I’m going to get straight to the point, Borderlands 2 is masterful. I decided to start with a sense of brevity because the next part of this preview will be nothing short of gushing. Ignoring the classic “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, Gearbox makes a point to objectively assess what the original’s strengths and weaknesses were, and it is made clear that Borderlands 2 will settle for nothing less than a drastic improvement to something that wasn’t hurting in the first place.
Having the chance to pick up any character at level 25, I opted to play Maya, the Siren. The game placed me in the middle of the Sanctuary, a refuge for those that oppose Handsome Jack’s self-proclaimed rule over Pandora. With questions running through my mind as to what happened to the original vault hunters, I made my way around town.
I was lucky enough to have most of my questions answered. Players will be glad to know that they will be able to catch up with Lilith, Roland, Mordecai, and Claptrap, the last of which is much to the dismay of the inhabitants of the Sanctuary. With our former protagonists taking a non-playable role in Borderlands 2, it’s nice to see just how the old vault hunters are managing after their rightful credit got jacked.
Claptrap still provides his unparalleled levels of personality to the game. My first encounter with the little guy turned into a harrowing quest; he tasked me to traverse the world in order to gain access to his stash, a four-item safe that carries over across characters. Luckily, Claptrap’s penchant for exaggeration is still with him. Players should be glad to know that the requirements for the new stash feature are far more reasonable.
The first quest received from Roland sent me out into the Tundra Express to wake up our old hunter mainstay. After waking Mordecai up, he offered to help me make my way over to Tiny Tina’s workshop. The path to Tina was littered with enemies, but Mordecai definitely had my back. By tagging enemies with a fire weapon, Mordecai took that as the go-ahead to do the long-range dirty work from the high ground.
Tiny Tina is miniature minx that mixes mayhem with mirth. The first thing I noticed about Tina was her voice. Fans of the “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?” series will immediately recognize Ashly Burch as the voice behind her explosive antics. While her voice was enough to rope me in, Tina’s flair for the colloquial and volatile attitude made it very clear that she needed no help in that department.
Tina’s first course of business was a tea party, but the party couldn’t start without guests, all of which had been kidnapped. In the course of getting the party started, I came across one of the amazing new guns that Gearbox added: The Baby-maker, a SMG that spawned replicas as mid-range throwing projectiles upon reloading. Whether the offspring was a boy, a girl, or twins of either gender was based on US census data, absolutely hilarious.
Going through the game as Maya plays in a stark contrast to fans of Lilith’s phasewalk style of gameplay. Maya’s phaselock provides previously unforeseen utility, and will be a hit for fans that wanted to take a more proactive role with their siren’s abilities. The modification I had the chance to test out was turning my phaselock into a small black hole, pulling surrounding enemies into stasis along with my original target. As I leveled, I also gained the ability for my phaselock to bounce to multiple targets if the original was killed while he was in mid-air.
An interesting aspect that I did not have a chance to explore was in her support/healing skill tree. Maya will be able to revive allies that are fighting for their life with the phaselock ability, an incredible tool in otherwise hairy situations. Veterans of the original will probably say “Your allies shouldn’t be dying in the first place”, but it’s one of those “it’s nice to have it and not need it rather than need it and not have it” situations. Maya’s support build makes a point to reward her for choosing to take the background role, and it’s nice to see Gearbox provide her with the tools to make it seem worthwhile.
One point of note is that parts of the tea party quest series actually had fail conditions, a new addition to Borderlands 2. The guest of honor at the tea party, a gentlemanly chap that went by the name of Flesh-stick, could not be described as a cooperative member of the festivities. Flesh-stick had to be lured into Tina’s workshop; she stressed that I not kill him, probably because she wanted that privilege to be all her own. Unfortunately, an errant reload of the Baby-maker gun combined with Flesh-stick’s haphazard run pattern caused a coincidental headshot when one of my gun’s offspring hit him in the face, resulting in a comical quest failure that I couldn’t have planned if I had tried.
Finishing the tea party ended my playthrough, but Level Designer Carl Shedd was generous enough to show me exactly what was up with Axton, Salvador, and Zer0 at level 35. Roland was considered by many to be the most glaringly underwhelming things in Borderlands, and revamping the soldier class into something viable must have been a daunting challenge. Well challenge accepted, Axton’s new abilities strive to make the commando class anything but a pushover.
Axton’s turret 2.0 has the ability to fire up to 22 missiles per volley, and he can use up to two turrets under the right build. Understanding that the Commando had to provide utility as well as power, Axton retains the long bow ability as well as a new magnet lock skill that lets him attach his turrets to ceilings and walls, the perfect solution to enemies that run for cover.
Axton also features some support abilities, as one of his turrets can turn into a domed construct, protecting the hunters from incoming fire for a set amount of time. Lastly, the wasted turret situation is a thing of the past. Axton can reclaim a deployed turret to significantly reduce the recast of his next one, a key addition that will keep wasted actions from being a concern.
I didn’t see much of the Gunzerker, but I do know that his Brawn skill tree would make Rambo blush. Subscribing to the “kill em all and let god sort em out” mindset, the Brawn tree promotes unrelenting aggression and rewards players for not backing down in the face of multiple enemies. The bottom skill on the tree is a taunt ability called “Come at me, Bro!” that provokes enemies and lines them for the slaughter. One of his mid-tier abilities reloads any gun he does not have currently equipped when he kills something. Screw manual reloading, let your trigger flex and you can’t go wrong.
Fans looking for the Lilith experience will probably want to try Zer0, as his Deception ability allows him to distract enemies and walk around undetected for a period of time. A mix between the hunter’s sniping specialization and the phasewalk experience from the original, Zer0 can only be described as a F’ing Ninja. Players can choose to take the long-range route with him with attributes like piercing bullets and overkill stacking, a skill that takes any damage that you did over the enemy’s health and adds it to the damage of the next bullet up to 999 times.
Where Zer0 really shines though is the ability to use Deception to dash around, homing in on enemies, targeting their weak points, and dismantling them in one slice. One of Zer0’s melee tree abilities grants him bonus time in Deception mode when he kills an enemy with a melee attack, so massacres will abound and death tolls will rise. His last tree focuses on support, marking enemies with his melee attack (or later, Kunai) will increase any damage the marked enemy receives by 20%. Stacked with the new Slag element that increases all bullet damage, even the toughest of enemies will be quick work.
The last point of note is the level of aesthetic and stat customization you can provide your character. As mentioned previously by David Rodriguez, players can now provide their characters with new heads and skins that they can find throughout the game. With the use of the new stash function, anything found for another character can be sent over to the right recipient, providing characters with unique and fresh new looks.
As for stats, the addition of the Badasss point feature was finally explained. Badass points are an achievement system (separate from the actual achievement system in Xbox Live) within the function of the game. As you complete tasks, your badass rank will increase. These tasks can range from killing an amount of certain enemies to completing certain sidequests to any number of novelty occurrences. As your badass rank increases, you will gain points to provide stat modifiers to your character, from increased base damage to elemental accuracy, providing the player with all the tools to make their character as unique as possible is the name of the game. Badass points and boosts also carry over to the rest of your characters, but Borderlands purists will be able to shut the boosts off if they so choose.
Overall, Borderlands 2 is looking to be a well thought out advancement from the first, and Gearbox definitely pulled out all the stops to provide an innovative, unique, and entertaining experience. Borderlands 2 is slated to release in the US on September 18th and will hit Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Players looking for a gold experience turned platinum will be glad to know that this sequel is up to the task.