If, in 2010, you were casually looking into video games, frothing noisily at the next blockbuster release, or avidly petitioning their very existence, you probably heard of a game called Borderlands. That's because Gearbox's now flagship title took a slew of great ideas and duct-taped them together into a powerhouse of fun and replayability, winning them instantaneous praise and pointing them hastily towards software updates, downloadable content, and an inevitable sequel.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Borderlands so special, as it has something for almost any gamer. A seamless combination of class- and party-based RPG elements, integrated into an FPS format, then drizzled with an almost infinite amount of replayability due to their Diablo-style loot system, and lightly baked in a space-western Martian environment. Add to that 4-player simultaneous co-op and a randomization factor enabling quite literally millions of variants on weaponry, and you may begin to have an idea as to what made Borderlands so appealing and so successful.
Borderlands 2 is set for release this September, 2012, and promises to be a better version of its predecessor in all the areas that matter. We got a chance to try the first playable demo at PAX East, as well as chat with one of the game's developers, Matt Charles. If you didn't like Borderlands, we can't help you there, but if you did, Borderlands 2 is looking to be one of the most anticipated titles this year for a good reason.
Our demo of Borderlands 2 was rather brief, but we saw enough of Pandora to realize that Gearbox had followed a wise old adage: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
The controls, environmental layout, mild steampunk stylings, and endless mountains of crazy and unpredictable guns remain largely unchanged in Borderlands 2. It's clear that many players' complaints concerning the first game had been addressed, however.
After the initial excitement had worn off, a lot of players found the weaponry in the original Borderlands to be less diverse than it had first appeared. While it's true there were more guns and gun variants than most of us could count, the contributing factor to this staggering number was a series of noticeable but less-than-diverse differences in things like clip size, scope zoom, elemental ammunition type, or the occasional off-the-wall "sniper rifle that shoots an incendiary grenade," or "rocket launcher that fires three consecutive rockets with a 10X optical zoom." While there's nothing wrong with these variants, many players found that the loot system tended to roll similarly "wacky" or "effective" guns across playthroughs. Borderlands 2 promises to remedy this problem through an expanded array of variables and a larger number of gun "molds" to work with. Within our brief demo, we found this new take on gun styles to be immediately apparent--and very effective.
Another small complaint that many players fielded was directed at a Borderlands feature that was also (in our opinion) one of its most fun additions: vehicles. The problem, in short, was that only 2 players could ride in a vehicle at a time, which made concentrated efforts at 4 player "long treks" somewhat frustrating. While this is surely a very minor complaint, we look forward to Gearbox's promised 4-player vehicles in Borderlands 2, though we did not get to try them during the demo.
Shooting, running, switching weapons, and triggering a character's unique, class-based attack are still natural and easy actions in Borderlands 2, and are virtually unchanged from the first game. Players can still revive one another during combat (though within a much, much shorter window of time than the first game) and get a "second wind" if they can defeat an enemy while waiting to be revived.
We got to step into the boots of Salvador, the Gunzerker, during our demo. The Gunzerker plays like Brick from the original Borderlands, in that he is the biggest member of the team and thus is also the biggest target. But where Brick's unique ability found him screaming and pummeling enemies with his fists for a limited amount of time, Salvador's unique ability allows him to equip and rapidly fire any two guns in his arsenal, much akin to the dual-wielding Barbarian class in Diablo II.
The synergistic possibilities of the Gunzerker's ability seem endless. Skill allocations aside (and yes, Salvador can power up and modify his Gunzerk ability to do more damage than usual, refill his health, etc.), the sheer amount of damage output capabilities available to players while dual-wielding is both a point of tactical advantage and of uncontrollable mayhem within Borderlands 2's combat system. During the demo, we equipped a number of weapon combinations: a sawed off shotgun with an electrically charged SMG; twin assault rifles with variable scopes and recoil; an automatic sniper rifle paired with a slow, powerful revolver. It was hard to stop, study, and catalogue all the unique weaponry we came across during our various Gunzerk triggers, as the time allocated for demoing the game, as well as the game's fast-paced nature, made us want to shoot first. Period.
Outside of what kind of gun you choose to use (or not use--allegedly one of the new cast members, Zero, is melee based), one of the best features in Borderlands 2 is the class-based, 4-player co-op carried over from the first game. While it's likely that there will be numerous new and unpredictable elements to the synergistic properties between classes, the four main staple functions of traditional class based combat remain in place; yet without a more in-depth look at the game's four classes, we can't definitively allocate the cliches of "Tank," "Medic," "Ranged," and "Magic." It is more than likely these roles, like in Borderlands, are found in fragmented detail interspersed across Borderlands 2's unique classes.
Another important part of Borderlands 2's combat system is based around critical hits and the unique spots on enemies wherein they are possible--again, like the first game. For standard enemies, we assume that headshots from most weapons trigger critical damage. But one enemy we fought during the demo had crystals encasing its legs. These crystals had to be shot away and worked through to get to the soft tissue underneath, but once the crab-like creature's legs were exposed, every accurate shot triggered critical damage, which was one of the best (and only) ways to defeat it. We're sure Borderlands 2 will be full of similarly-styled enemies whose weaknesses must be discovered before they can be exploited.
Other than slightly tighter overall aim response, the controls in Borderlands 2 are identical to the controls in Borderlands.
Gearbox has made vague mention of giving players the option to customize their character/class for a more unique feel to repeated group play. While players were able to customize a few color palette changes in the first game, choosing a different outfit or overall appearance was not possible. We think this is a cool idea, but didn't see any implementation in the demo we played.
Gearbox has also recently announced the possible addition of a 5th class--the Mechromancer--either at launch or later through DLC.
Like the first game, players can play either locally, split-screen, with one other person, or online with up to three other players. In Borderlands, Gearbox eventually added PvP based gameplay, and we're sure they will do the same for Borderlands 2.
One of the most noticeable and exciting first impressions we had of Borderlands 2 was its vastly improved graphical smoothness and presentation. It still features the same crisp, cel-shaded look of the first game, but everything about the graphical presentation looked overhauled and streamlined to maximize performance while still looking outstanding.
Borderlands 2 maintains the atmosphere of the first game: fast-paced, irreverent, space-western action. There's also a lot of hooha about "wub wub."
Our brief demo of Borderlands 2 did not give us much insight at all into the overall story, but we also don't remember too much of the story from the first game, save that occasional a mysterious woman would talk directly into our minds, and that we were hunting for the fabled Vault. We imagine some or all of this will contribute to Borderlands 2's story, but are also much more interested in the gameplay, action, and co-op possibilities the game offers. Like the first game, we consider the story to be more like a general contextual guideline rather than a driving force behind the game's playability.
Whether you're standing still and studying a distant Martian horizon through your scoped magnum, or strafing through a puddle of acid while tossing bouncing grenades down a slope into an unsuspecting group of enemies, the graphics impress. Our only concern in this area was that we didn't appear to be playing the demo on Xbox 360 consoles, but on Alienware PCs. Whether or not this graphical superiority will translate to consoles from PC remains to be seen. Our fingers are crossed.
Like in Borderlands, the music and sound effects in Borderlands 2 are well-rendered and fitting to their place and time. Shotguns have a booming rumble that matches their feel and kickback; SMGs rattle off a continuous blast of noise; enemies screech and howl as the aforementioned shotguns and SMGs tear them to pieces. Every time the player triggers Salvador's Gunzerk ability, he cries out in excitement and adrenaline while leveling his two guns at whatever's between him and victory. We can see this getting old, but also remember eventually just tuning out the various "special" triggered sound effects repeated by each character; though they are helpful to give aural cues to your teammates when you're using your ability, kind of like saying, "Don't worry guys, this Badass Skagg is toast."
We didn't notice an awful lot of background music during the demo, but this could have been because the sounds of battle were so constant and ubiquitous.
The playable demo for Borderlands 2 was short, but the line to get into said demo was one of the longest at PAX East; clearly, anticipation amongst fans is high. While there was not enough actual "game" available within said demo to give us a far-seeing evaluation of the game as a whole, it's clear that Gearbox has worked hard to pinpoint both the numerous strengths and the ill-born weaknesses from the first game and to expand/contract accordingly.
The new classes seem to be an improvement on the first; while we only got to see Pandora through the eyes of the Gunzerker, the extremely familiar gameplay still managed to leave an impression on us by feeling fresh; sometimes, being able to go from one entirely unique gun to two entirely unique guns is all it takes. Even during our short foray, we discovered a number of strange and interesting weapons that were clearly entirely new to Borderlands 2.
Despite this, the most obvious thing about Borderlands 2 is that it's very, very similar to the first game. Consider it something of an overhaul; if you loved Borderlands and want a whole new campaign, a whole bunch more guns (we mean a lot, a lot, of guns), newly specialized and synergized character classes, and a new look at Pandora and its half-mad residents, Borderlands 2 will no doubt deliver those aspects in spades. Claptrap groupies, rejoice!
The one negative thing we can take away from our time with Borderlands 2 is that it gives no incentive to players who either didn't like the first game or didn't get the chance to play it. While there are simply too many good marks on Borderlands' record to call the sequel a "fan-service," it's about as close as one can get without actually branding it as such. We only hope there is lasting and quality content to match the considerable hype; with such rabid adoration comes, of course, the chance for acidic backlash from the same community should Borderlands 2 swerve too far from the original game's style.
Love it? Hate it? Just curious? The final product is slated for release this September, and there will be guns aplenty for everyone.
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Lee has been Reviewed's point person for most television and home theater products since 2012. Lee received Level II certification in TV calibration from the Imaging Science Foundation in 2013. As Editor of the Home Theater vertical, Lee oversees reviews of TVs, monitors, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers. He also reviews headphones, and has a background in music performance.
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