Borderlands 2 Preview
Remember the original style of Borderlands, before Gearbox changed it to the final, cel-shaded look? For those of you who don’t, it was a standard, retro-futuristic Mad Max vibe that caused about as much excitement in the community as a trailer for a trailer or an announcement for DLC costumes.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine Borderlands being the success it is without that bold change. For Gearbox, the decision to change the style when they had a perfectly functional – if somewhat underwhelming – equivalent in place was the right one.
“If it had looked like any other sci-fi then it might have been forgotten. People might not have stopped and taken a look at how cool the gameplay was” Gearbox’s Art Director Jeramy Cook states.
“We knew we had solved the mechanics – everyone was enjoying the loot and the guns at the time, all that stuff was working, people believed in the tech. But the guys always had this thing of, ‘I guess it looks okay…’ but we were looking for that spark and that’s what the new style brought. That little bit of magic.”
Turns out the change was a good call for everyone involved, even if it was painful at the time. It’s an experience that Gearbox seems to have taken a great deal from, as it’s aiming to pull a similar trick again for the highly anticipated sequel, this time to the game’s mechanics.
There are five core areas that the developer wants to improve upon: weapons, enemy AI, environments, character classes and the storyline and missions. So essentially everything then. Hey, we told you they’re not afraid to change things up. These five changes promise to have as much bearing on the game as the art style do-over. In fact, they could be even more significant.
Gearbox knows where it went wrong with the original game, and is determined to fix it. Where better then to start with than the last act of the last game – the ending, which to many was underwhelming.
That excellent visual art style remains as impressive as ever.
Well that’s fixed apparently, according to Anthony Burch, who wrote the original game. “I wanna put a message on the back of the box that says ‘the ending’s good this time, I swear’.”
Indeed Gearbox states that it has listened intently to all of the feedback the first game received, and is making changes accordingly. “We had a critical review analysis, read all the works of guys like you and read the things that you and other fans liked the most, what you guys like the least.” Creative Director Paul Hellquist states.
“Then what you liked the least went onto the list of what the sequel needs to address. At that time we just had the leads: myself, the art director, the technical director, lead level designer – the core leadership structure of the team. We were like, “okay, what can we do here?”
So with the ending apparently sorted, Borderlands 2 begins with your character Salvador – a soldier class for the purposes of this demonstration – cast off into the icy wilderness to die by the game’s chief antagonist, Handsome Jack.
Jack is the CEO of the technology and weapons manufacturer Hyperion Corp, and after taking all of the credit for you opening the vault at the end of the first game – and pocketing the immense wealth that was in it as well – he’s using his new-found status to form his own dictatorship on Pandora.
Like all good dictators he’s aiming to squeeze the life out of anyone he sees as a threat, and that includes Salvador, a gladiator in Jack’s wildly successful beasts vs bandits coliseum who got a little too popular. So now you’re cut adrift in the sort of snowy wasteland that would make Hoth blush, and you’ve got to find your way back to civilisation.
Whether or not you’ll have a selection of characters, based on class, is currently unconfirmed.
Luckily Salvador has somehow fallen into an alliance with the Guardian Angel, returning from the first game. The Angel – a mysterious presence with a female voice that looks over the Vault Hunters and guides them – also shares your dislike for Jack and his new dominion over Pandora. With her voice guiding you back to the fight, it’s not long until you’ll run across some of the new weapons on offer.
Borderlands is famed for its insane weapon variables, and the sequel aims to not only up the number but also to apply the procedural-generation tech to every collectible in the game, not just the guns.
Players can look forward to that randomizing tech being used to create grenades, artifacts found throughout the world, as well as class modifications.
Better yet. Gearbox is aiming not only to change the way items are generated but also to improve the way they feel and look. ‘Silhouetting’ is a big thing in the videogame industry, particularly first-person shooters: you need to know what a weapon is and does when you see it, not when you fire it.
“We’re really trying to put a stamp on each manufacturer, so if a Vladov gun falls on the ground you know what it is from looking at it’s silhouette, not just from using it” Concept Artist Scott K tells us.
“It’s about creating the look of a gun then ripping it down to its bare components. The hi-tech guns are really smooth and curved, the boxy bandit gun that’s made of junk and pieces… it’s a lot of work, a lot of drawing and a lot of layers.”
The emphasis on unique weapons is more important than ever.
Borderlands 2’s weapons seem to have that technique nailed. Well those made by Vladov do at least: every gun they make, no matter the type, apparently has a minigun for a barrel. Which is both insane and brilliant, while also helping to achieve the developer’s goal.
Sadly we couldn’t get our hands on those particular weapons, settling with a rifle made by manufacturer TDR. Boasting a fast rate of fire, the rifle has a devious secondary mode: the weapon can be thrown and used as an explosive, with the damage from the blast dictated by how many bullets remain in the magazine.
It won’t be long until the weapon will be put to good use, because you’re not the only presence on the ice. A ‘Bullymong’ is there as well: an ape-like creature that wants you dead, yesterday.
The Bullymong likes to show off that he’s not that thick by throwing things at you for distraction while closing the distance. He’s not too difficult to see off however, and soon we’re testing out another of Borderlands 2’s new features: improved vehicles.
The biggest addition to Borderlands already-fun driving is that you can now have four players in a vehicle at one time, solving the original game’s problem of not enabling players to all bundle into a mode of transport at one time.
Which is welcome news considering that Borderlands 2 is going to be big on exploration. The demo features a few magnificent vistas to take in (there are even rumblings that you’ll be heading to Pandora’s moon at one point, which supposedly houses Handsome Jack’s hideout).
The terrain is nice and varied as well, steering away from the first game’s predominant desert setting. Soon Salvador is cruising across the icy plains to rescue his buddy Roland, who has been captured by a group calling themselves the Bloodshot Bandits.
On the way, two things become apparent: one is that the handling is as arcadey as ever, with the buggy bouncing around the environment with ease. The second is that the snow and ice Salvador was traveling on before is thinning out as we career onto warmer planes. In the distance is an imposing dam: our target and Roland’s prison.
Arriving in a screech of tyres and a hail of gunfire, Salvador and co are soon taking on the bandits. AI seems to be improved: there now appears to be distinct roles for the enemy to play out, with foes calling for a medic if wounded or backup if outnumbered.
Suddenly after a short firefight, a new enemy crashes out into the fray, dubbed the Nomad Torturer. Turns out his name’s not ironic: he’s wielding an imposing riot shield with a bandit midget chained to the front of it.
You can deal with this in a variety of ways: shoot the Torturer, shoot both the Torturer and the midget, or shoot the midget free, who will then attack his former captor. Sadly for all involved Salvador simply hosed them both, along with anything that was near it.
This particular joy was short-lived: a Hyperion War Loader bursts onto the scene, snatching Roland and calling in reinforcements to cover its escape. A three-way battle emerges, and with the ground troops either busy or dead the stragglers are mopped up easily before taking on the Loader itself.
One fierce firefight later the Loader has changed into a Constructor, and now it’s really pissed. Sadly, this is where the demo ends. The demonstration has done enough however to convince us that Borderlands 2 has the tools necessary to create what could well be a fantastic experience and a worthwhile sequel.
Forget that Gearbox had a hand in the absolutely terrible Duke Nukem Forever: almost everything else that the firm has produced, from Half-Life: Opposing Force on PC to Brothers in Arms and the original Borderlands has been high quality. We expect nothing but the same from Borderlands 2.