Borderlands 2 – Full Preview

Last week we got our first look at Borderlands 2 which, quite frankly, was my immediate highlight of Gamescom.  Borderlands is a game which dropped unexpectedly on to my radar based on the art style alone and, while I openly admit to sidestepping the shooter genre where possible, it pulled me in immediately to the point where I knew that I had to set convention aside and at least give it a shot.  Only a few seconds after the first time that crimson 2K logo spun towards me, slammed to a halt, and I feasted my eyes upon the beauty that is Pandora, I knew this was going to be one hell of a ride.

After perhaps four complete playthroughs, not including any ‘playthrough 2′ and ‘playthrough 2.5′ with my character, I still couldn’t get enough, and the longing to play Borderlands itself slowly transformed into an overwhelming desire for a follow up.  Thankfully, only a few short days prior to leaving for Gamescom, those offerings to the late Skagzilla were finally answered when Gearbox announced that we would, in fact, be shown the first look at Borderlands 2 and I was lucky enough to have one of the first appointments of the expo.

A Nomad Torturer with a midget psycho shield goes up against Maya, the latest Siren character

The presentation finished and I left the booth grinning from ear to ear, hoping to rush back to the press centre and write up my preview as soon as possible… but I had only forty minutes until my next appointment and the press centre would have been a ten minutes walk each way so that wasn’t going to happen.  Thankfully, with a WordPress app and a qwerty keyboard on my Desire Z, I found myself a seat and got to work so I could bring you all the juicy details as quickly as I possibly could, with a view to writing a follow up FULL preview once Gamescom was over.  This is that full preview.

For those of you who felt either cheated or deflated by the way Borderlands ended, imagine how the four vault hunters felt when, over a period of five years, a new arrival on the scene by the name of Handsome Jack takes credit for all of their hard work. Taking over Hyperion Corporation, Jack pledges to the people of Pandora that he will rid their world of the crime-ridden underbelly that it has become.  As is always the case with scenarios such as these, all is not as it would first appear and it soon becomes apparent that the clamp-down is more of an ethnic cleansing for those who operate outside the grasp of Hyperion.

Jack isn’t your stereotypical video game antagonist, hell bent on ruling with an iron fist from a position of near obscurity… this guy is a showman.  Imagine the guile of Lex Luthor crossed with the arrogance of Tony Stark and you’re about ten percent on the way to discovering Handsome Jack.  With Pandora’s moon being its primary lightsource, and a stationary one at that, Jack constructs a giant “H” shaped monstrosity of a base which holds vigil across the surface of the moon, casting a shadow on the land below to remind its inhabitants exactly who is in charge.  Sporting a powerful Claptrap-style lens through which to monitor his minions, it’s certainly a dominating presence, and one which perfectly represents the ego and malice of their new ruler.

As with any decent dictator, entertainment comes in the form of a gladiatorial arena, pitting brother against brother with the promise of untold riches as the ultimate prize.  Unfortunately, the poor people of Pandora clearly haven’t sat through enough Bond movies to understand that the bad guys tend to lie and so, rather than rewarding our heroes with their spoils, he instead looks after his own interests by dumping them smack in the middle of nowhere… which may actually be Hoth, but I doubt it.  Before long, the familiar voice of the Guardian Angel (You remember her, right? Black vest top, shiny black hair, beautiful eyes… and someone who lies to get you to do her shit for her?) rings in your ears and, yet again, asks that you do her bidding by ridding Pandora of Handsome Jack once and for all.

In order to do this, however, you are asked to enlist the help of the four heroes of Pandora – our familiar friends from the first game – who have since gone their separate ways and been scattered across the land in the five years that had passed since The Vault was opened.  With that, the first journey into Borderlands 2 is underway.

The first thing I noticed during the preview presentation was how different the landscape was from that of the original game, and yet so very familiar at the same time.  The vistas had the same craggy peaks and treacherous terrain, but they were somehow more organic and feral than before and, while the previous game was mostly barren plains with clusters of life scattered around for various quest locations, this updated Pandora was more lived in and had an almost second hand approach to how it was represented.  Concept artist, Scott Kester, tells us that “Everything’s a little more dense this time around, so actually the world itself is larger than what was in the last game but there’s just a lot more variety and options – there’s more life and there are more things to interact with in the world so it doesn’t feel quite so sparse, perhaps, as the first game.”

This is apparent when we reach an area that looks to be a mining operation and, where before we would simply have the opportunity to enjoy the static vision of what appeared to all intents and purposes to be an abandoned area, we are greeted with a fully operational mine.  Smoke billows, pistons pump, and sporadic bursts of flame here and there remind us that we’re no longer steeped in isolation, but instead fighting our way through a living, breathing world.  The snowy landscape also plays host to what appeared to be genuine weather elements, with snowflakes landing on the HUD before slowly melting away to nothing, adding yet another level of atmosphere to this new Pandora.

With Handsome Jack reigning over Pandora through the Hyperion Corporation comes a new wave of mechanised enemies, dropped from the moon base with little regard for anything that may be underneath at the time, bringing immediate devastation on impact.  These metallic foes are similar to the Devastators found in the General Knoxx DLC but have, presumably over the last five years, been streamlined to the point where they are as agile as they were strong, opting for far-reaching bounds rather than clunky stomps as they go in for the kill.  As touched upon in our original preview, Gearbox have rewritten the AI for Borderlands 2, giving foes more of a survival instinct rather than being on the offensive at all times.

Rather than watch on moronically as bullets hurl towards them, the new AI allows enemies to evaluate their surroundings and take the appropriate action to not only stay alive, but also offer a more concentrated attack on the player.  If a foe finds itself alone during an attack, it is more likely to run off to find more of its kin and pull them in as reinforcements than to merely stand and take it, and if there are obstacles in the way or you’re at a much higher vantage point to them then they WILL actually climb in order to get to you, whereas before they would continue to fire at you from below whilst running back and forth into a rock.

This particular aspect was further reinforced when one of the “WAR Loader” mechs hurtled towards us before leaping on to some stacked shipping containers for a better line of sight to take down Salvador, the Gunzerker character, unleashing a flurry of missiles in an unprecedented attempt at killing the hero.  This will, for some, prove to be something of a radical tangent from the complacency of the previous game where, in most cases, the player was near-untouchable to a single enemy and was only really under threat during a horde attack.  Personally speaking, as one who stepped away from the role of sniper after the first playthrough and into machine pistol wielder, this is certainly a welcome addition.

It was at this point that we first laid eyes on the familiar face of Roland from the first game, trapped in a high-tech, mobile prison going by the name of a “W4R-D3N” after Handsome Jack’s mechs ripped him from the clutches of the gun-worshipping Bloodshot Bandits.  The mission at hand is to rescue Roland from the clutches of the construct commander but, whereas the original game involved static missions where objectives would always be found at the same location regardless of progress-timeline, Borderlands 2 introduces time-sensitive roaming missions with outcomes that are affected on a dynamic basis depending on how long is allowed to pass before the objective is reached.  As you’d expect from Gearbox, the mechs exist primarily to prevent the hero from carrying out their objective and, as a result, the rescue mission is far from plain sailing, involving an insane struggle with the enemy factions.

As with its predecessor, Borderlands 2 isn’t a simple tale of “Hero vs Corporation” as we not only have to fight against the injustice of the Hyperion Corporation, but also the aforementioned Bloodshot bandits, and the all-new Nomad tribe.  The Bloodshot seem more insane than the bandits from the previous game, if that is at all possible, and the Nomad Torturer that we came across in the demo has a sinister comedic streak whereby a closer look at this burly beast’s shield reveals a  midget psycho (yeah, you remember them) strapped to the front for extra bullet absorption.  While there are obvious outcomes from either shooting the midget first, shooting the Torturer and leaving the midget strapped to the shield, or shooting the ropes to free the midget… it was the latter approach that our demo took, allowing the disgruntled short-arse to break free and immediately turn his attention to his captor.  Don’t get too comfortable though, as this little guy is far from being an ally and, as soon as the Torturer is taken down, all attention turns once again to you as the shrunken ned tears towards you with the same ferocity as we’ve come to expect from the likes of the cackling Meat Popsicle.

It’s not just the enemies that have been enhanced for the sequel, as all weapon types have been given a massive overhaul and effectively re-conceived from the ground up.  As many people weren’t actually aware of the differences between weapon manufacturers, Gearbox have gone with the tried and tested silhouette approach to weaponry whereby anyone running up to a weapon would immediately know what to expect from it rather than waiting until they had it in their hands. It was something that I was quite surprised to learn, if I’m honest, as I’d always tried to stick with the S&S Munitions weapons and class mods so I could take advantage of their higher capacity magazines, rapid reload times and their Gunslinger mods to increase fire rate beyond the norm.

This time around, however, each manufacturer will be given a more distinct attribute with Tediore perhaps being the most off the wall… it respawns.  Cast your mind back to the wonderfully poetic Scooter and his Catch-A-Ride stations; well the digistruct module that was used to spawn your vehicles in the first game now comes in a handheld variety, so when you run out of ammo with your Tediore you will simply throw it away as another respawns in your hand with the next clip pre-loaded.  It made for some serious “what the fuck?” gasps as the first Tediore was hurtled towards a ferocious four-armed yeti creature known as the Arctic Bullymong and suddenly a replacement was immediately made available.  What also happened, it’s important to add, is that the remaining ammo within the clip of the discarded firearm acted as an explosive device that resulted in much higher impact damage to the beast than unloading the rest of the clip would have done.  It’s an interesting twist to the gameplay mechanic and allows for more than just a typical run-and-gun approach.

The new Bandit weapon type is something to behold.  Perfectly indicative of the underbelly of Pandora, these guns are fashioned from various bric-a-brac and held together with tape, rope or whatever other sticky substance happens to be at hand at the time.  While it may appear as odd to fans of the well known manufacturers such as Torgue, Atlas, Hyperion, Dahl etc to introduce a new weapon class, it’s something which, as soon as it was mentioned, seemed like the most obvious thing in the world to do as we were, after all, traipsing around a broken world with very little in the way of a social economy so it stands to reason that people will, invariably, want to defend themselves with whatever they have lying around.  The Bandit weapons certainly have nothing on the other manufacturers in terms of finish and polish, but they do have a ridiculous magazine capacity and the assault rifle we witnessed during the presentation had over 900 rounds available in it at the point where the save was loaded, so it’s possible that the full clip would have had over 1000 rounds.

This ultra high capacity weapon is ideal for some of the upgrades available in the new skill trees, including one particular skill which increases Salvador’s fire rate for as long as the trigger is held, which will undoubtedly be a huge advantage to those guns with slower fire rates such as a Jakobs, or just for the sheer hell of it when you’re wielding one (or two!) of the ridiculous Bandit assault rifles, projectile vomiting bullets at an increasingly higher rate for what must seem like an age.  Perfect for killing bullet-eaters such as Skagzilla, assuming there’s an equivalent in Borderlands 2… and I’m sure there will be as Gearbox aren’t known for making things easy.

The introduction of new weaponry, as well the ability to enhance other elemental damage with the introduction of the Eridium element, gives us weapon whores a whole new goal when it comes to ripping open those hallowed crates to see what loot awaits us.  While I couldn’t get an actual yes or no answer from Scott Kester when it came to asking whether we’d see the much-loved developer crates in Borderlands 2, it wasn’t exactly something that was shot down in flames either.  To that end, I am already preparing myself for the inevitable collect-and-compare obsession that carried me through the original game.

Being away from the presentation for a week now, and having had time to reflect on all the changes from the perspective of a fan, I’m more excited today about Borderlands 2 than I was last week.  While it’ll certainly be sad to give up the familiar Hunter class in favour of one of the new characters, there is still that fluttering within the stomach to remind me that this will undoubtedly be an all-new experience and, for that, I’m beyond thankful.  With so many playthroughs under my S&S Munitions utility belt thus far on a game which, let’s not try and gloss over the facts here, had absolutely no substance and was nothing more than just outright sarcastic humour and nonsense from beginning to end… this sequel promises mass replay value and so much more.

Were this a review, rather than a somewhat retrospective preview, I’d summarise by saying that Borderlands 2 is the game I’ve been waiting on for the last ten or fifteen years.  I love the art style, I love the locations, the characters, the insane number of weapons for the collectathon hounds such as myself but, more than anything else, I just love everything that Gearbox created when they dropped the realism and went for the cel-shaded art style and created the beautiful world of Pandora.

I said in the original Gamescom preview that Borderlands 2 would most likely be my game of 2012… well that may actually extend to 2013, if what we’ve seen so far is anything to go by.




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5 Comments

  1. Pete says:

    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwesome!!

    Is it 2012 yet? :D

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