Borderlands 2 Hands-on Preview -- The Delicate Balance of More EverythingBy Adam Rosenberg - Posted Apr 04, 2012
Borderlands 2 is riding into its 2012 release on a wave of high expectations. And why shouldn't it? Gearbox Software crushed it with 2009's "shooter looter," fusing the moment-to-moment action of an FPS with the fabulously addictive loot grind of a Diablo-like dungeon crawler. Top it off with drop-in/drop-out co-op for up to four players, and you're left with the intoxicating cocktail that is Borderlands.
What all of this means is that Borderlands 2 doesn't really need to introduce any wholesale changes to an admittedly solid formula. And it doesn't, as I learned from a recent hands-on preview of the game.
Gearbox offered up two of the game's four playable characters for the demo session: Salvador, the Gunzerker, and Maya, our new Siren. All of the playable characters in Borderlands 2 will use a new and improved skill tree. You're looking at roughly the same number of buffs to pour points into along each of the three skill branches, but the layout is bottom-heavy. In other words, you'll have more to choose from in the lower tiers, but the higher-tier skills offer the biggest boosts.
Maya brings back the Siren class, but she has an all-new toolbox to work with thanks to her new Phaselock action skill. It is essentially a stun attack, freezing an enemy in mid-air for anyone to shoot. How you spend your skill points allows you to tailor, among other things, what kinds of benefits you want to receive from using Phaselock.
You might, for example, want to go the healer route for Maya. In that case you'd look to the base level Sweet Release skill in her Harmony tree, which causes healing Life Orbs to spawn when Phaselocked enemies are taken down. Those who want to take a more offense-oriented route might instead look to the Cataclysm tree. A base-level skill here increases the chances of causing status effects as you attack while a later one makes your shots ricochet from one enemy to the next.
This same level of skill customization applies to Salvador as well. His action skill allows you to dual-wield a pair of weapons for a brief amount of time, but it's not necessarily about doing damage. You can spec him out that way of course, but you can also set him up with support skills that will recharge ammo or even allow him to shoot healing bullets at fellow players.
What you're left with is a much more open sense of customization for each of the game's four characters. It's almost like an MMO sort of mentality. Is healing your thing? Or DPS? Perhaps you prefer to bring the action straight to the enemy's stupid face in melee combat? It all lies in how you develop your skill trees, and it's clear even early on with only a handful of points to spend that there's a much better sense of variety to them this time around.
Of course, anyone who plays Borderlands 2 is going to be following the constantly dangling carrot that is the game's millions-strong arsenal. While you're still looking at the same color-coding and randomized stats as the previous game, Gearbox is putting a lot of work into making firearms from different manufacturers look and feel unique.
Tediore weapons quickly became my favorite during the demo session. You don't reload these "disposable" guns in the typical manner. Once you've fired at least one bullet with one of these puppies, hitting the reload button causes your character to throw the weapon like a grenade. Because it is a grenade. The more ammo that's left in the clip when you chuck the thing, the more powerful the explosion. It will drain your ammo quickly if you're not careful, but it's tremendously useful to have that kind of explosive firepower available that's separate from your stock of grenades.
I also had a ball using my pair of Jakob shotguns, especially with Salvador wielding them. I found a few of these boomsticks, and all of them came equipped with a scope. You wouldn't expect a shotgun to be deadly at long range, but that's only because you're not using a Jakob. These could tear apart most of the enemies I encountered with little trouble, especially once I kicked in Salvador's dual-wielding action skill.
For a game that already offered a crazy amount of variety with the weapons you could find, Borderlands 2 definitely seems to ratchet things up. Not everything I picked up felt quite as unique as Tediore weapons, but there are visual differences that set apart each manufacturer's wares. It's not game-changing, but it's certainly game-enhancing.
All of these weapons and skills wouldn't amount to much without a cast of creatures to use them on, and the world of Pandora does not disappoint. Visually, Borderlands 2 carries over the same comic book-y art style that helped make its predecessor such an eye-catching standout. If there's any difference, it's that everything looks a little sharper, a little more detailed now.
The demo focused on two of the game's locations: Wildlife Preserve and Caustic Caverns. Both served up the typically spacious locations that fans of the previous game came to expect. In the Wildlife Preserve, I met up with Mordecai, the previous game's Hunter class. His pet Bloodwing is being held by Handsome Jack, the game's Biggest Bad, in a nearby research lab. Mordecai wants you to rescue the bird.
This particular part of Pandora is marked by rocky, scrub-covered hills that surround the heavily fortified installation where Bloodwing is being held captive. A variety of enemies pop up along the way. Skags return, of course, but the most frequent aggressor outside the research station are the game's new Stalker enemies. Looking like bug-lizards with bat wings, Stalkers come in multiple ground-based and airborne varieties.
Also new is the Thresher, a worm-like creature that burrows along underground, popping out into open air only when it's ready to attack with its flailing tentacles. A later jaunt into the Caustic Caverns reveals yet another new enemy as well, the Crystalisk. These hulking brutes trundle around on trunk-like legs with elaborate crystal formations where their knees should be. They can take a lot of punishment if you just fire carelessly; the best way to bring a Crystalisk down, as I quickly learned, is to shoot it in the knees.
In addition to Pandora's natural enemies, the forces of Handsome Jack are always around and waiting to cut you down. The planet's moon is always visible in outdoor locations (at least, in the two that I visited), and it's adorned with Jack's corporate logo. A giant cannon on the face of the moon will literally shoot enemies into existence for you to fight.
Humanoid enemies are still common, but robots seem to be a big part of Jack's fighting force. As soon as I got close to the research station, the moon cannon started firing down a steady stream of mech-like walkers, of varying sizes and abilities. Some are just straight up soldier types in that you don't need any particular skills or tricks to bring them down. One mech has two spinning blades mounted to the front of it that serve as a reflective bullet shield. A cool thing about these mechs is how they take location-based damage. If you take one out at the legs, there's a good chance you'll suddenly find yourself contending with a crawling robot instead of a destroyed one.
It's difficult to sit down with a game like Borderlands 2 for just two hours and get a sense of how the big picture is shaping up. It's a bigger game than its predecessor, and there's still more yet to be revealed. Vehicles will be returning. There's a new Challenges feature that awards you "Badass Points" for achieving certain goals. What these points do remains a mystery for now, however.
The good news is that the moment-to-moment gameplay that made Borderlands such a treat is definitely evident in this sequel. The game feels fundamentally the same in a lot of ways, but it's clear that Gearbox has put a lot of time and effort into refining the user experience, and really just making everything work better. This even extends to the drop-in/drop-out co-op and the way the in-game lobbies are presented.
At this point, Borderlands 2 looks the part of a proper sequel in all of the right ways, and appears to be designed to give fans of the first game exactly what they want: a bigger and more varied take on Pandora to grow an arsenal and shoot bad guys in. We'll find out how much more there is behind the colorful curtain as we move closer to the game's release this September.