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Hands On: Borderlands 2

Pandora's (Gear)box

And now for the sequel. That's the trick, isn't it? If a game is successful then the studio end up being required to do it again, and it must be the same, but more so and different. Getting that right can be a peculiar challenge. There's a stack of shortcuts available, of course, because you're building on existing technology, fiction, and art, but there's also the challenge of not throwing away that advantage and actually making something better, or more interesting. That's the challenge that Gearbox now face with Borderlands 2: to build on the relative success of their left-field post-apocalyptic space frontier, and to carve out wider horizons for one of the most interesting hybrid-FPS projects in mainstream gaming.

Sitting down to play Borderlands 2, I am pitched straight into a co-op game with another gentleman of the press, whose name I didn't catch. Sorry about that. He took on Salvador, the “Gunzerker” character, (a character I would later solo with) while I took control of the new siren, Maya. We – I mean myself and the other player - didn't immediately gel in terms of working together, but once I'd figured out just how much more damage he was doing than my siren (thanks to his dual-wielding super-power) I learned to stay back, rez him when he fell, and to lock up significant enemies with my black-hole phaselock superpower. This ability dragged them off the ground in a purple aura, stopping their attacks and making them easy to kill off. It didn't seem to work on everyone, but it was of significant utility in fights where we faced half a dozen spitting, leaping antagonists at once.

For this hands-on event, which would take place through two quite different sections of the game, we hit the ground running at level 20, with a wealth of skills and weapons available to us. Having spent some points and headed into the first map's landscape – a sort of rocky grasslands military complex in which weird creatures were imprisoned – to fight outlandish beasts. While the mutant-mouthed skag things from the original game made a prompt return, we were also immediately inundated with a swarm of all-new flying, leaping, stealthing waves of alien unhelpfuls. Carving our way through this vibrant bunch revealed a much colourful palette this time around; both literally in terms of the colours used, but also in the range of imaginative plots enemies are now endowed with. But we'll come back to that in a moment.

Soon we were up on a hill and talking to Mordecai, the sniper character from the original Borderlands game. He's lost his bird-companion to the game's new super-villain, and we had to return it. Mordecai was much more alive and animate than the quest-dispensing characters from the original game, and I understand that this time around NPCs will be coming out of their cabins and shacks, and even accompanying players in certain missions. That's a big leap forward for a game where NPCs – other than Claptrap - were previously little more than a part of the background. This, I think, could be very much to the game's benefit, since it will feel far more alive and, in an small way, far more like an RPG.

As we played further I began to notice the details that were filling out the world this time around. It was often the little things that stood out – like the seamlessness of the menus at the start of the game. Rather than Borderlands' awkwardness, this feels very smooth. Grab my character and leap straight into the game. And once in there I ran up to my co-op chum to see his character actually looking at a holo-project of the menu in the game world. He was still on the menu screens. A neat touch. Borderlands 2 is full of them.

But there were broader strokes ahead – what faces the players in terms of a combat challenge now ramps up a bit in complexity. Fighting an initial band of robots enemies, we were charged with having to simply cripple, rather than destroy them. As their repair-buddies came to rescue them, so we were able to breach the opened door and get into the compound they were protecting. Inside robot variants worked together in complimentary groups, while annoying flying enemies flew around us, being annoying. Working out optimal takedown for this groups didn't really work out for me and my press chum, but I am sure it will once I'm playing the game proper, with co-op friends.

I should mention at this point that while I was playing on a high-end Alienware, I was handicapped by having to use a gamepad (and I say that as someone who played through the original game on PC and then later on 360). That was just how it had been set up – most of the press there were console or mainstream media types – but it showed that crucial annoyance of the flying enemy. Easy to pick him off with mouse aim, I suspect, but tougher with the lesser flick-aim of the thumbsticks. As a foot-note, developers, no-one likes flying bug enemies. And they have never have.

Not that it really matters, of course, because the real meat of things - guns flaring, baddies bursting, loot spilling into your pockets - remains the same, and with two players it scales up pleasingly to a torrent of cartoonish violence. I really was enjoying myself. I know there's always a glow around something new, and part of it was just that this was fresh Borderlands, but it felt slicker, and perhaps even more punchy. I did get lost in the chaos of one battle, but I suspect I need time to tune up to its level.

So anyway, that “colourful palette” I mentioned. This is Borderlands but with greater contrast. It certainly looks impressive. The edge-shaded visuals remain, and they look incredible at times. The design is much bolder, too, with architecture, characters and enemies remaining within the same basic frame, but bolder and more lavish. The stars of the show, the guns, are quite often extraordinary – giant multi-coloured death-mixers that scythe into sight from the bottom right of your screen. A couple of them actually made me laugh out loud with their outlandishness. But something about that makes me feel a little uneasy. I get the vaguest feeling that Borderlands 2 might have lost something of the original game's charm in its eagerness to expand its sci-fi horizons.

The original game had – both visually and audibly – a brilliant dusty, rusty frontier desert-planet feel to it. If you've played it, you'll know what I mean. Perhaps this sequel will make up for that with more rounded characters, and better everything else, but I hope it they can also avoid losing sight of what made it so charming. Maybe I am just being the fusty grouch that people tell me I am, but the “wackiness” of Borderlands (which was always pitched as something of a comedy) has certainly ranked up for its return. A baddie screaming “And I had nearly finished writing my comic book!” as he died under my guns was once such moment which was clearly intended to raise a chortle.

So too were later events, such as a quest to rescue risqué erotic images from a monster at the bottom of a cavern in which I had to traverse a lake of toxic sludge. I was, by this point, playing alone with Gunzerker, and enjoying the insane damage output of using any combination of two of the four guns I was carrying at any one time. I was also enjoying fighting the rather more complex boss creature – which needed crystal armour blasted from its legs (in trad boss fashion) before I could go for the kill.

And I still like how numbers fly off everything as you shoot them. Sometimes bigger numbers are enough.

The erotica, as it turned out, would be a gateway to another of Borderland 2's RPGish developments: forked quests. Do you deliver the pictures back to their subject, and save her modesty? Or to the lusty gentleman who originally hired you to return his relaxation photography? It's a minor thing, but the idea that Borderlands 2 is building on choice, and beginning to feel confident with growing new features using the RPG part of its DNA, makes me even more interested to see what Gearbox are able to pull off this second time around. I suspect we've not seen everything they've yet to reveal, either. But perhaps we'll get a whiff of that before September.

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