns of their own?
Finding a bandit rifle meant that the wasteland ravagers couldn't be far away. A squad of squawking psychos charged into the fray with reckless determination, but were used as little more than a handy demonstration of the new impact interactions. Enemies stagger, fall, reel and stumble when hit; reacting much more realistically to bullet damage and physical blows. The Gunzerker's dual wielding power proved to be more than capable of reducing the schizophrenic assailants into limping, hapless ragdolls in short order.
Character skill trees still retain the three separate branches, but rather than simply providing incremental upgrades, each skill will radically improve with new effects and surprising new features when they reach certain thresholds. The user interface has also been tweaked to make it more visually attractive as well as significantly more functional in split-screen or on the PC.
Sane enemies (by Borderlands standards, at least) present a much stiffer challenge than before courtesy of unpredictable and adapting artificial intelligence. Squads of bandits will cooperate, fall back and flank unwary players with abandon; climbing up buildings and fortifications to reach lofty vantage points. Their leader, a massive shielded brute called Nomad, was introduced by a classic storyboard cutscene and proceeded to "speak softly and carry a big... midget."
That's right. Nomad's enormous shield was decorated by a living midget who slashes wildly at unwary characters who venture too close - all while insulting their parentage and sexual predilections. Try as he might, though, Nomad was soon caught short by a well-thrown Tediore and brought down while stunned. A cheap shot, but one that was effective as it was embarrassingly hilarious.
Upon entering the dam, we were re-introduced to the Hyperion Corporation and an old friend. The former industrial titan has now been transformed into a powerful and influential military force by taking credit for the actions of the former Vault Hunters - meaning that the original foursome needed to be incarcerated for the sake 0f secrecy. Our mysterious "friend" turned out to be none other than Roland the Soldier, who was imprisoned within a mobile and durable warden robot. This hulking contraption was free to retreat through a sprawling boss gauntlet, launch homing rockets and summon waves of robotic defenders.
Gibson paused to explain that the emphasis on pursuit and "moving forward" was a purposeful design decision that will make Borderlands 2 feel more like an adventure rather than a backtracking-laden MMO. Missions will tend to send players on epic death pilgrimages and interesting asides rather than relying on repetitive fetch quests (which I fully expect to still make an appearance in some fashion). Gearbox's lead writer and lead designer are both working together in order to ensure that the story is constantly told through the gameplay, which is frankly exactly how it should be.
"More games need moon base robots," observed Gibson as a flurry of drop pods slammed into the ground from Hyperion's lunar war factory. Bipedal mechs rained down rockets and lasers onto the Gunzerker's position, supplemented by swarms of hovering surveyors that repaired wounded allies or deployed powerful shield projectors. Fending off these mechanical monstrosities while remembering to weaken the warden was a lengthy and satisfying endeavour (made easier by advice and commentary from Roland)... but the Gunzerker was soon smashed off the side of the damn by a Badass GUN Loader mech. The ornery hero raised his middle fingers to the sky as the demo faded to black.
From what we could see, Borderlands 2 is attempting to take everything we loved about the original and make it more dynamic, more enjoyable and more of a grand adventure rather than a grind adventure. Impartiality be damned: I want Borderlands 2 in my disc drive and in my face as soon as possible.