Gearbox have got some explaining to do. No, nothing to do with Duke Nukem Forever – but because, back when they were first promoting Borderlands, they emphasised what a risk it was, how unusual to have something new rather than a sequel, and why the media and gamers should thus give their RPG-shooter their full attention even though it wasn't a known quantity.
Now, of course, they’re making a sequel, and once again asking for our full attention. Should we give it?
Well, it does have a 2 on the end but they do seem very much aware that they're duty-bound to do the second Borderlands game right. The studio’s Steve Gibson, doing an excellent job of sounding impassioned even though this must be the 20th time today alone he’s spoken these words to a room full of silent, staring, unshaven men of assorted nationalities, claims that “We were against content dump sequels, put a 2 on the box, money please. We knew back in 2009 that we didn’t want to do that kind of sequel.” So Borderlands 2 is “going to be a true sequel. We did a lot of work on everything. UI, AI, weapon system, quest system, co-op – every major thing has either been overhauled or replaced.”
Personally, the idea of the towns and their inhabitants being more fleshed-out is the change I most desired from BL2 – we’ll cover a little more of that side of things in a Gearbox interview I’ll be posting soon – but the idea that pretty much everything’s been shown some spit’n’polish loving gets me right on board. Of all games, this would be the most easy to make a cynical sequel for – new quests, new gun types, a new class or two and done. People’d buy it. It’s not like the gaming world has proven averse to buying what’s not much more than a new chapter of the same game year after year.
Here, though, there seems to be a strong focus on carefully adding more weight and purpose to Borderland’s core elements, but without abandoning what makes Borderlands Borderlands (that being guns and experience points).
First up are the guns themselves. Borderlands made any number of headlines thanks to declaring wild, impossible weaponcounts, but in practice most guns were only minor variations upon a handful of themes, and when you did pick up something more esoteric it was invariably less powerful than whatever otherwise less interesting weapon you were already carrying. In Borderlands 2, the planned way around this is to increase the importance and effects of the weapon manufacturers. Generally just entailing a stat or model change in the first game, now it means a whole lot more. For instance, Tediore are described by Gibson as “the Walmart of gun manufacturers.” They’re not keepers: they’re disposable cheap’n’nasties. Instead of reloading an empty Tediore weapon, you chuck it away and take out a new one instead. Run out of bullets at the right time, though, and you’ll chuck it away straight at something’s face, which can stun it while you bring out something to finish it off.
(Oh yes – in the name of further fleshing-out, enemies no longer exist as either just alive or dead. They can now be stunned, knocked down, visibly injured, along with special abilities such as the new Bullymong picking up anything it can lay its four hands on and lobbing it at you. Try not to fight one in the presence of cars, people or stalactites if you can possibly help it).
The new Bandit weapon ‘brand’, by contrast, look like they were built by either Steptoe or an Ork – all nuts and bolts and rusty metal, like they’re going to fall apart any moment. They make up for their decrepitude by having monstrously large clips, thus don’t run out of ammo in a hurry. Vladofs have a different kind of stupidity – and incredibly fast rate of fire. This is true whether it’s a machinegun, a shotgun or a rocketlauncher. Uh-oh.
As well as purely for giggles, the point of the dramatically different types is to stop you sticking doggedly to one favoured gun. You might, for instance, grab an enemy’s attention with a Tediore, stun it with the discarded gun once it’s empty, and then while it’s helpless hammer it to death with sustained fire from a Bandit gun’s cavernous clip. Alternatively, if you’re playing as the Gunzerker class and have bought the right upgrade, you can dual wield. That’s the kind of fact that made grown men pass out circa 2003 (I will never forget the horror and clamour of Halo 2’s initial E3 reveal), and thus somewhat passe. But is that still the case when you have a rocketlauncher in each hand? I THINK NOT.
This spirit of stupidity extends beyond the player. In a evolving (rather than static in its destination) quest to try and rescue Roland, the first game’s Soldier class now made a major NPC (as are the other three BL1 characters), you’re chasing a giant energy-prison on legs which is busily spawning smaller attack droids around a dense industrial area while engineers and miners in the employ of the sinister Hyperion Corporation try and pick you off. All around, Surveyor droids are trying to fix up the robo-prison and its minions, meaning you’ll have to make judgement calls about what to kill first. Meanwhile, the moon is launching robots at you. “We wanted robots to come in from the moon. More games should have this,” deadpans Gibson. He’s so right.
It’s big and noisy and messy and colourful. The look’s a little more consistent now – Borderlands has found its aesthetic groove, with even the UI now taking the form of comicky smears. Enemy shields, meanwhile, are not longer just an abstracted blue bar – instead, you’ll see them visibly shatter when shot away, so you can get a measure of how the fight’s going and when to switch weapons from the game world, not from its overlay.
Speaking of the game world, it’s apparently a whole lot less dependent on smoke and mirrors now: “It’s frustrating to see a cool looking place that you can’t actually get to. So stuff you can see in distance, you can get to these places,” explains Gibson while gesturing at distant valleys. “It’s all geographically correct, what you see to the West and East is actually there now.” This will include snowy (which I saw a bit of) and grassy (which I didn’t) climes, meaning Borderlands is escaping the wasteland game ghetto it was til now a major member of.
On top of that is at least one new class The Gunzerker, one of whose upgrades is named ‘Sexual Tyrannosaurus, character skills that remain meaningful and “game-changing” even at high levels, factional warfare, and, we’re told, a more coherent and satisfying story that’s learned the lessons of the first game’s fizzle-ending - and, indeed, the improvements the DLC made on that front.
…Which make for an awful lot of promises, the truth of very few of which can truly be gleaned from watching a half-hour demo. There was a definite sense, though, of it being Borderlands but better, richer, deeper, sillier, wilder – while the first game got a whole lot right, it sure did get shallow at times. This one, if all goes to plan, seems to have a strong grasp of what elements rightfully should be shallow, and which ones need evolving.
Most importantly, though, the moon launches robots at you.
Borderlands 2 will in theory be released next year.