Ask people what kind of game Borderlands is and you’ll get a wide variety of answers. Some will say it’s a first-person shooter, some will say it’s an RPG. Some, like developer Gearbox themselves, will say it’s a mixture of both – a ‘role-playing shooter’. Then you’ll get others who refer to it as an offline World of Warcraft with guns, a post-apocalyptic co-op adventure and a grind-heavy, open-world shooter.
That was Borderlands’ genius, it genuinely managed to be different things to different people. To me it was all about the co-op and crazy crap… I’m all about crazy crap and Borderlands had some of the best, especially with its DLC additions.
Despite being different things to different people, what it offered to everyone was quality (and incredibly diverse) weapons and the character classes. Gearbox knows that and is putting a big effort into improving those core features further. Not resting on their laurels springs to mind…
Borderlands had millions of weapons, so simply upping the total count isn’t going to get us excited. For Borderlands 2 the focus is on improving each weapon’s visual communication, variety and potential status effects.
By ‘visual communication’ Gearbox want players to be able to instantly recognise a weapon’s manufacturer, type (sub-machine gun, assault rifle, shotgun etc) and relative strength. The idea is that players will spend more time in the game world and less time in the menus desperately trying to figure out if they’ve just picked up a rocket launcher or a grenade launcher. While this was achieved to an extent in the first game, things are much more obvious in Borderlands 2.
Jakobs produced weapons, for example, are like something from a futuristic John Wayne movie (yes, I know how weird that sounds). Pick up something coated in heavily grained wood and featuring finely crafted engravings on the barrel and you know it’s a Jakobs. You also know it’s going to have a tiny clip size and poor accuracy, but, oh boy, you know it’s going to hit damn hard.
Maliwan weapons are the opposite; sleek, very sci-fi and smoother than Elvis. They’re accurate, feature fancy ammo types and have very little recoil. Tediore weapons are different again. Instead of reloading a Tediore you just throw it an enemy and watch it explore on contact, a replacement then spawns in your hands.
The improved visual language of the weapons means they’re not only easier to identify, but they’re easier to become attached to. Throughout the course of our two level demo I found myself hunting out Jakobs guns at every chance, that first one-hit-kill at point blank range convincing me that the old West inspired hand cannons are the ones for me.
And it’s not just the weapons. Relics, grenades, shields… they all feature a design so stark and individual that they exist almost as characters in and of themselves. If the crowd are a football team’s twelfth man, than Borderlands 2’s loot is the game’s fifth man.
So, who are the other four?
Well, they’re not the four playable characters you came to know first time round. Mordecai, Roland, Brick and Lilith have moved on to the realm of the NPC; each will have a story that slowly unfolds as you progress through the main quest line. The four’s class types haven’t been completely wiped out, however, although they have been significantly altered.
Where you had Lilith the Siren, you’ve now got Maya the Siren. Maya’s unique ability is the Phaselock which suspends an enemy in mid-air, rendering them paralysed and leaving them open to attacks from your whole team. Lilith’s Phasewalk was a defensive move that allowed you to get out of danger quickly, Phaselock still retains some defensive attributes but adds a new layer of offense to Siren players.
Still, Maya-as-Siren is hardly a dreadnought and her passive abilities are centred very much on delivering positive status effects throughout the team and preventing the enemy doing too much damage with increased speed and the ability to gain health by dealing damage of her own. Thankfully, the skill trees have undergone a significant visual makeover which makes performing such upgrade much more palpable – a trip to the menus now a welcome break rather than a necessary chore.
On the other end of the spectrum is Salvadore the Gunserker, Borderlands 2’s version of the original’s Berserker class. Salvadore’s talent is that he can dual-wield any two weapons, which doesn’t sound like much until you start playing with the possibilities the game’s giant arsenal provides.
Do you want two identical machine guns? A sniper rifle and pistol? A sub-machine and an assault rifle? You could have those, but I preferred a shotgun and rocket launcher – maximum pain up close and afar, that’s how to play Gunserker.
The other two classes we’ve yet to play, but Gearbox did give us a personal breakdown. Commando takes the place of the Soldier class, but don’t worry you can still deploy turrets. Like the Soldier, Commando is a bit of all-round class and probably the best pick if you’re planning on playing through by yourself.
Assassin concentrates on precision, with a Deception ability highlighting an enemy’s weak spot. Once highlighted you can either get in close with a sword or take them out from distance with advanced sniper rifle skills.
You can imagine how, when playing as a complete squad, these classes can combine to create something that is as streamlined as it is terrifying. Given how well the original’s classes worked there’s little chance of Gearbox getting things seriously wrong here. And from what we’ve played, they’re a step up.
What’s also a step up is the mission design. Key missions feature dynamic events that can alter the way things play out, giving you something to discuss with your mates down the pub and adding an air of uncertainty when playing through the same levels twice (or more). Gearbox told us that the idea is move away from the ‘point A, to point B, to point C, and back to point A’ routine and towards something that feels much more organic and is able to tell the story in an interesting and unpredictable way.
As of right now, we’ve not played through the same mission twice so it’s impossible for us to weigh in on the success of the idea. Whatever the case, though, the theory is both sound and exciting.
Exciting can also be applied to the aesthetics, which have completely ditched Borderlands’ unwavering sun-baked, post-apocalyptic desert design and replaced it with a wide assortment of environments. There are actual colours other than brown this time.
Our demo saw us explore green plains, tree-lined mountains, abandoned wildlife preserves and a wasteland punctuated by toxic pools of yellow acid. Those locations are in addition to the hydro-electric dam and arctic wilderness we saw last year during our . Clearly, Gearbox want us to get a more robust and rounded view of Pandora this time around.
It’s comforting to see and hear first-hand just how much Gearbox understands what it was that players loved about Borderlands. It’s even more comforting to see that they’re willing to take the risk of improving it through expansion and change.
Most players would have seen a few tweaks to the loot and class formula as satisfactory. But Borderlands 2 is looking so much more than satisfactory, it’s looking wonderful. Gunserkeringly wonderful.
Bring on the skags!