Borderlands 2 Is Spruced-Up And Spiffy - PAX 2011 Impressions

By James Hawkins in PAX 2011
Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 10:00 am
This is the Gunzerker. He has guns and he 'zerks.
Despite some rather glaring flaws in its structure, Gearbox's Borderlands was pretty great. It garnered a heavy cult following, had a vibrant visual style, and kind of expanded the dungeon-crawler/RPG genre into the world of first-person shooters. But those glaring wrinkles didn't smooth out because of popularity -- the cooperative interface and execution faltered in many places, while a quickly-plateauing narrative made the excitement grow thin in the waning hours of play. They marred what could've been a holistically fantastic experience.

The producers and development staff at Gearbox Studios are keen to this. In a tightly packed room at PAX Prime 2011, circled by an hours-long line, a few key members of the team showed off the upcoming Borderlands 2. And it was punctuated with fresh tune-ups and a glazed, candied aesthetic. In a word it was slick.

The demo was cleverly staged. It began in snow-drenched foothills, crawling with monstrous enemies and icy backdrops, five years after the events of the first game. The new "Gunzerker" character walked alone, assault rifle in hand, moving toward a pack of vehicles and a way out. The setting was perfect to silence naysayers who believe that Pandora is nothing more than a boring beige wasteland populated by samey enemies and drab structures. This is a that part of that world, but isn't confined to singularity in landscape.

As hostiles poured toward the Gunzerker, a number of new refinements were displayed. First off, the enemies are cagier, but more natural than before. Hulking beasts would flank and pick up objects (including the sexy new four-seat vehicle), tossing them before charging you with great force. The beasts moved vertically and horizontally -- a feature that would later be displayed across multi-level buildings -- and in a way previously impossible in Borderlands skirmishes. As the Gunzerker escaped to a vehicle and drove away, the snowy foothills melted into grassy lands. That inky, cel-shaded artistry is made all the more impressive by its new subject matter. More characters, including the ever-welcome skags and psychos, got pissy and chased the fleeing car.

To slay these incensed characters, an exposé on the new weapon manufacturers was given. A common complaint in the previous game was that, though there were thousands upon thousands of different guns, the specific manufacturers didn't feel unique enough to really fully realize the potential of that particular benefit, or to define them each as different. So, they've trimmed down the selection (still considerable, but with a more manageable few dozen to choose from), highlighting each company's product with its own set of particulars. One type, brought to you by the "Wal-Mart" of Pandora, doesn't even get reloaded. You just throw the fucker at an oncoming enemy at it explodes. Then you pull out another copy of that same gun, fully loaded. Depending on how many bullets in the clip at the time of the throw, the explosion correlates, size-wise. Lighthearted, effective, and unique. That Borderlands style, and it's all right.

The obvious game-models that have been polished are the cooperative play and the user interface. The layout of inventories and skill-trees are made more streamline, and won't be awkwardly located on split-screens. And, prep for rejoicing, no longer do you have to stress about locking-out cooperative partners as you progress through the game. The drop-in/drop-out aspect has been fixed, and playing with friends of multiple levels shouldn't be a task any more.

Finally -- and not to give much away -- all the characters of Borderlands are going to appear in the next iteration. The demo previewed a mission where we had to save a captured hero from the bonds of slavery. Gearbox knows fans love the hell out of the initial four, so they're trying to appeal to that love while delivering something stronger, fresher, and more dynamic in their new characters.

And it looks like that sentiment might translate elsewhere, too.

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