We get hands-on with the latest build of Borderlands 2 as Gearbox Software lets us loose with all the new changes to its FPS/RPG sequel.
Published on Apr 4, 2012
We’re up to our necks in exploding giblets from the sixth shotgun round Salvador has managed to pump out in the space of three seconds and things are only about to get worse.
Halfway through the two levels Gearbox has given us access to we’re only now realising what it was that made the original game’s grinding so palatable.
You can have all the colourful visuals you like, but if the careful balance between firearms, co-op and loot, so brilliantly fused together, is tampered with too much, this house of cards could come tumbling down around Gearbox’s head.
As it stands, Borderlands 2 is making changes in all the right places and as we gleefully jump and shoot our way through Pandora’s Park towards a military coastal base, we’re amazed how fast we find our groove.
We shouldn’t be surprised, though; it was the main reason Gearbox’s sleeper hit worked as well as it did. Borderlands’ effective mix of stats, XP, shooting, loot and co-op created no end of fun.
But now, we’re witnessing its gameplay and art come together to create something altogether more focused, and we’re constantly distracted by its beautiful visuals and unrelenting shooting.
Salvador and Maya are blasting their way across the bright countryside and if it’s not some lethal multi-limbed indigenous species trying to claw their faces off, it’s yellow mechs pouring out of the nearby base attempting the same.
Explosions are good. Borderlands 2 is full of 'em.
We’re two characters short of the full team, but it’s not inhibiting how much destruction we’re able to dish out. In many ways, Maya and Salvador, with a complementary range of abilities, are the perfect combination for what’s ahead of us.
Her Siren class allows for Phaselock abilities to stun and trap enemies, as well as developing numerous ways of handing out health (if that’s what you want to do) and Salvador, well, he’s a Gunzerker and has a tendency to go mental with his weapons whenever opportunity knocks.
These special abilities are activated by the left bumper and require a cool-down time after use, but they’re invaluable when you’re outnumbered (which is always).
Gearbox has rather nicely provided us with characters upgraded to level 40, so we’ve got a substantial stock of abilities to play around with, and there’s plenty to upgrade. Borderlands 2 is taking steps to ensure you’re never more than a few seconds away from the action.
With our skill tree menu up, our co-op teammate can see the outline of our menu in front of Maya’s face, so he knows we’ll be spending at least a few seconds tinkering away (and not to start screaming at a vacant character model). Skills are split into three easy-to-understand categories – Motion, Harmony and Cataclysm.
It might as well read Passive, Co-operative and Attack, but the clear design and obvious images make picking out your skills and ultimate role in the group easy.
There's a larger variety of enemies now, too.
Looting and shooting are Borderlands 2’s key tenets, but it’s amazing to see how pure Gearbox has managed to keep its action. We weren’t treated to hub worlds or characters dishing out “fetch me this” quests here.
Our objectives were housed in a little box to the top right of our screen – a little shopping list of destruction that would be checked off as and when we completed the tasks.
With characters jabbering over the radio and adding to our “to do” list as we explore the world, we’re never short of something to do, or, more importantly, something to shoot.
In these mid-game levels Gearbox relays most of Borderlands 2’s narrative in much the same way, keeping the action flowing and the bullets flying.
At one point we’re given a little moral quandary. A huge mutant boss creature that took more shots to take down than we’ll ever remember firing, rewarded our hard work with a loot chest.
Inside were some naughty pictures of Moxxi that Marcus wanted. This was news to us, coming to the game at the midway point, but both characters were willing to help us out in reward.
But, who should we return the pictures to? It wasn’t made clear just how our actions would affect the experience, but it highlights the ways Gearbox can experiment with this action-heavy shooting and retain a sense of story progression.
The visual style returns, but crisper than ever before.
Handsome Jack, the game’s antagonist, can be heard taunting our efforts over the radio, but we wonder just how much of Borderlands 2’s narrative will be conveyed in this manner.
Slant Six recently ran into the same co-op focused story problems with Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City and it fell flat on its face, presenting a game that failed to satisfy lone players or those with friends.
Gearbox’s original hit a sweet spot between the two, but we’re already witnessing the sequels inability to have players do anything other than shoot. Not that we’re complaining, as a slice of action it’s difficult to find fault with the tweaks and improvements that have been implemented here.
After fighting our way through hordes of mechs, the level ends with at least twenty of them falling from the sky into a courtyard, backed up by a building-sized mega mech, before fading to black.
Boss encounters, it seems, will punctuate the levels, providing the game’s big moments. Which is saying something, given how explosive even your average enemy can be.
Traipsing through the underground cesspit of Caustic Caverns, a green Toxic Avenger-styled environment, Gearbox’s art design, enemies and tech are all on display.
From the original’s mid-development change to the cell-shaded vistas of its sequel, lead artist Kevin Duc is adamant it’s not quite comic book in style, but it’s hard to see it as anything else.
The previous characters are replaced by newer, more stylish variations.
Colours pop whatever you’re doing and the bold lines and inventive enemies all fuel Gearbox’s need to keep you moving forward and hammering your gun’s trigger.
What we didn’t expect to see was the breadth and range of enemies that continuously entered our crosshairs, though. After taking on a swarm of bugs (that looked eerily similar to the savage aliens seen in Starship Troopers) huge lumbering hulks emerged from the ooze, complete with handy glowing hit points.
Nothing is ever that easy and the enemies here have a tendency to shift form to surprise you. The mechs might be running at you now, and in a largely predictable manner, but they’ll soon shift and morph into little vehicles to ram through groups of players.
The huge insects that provided so much trouble earlier in the level will go through an entire life cycle of changes in a matter of seconds. It means, if you’re fast, you can catch them in the chrysalis stage and stop them in their tracks.
All of this sounds exciting, and it is, but Borderlands 2 manages to have all of these things happening simultaneously, presenting some of the most chaotic battlefields we’ve ever seen.
It’s clear that Gearbox wants to perfect the formula the original game seemingly stumbled across and managed to hook a substantial number of gamers with. That Borderlands 2’s art style reinforces just how different it is should attract the attention of the COD and Battlefield players who would do well to try something that’s as audacious as this.
It might not look it, but vehicle driving has been improved.
Where the danger lies now is in players becoming fatigued by the constant action and the games overriding narrative being drowned out by the incessant gunfire and need to continuously move forward.
There may be moments of downtime we are yet to see, but Gearbox is insisting on presenting Borderlands 2 as an experience filled to bursting with guns and things to use them on.
This is what it’s all about after all, but there has to be something that releases the pressure. Knowing Gearbox though, it’ll probably be a bigger gun, an even bigger boss and dubstep blasting out of your speakers.