Hands-On Preview: Borderlands 2 Is Looking Like a Sequel Done Right
Heading into a preview for the sequel to arguably one of this generation’s best games is no easy task. The thing is, whenever you go into one of these demos, you need to try your very best to check your fandom at the door. Unfortunately for me, I found that it was nearly impossible to do that with Borderlands 2 as it manages to take everything you (and I) loved from the first game and take things up another level.
I had a chance to spend about two hours with the follow up from Gearbox and can now say with confidence that it stands as a testament that this team knows their audience and their craft. Read on for my full preview.
Right out of the gate, the first thing that stands out is just how good everything looks. Obviously the cell shaded style from the original returns here but all of the colors and wide open environments make things feel brand new all over again.
We had the chance to check out two very distinct locales. The first was “Wild Life Preservation” — a wide open area filled with lush grass and flowing waterways. The second was “Caustic Caverns” which features rocky land masses connected through natural bridges surrounded by — wouldn’t you know it — caustic substances.
The game takes place five years after the events of its predecessor and picks up where the DLC left off. Characters like Roland and Mordecai are still around, except this time — from what I saw at this preview at least — it seems like they’re going to play more “bread crumb” roles that move the story along more than anything else. One part of our preview brought back another familiar face when we found ourselves on a quest to recover some (questionable) photos of Mad Moxxi, who wanted her pictures returned to her before they reached rival hands.
“Well this is definitely still Borderlands,” is what I said to my co-op (and website) partner Al when I read the names of some of the challenges that popped up on screen as I completed them. After amassing a cash total of 10,000 and saw “dolla dolla bill y’all” flash on the lower left part of my screen I couldn’t help but laugh at the random — yet very appropriate — Wu-Tang Clan reference thrown in. It shows that while this title can be — and for all intents and purpose still is — very much a core gamer experience, it manages to maintain its sense of humor. It’s a big reason why I enjoyed the first title and an added incentive to get behind this follow up.
Our demo featured characters that were already progressed up to level 20. Luckily this not only gave us access to some decent weapons but also a respectable amount of points to spend on our skill trees. At first, Al played as Salavador the Gunzerker and I played as Maya the Siren. This provided for a perfect tank/healer one-two punch. After taking a couple of minutes to beef up our characters, we were on our way.
While his Gunzerker relied on offense-heavy tactics, the Siren I played with was more of a support role. The skills that I spent my talent points not only helped to ensure my teammate’s safety, but also my own. As i worked my way down the skill tree initially, much of the healing was team oriented with skills such as shooting teammates to heal them. Then around half way down I started unlocking some that would positively impact me just for helping to heal Al. Its a nice touch that keeps players that use healers like Maya feel less like a babysitter and more of a contributor.
Also tied into the Siren’s skill set is her special phaselock ability. In the same breath as Biotics in Mass Effect, phaselocking allows you to put a targeted enemy in a floating state of suspended animation. It makes stronger adversaries easier targets and it also helps to level the playing field by allowing you to catch a breather from the more aggressive ones.
During the more tense moments in my demo I found myself using phaselock more often to set aside certain enemies rather than applying it to highlight them. Though using it the other way around wouldn’t be a poor strategy either, especially as you work your way down the skill tree; you’ll eventually unlock an ability that allows teammates to heal from shooting enemies that are in a phaselocked state.
For the second segment of our demo we switched roles (well, at least I did) and I spent some time of my own with Salvador. The best way to describe the Gunzerker would be “like throwing a bowling ball in a china shop.” It’s clearly evident from a quick glance at his “rampage” skill tree that the character is designed to clean house.
Salvador’s special gunzerker ability allows him to dual-wield weapons. In the same vein as Maya, working your way down his skill trees will enhance everything about this special ability. To give you an idea about how this works, about halfway down the rampage skill tree you’re rewarded with a skill that — as long as you continue shooting things — you’ll remain in gunzerker mode. In other words, the more enemies there are, the better your chances that you’re non stop dual-wielding the entire time.
Another highlight I just have to point out was featured on Salvador’s “brawn” skill tree. When you make your way to the bottom you’ll find the aptly-named “come at me bro.” Basically, this skill rewards you with full health for taunting enemies with nothing but two middle fingers. That’s right, you’ll be calling the attention of your co-op partners’ enemies by flipping them the bird.
The new skill tree changes and how they play off of your character’s special ability really helps to keep the gameplay varied. Again, you can play any of these characters the way you want, this is a Borderlands title after all. However, if you plan on being successful and not spend most of your time reviving people (like what happened to us during our “double Gunzerker” experiment), playing and, most importantly, understanding your role as a team player is going to be essential.
Gun porn. That’s an internal (joke) name being thrown around for the project at Gearbox according to Randy Varnell, who’s the design producer on the game. During one of my demo play throughs (yes, I played it four times) he told me that day after day, the conceptual folks at Gearbox would come up with more and more over the top weapons to throw in. In the short time I had with the game it certainly shows.
Just to give you an idea of how over the top we’re talking about here, during our demo time another journalist found a weapon that had the 2K Games reps on hand say “What is that?” Mind you, at that point they’ve been watching these same demos over and over for a few days, and even they were taken back by the gatling gun with rockets. Take a moment to think about what I just said…a gatling gun with rockets, people!
The weaponry may be more devastating this time around, but it’s certainly not done in your favor. These new toys are put in place so that you can survive. I’ll admit that it’s been awhile since I’ve taken a trip to Pandora, but the A.I. in Borderlands 2 — which scales to both skill level and the number of players — is relentless. It helps to keep the tension (and fun) high when you’re playing but also adds another reason as to why you’ll have to depend more on team tactics than your natural shooter-playing ability than you did in the first game.
While murdering Skags, I had a brief talk about video game endings in general with Randy (you already know what I referenced, but we’re not going there). He transitioned the conversation to discuss the original Borderlands and how the team at Gearbox took a lot of the fan feedback they received from the ending of that title. Taking into consideration some fan complaints about the original game’s conclusion and how it may have felt a bit brief, he assured me that this time around — even though they’re still not officially talking about any plans for DLC — that players can expect to receive a better sense of completion from the stand alone game.
After spending a good amount of time with Borderlands 2, I still find it hard to put everything that we played and saw into written word because no matter how much of it I write — like the first game — there’s just too much going on to describe it all. With that said I’ll leave you with the following thoughts that I walked away with. If you’re a fan of the first title, you can rest easy knowing that this may very well be a sequel that not only meets but exceeds expectations. Also, keep in mind that we only had a chance to play with two of the new characters, and if Gearbox has saved the best for last, I can only imagine what’s in store for the rest of the characters that are yet be revealed. One thing is certain: if you’re a Borderlands fan, it’s going to be a very, very long summer.