Borderlands 2 Hands-on Preview -- Tiny Tina, Big Explosions In Sanctuary and TundraBy Miguel Concepcion - Posted Jul 13, 2012
Borderlands as a series has done so much right with its co-op play and weapon loot system that a lesser studio could have coasted on just those two features. Yet it wouldn't truly be Borderlands without all the twisted charm of well-crafted characters and an equally impressive script. I think those were the reasons why 2K decided to showcase this particular section of the Borderlands 2 this week.
With none other than Randy Pitchford looking over my shoulder, the CEO of Gearbox was encouraging me to explore Sanctuary, one of the many hub areas of the game, and poke around at a couple side missions. His confidence in this component of Borderlands 2 speaks to how much care went into the game’s content beyond the critical path.
Sanctuary showed that while you don't get to play as characters from the first game, those heroes are certainly around; it took just minutes to run into Roland and Lilith. Of course there was also Borderlands' amusing mascot Claptrap. When I eventually found him, he wasted little time in giving me a series of tasks so I might one day be lucky enough to access his special weapon stash. Little did he know that his stash crate wasn't exactly secure, so I just helped myself to the goods without doing him a single favor.
When taking stock of the new weapons, there's so much more to admire beyond just the stats. A lot of the firearms have a fitting hodgepodge look about them, with lots of bolts and screws, and fine details like contrast stitching on a leather stock. While Gearbox had fictional manufacturers in the previous game, these companies have been given a stronger sense of branding and identity this time around. One company's rifle will look like an intentional mashup of parts while another offers sleeker designs not that all different from weapons in Mass Effect.
I'm often best useful in 4-player co-op as a sniper, even more so when a game gives that role to a ninja-like character, so Borderlands 2's new Assassin class character, Zer0, felt like a no-brainer to me. Much like Mordecai from Borderlands, Zer0 has that versatility in being equally skilled in both range and melee combat.
So much of what makes me optimistic about Borderlands 2 is how it simply builds upon and improves on all the aspects that made the first game so memorable, but that doesn't mean there wouldn't be room for a practical overhaul in a specific feature. In Borderlands 2's case, it’s all about the new abilities in the skill tree. This isn't that unusual.
While the character classes are familiar, it appears that Gearbox has enjoyed the challenge in coming up with new upgrades and power-ups to make this new cast feel fresh, along with 50 percent more skills than the original game. Moreover, whereas the upgrades in Borderlands were just stat modifiers, the character improvements in Borderlands 2 actually change the gameplay.
Much of the combat system in this game rewards great performance. There's a battle component called Kill Skill where every time you make a kill, your critical percentage and reload speed are improved for a few seconds; and this can stack with consecutive kills. Another stackable upgrade I'm excited about is called Critical Ascension, which gives a critical bonus every time you get a critical hit; and you can keep stacking it until you miss.
Tying many of these combat components together is the one-button activated Action Skill. In Zer0's case, it's called Deception, which creates a decoy of himself while he's invisible. While it initially only lasts for five seconds, it's immensely useful, especially how it enables a visor that reveals critical hit spots.
When venturing out into the Tundra of Pandora for a mainline mission, it's easy to grasp the sense of contrast between the arid deserts of the first game and the snow of this demo area. I was particularly impressed with the use of colors as the sun was slowly setting on Pandora; it wasn’t all natural orange hues, showing that the art team’s imagination wasn’t just limited to unorthodox character designs and architecture, but also color palettes.
If you've seen trailers for Borderlands 2, then you also know of the greener, grassy areas as well. Gearbox boasts that the geographical area of Pandora in this sequel is twice the size of the first game. The playable space is teased in the lobby, where the character is high atop a mountain range and the camera is slowly panning to reveal various environments in the far distances, from volcanoes to caverns; if you can see it, you can go there.
My first task in the Tundra was to get the attention of an NPC. I did this by lighting up three of the insect-like Varkid. Shortly after, I was led to the disturbingly charming abode of Tiny Tina, a nine-year-old explosives expert with one of the dirtiest mouths in all of Pandora. If you're of the NPR/Comedy Central crowd, imagine a child version of Amy Sedaris cast in a Mad Max reboot. I'm normally averse to NPCs that treat me as an errand boy (the main reason why I couldn't finish Grand Theft Auto III), but Tina just has so much magnetic charisma. Who wouldn't want to help her out?
Her immediate needs involved rounding up her friends--some inanimate, some very lively--for a tea party. One of her plush buddies was guarded by a mother-class insect-like enemy; this turned out to be the hardest mission of my demo. This particular task underscored one of the series' least appreciated features, namely how Gearbox has managed to fine tune the games' difficulties based on the how many players are in the session.
As an improvement, Borderlands 2 also factors in the relative level of the players in the session, not just the amount of players. Of course, rewards are greater when playing with a full squad because there are more enemies to kill, but the game will still be beatable solo. After a couple deaths, I realized that all I really needed to take out the mid-boss was to make sure that I had the best available weapons equipped and had stocked up on grenades from the vending machine.
I also appreciate Gearbox's mission design, letting me work off a shopping list of objectives and errands for Tiny Tina, as opposed to having me report to Tina after each task was completed. I had to get machine parts by sniping three one-man helicopters as well as raid a couple enemy camps. The aforementioned critical hit stacking upgrades were especially useful here, allowing me to thin out the crowd quickly with my sniper rifle. I also came across more large Nomads, those enemies with midgets strapped to their shields. One of the more psychopathic foes was Tina’s guest of honor, albeit an unwilling one
Since it was my goal to lure him to Tina’s place, I took advantage of the psycho’s tendency of chasing down rebels like Zer0. A couple stray bullets was all it took to get his attention and lure him to Tina for a sadistic tea party. Whatever the torture of choice, Tina needed some time to warm up the generator. As if on cue, I then had to defend the area from a multi-wave assault by a slew of bandits. It was here I was reminded of another ability that Zer0 could eventually unlock and truly benefit from a four-player session: an augment that lets you mark a target, where the marker is also visible to the rest of your team. For 10 seconds, any hits on that marked target has a 20 percent damage increase.
For all that Gearbox has done to improve on all these major features, many of the small touches won't go unnoticed by the fans of the series. The skill tree UI is more aesthetically pleasing, enhanced through 3D modeling. It's not just prettier, it's smoother and more accessible. Speaking of accessibility, remapping all controls will be possible on all platforms. The game might have more spoken dialogue, but you won't have to worry about standing in front of an NPC while you're being debriefed on a side mission.
Thanks to the ECHO communicator, you can actually get a move on with the mission the moment after you accept it and just listen to the rest of the details while you're running or even while in combat. These little touches can also be found in the animations; some enemies will reactively clutch what's left of their faces if you manage a headshot.
As for us, we'll be clutching our faces in anticipation as we inch ever closer to Borderlands 2 release this September.