A couple weeks ago we saw a wub-wub-filled new trailer for Borderlands 2 revealing the release date, all of the new playable characters, and some other exciting details about the upcoming sequel to Gearbox’s loot-fest shooter. To catch up with all the new info on the game, I spoke with writer Anthony Burch and concept designer Scott Kester. They explained the approach behind each of the new characters, the size of the game world, and whether or not the first game’s characters will be playable.
Maya seems to be largely focused around the phaselock ability. How does that compare to the phasewalk ability from Lilith in the first game?
Anthony Burch: They’re completely separate. Maya can shoot any enemy with phaselock and remove them from combat. It’s crowd control essentially. She’ll suspend them in an orb of siren-y, phase-y, magic-y cool stuff. It allows everybody to shoot that person, because they can no longer fight back. Or you can just take them out of the fight while you focus on somebody more important.
It’s actually a really versatile skill, because you can use it to do damage too. If you choose the helios skill, when you phaselock, it will cause a fiery explosion outward that kills anybody nearby. Or you can get the res skill, and instead of having to walk over and manually revive somebody, you can just phaselock them. They immediately get back up and are back in the fight.
Axton seems to be the stand-in for the soldier class in Borderlands 2. How does he differ from Roland? Were there specific things you identified about Roland that you felt needed to be addressed or changed?
AB: Axton is actually a new class called commando. He’s an evolution of Roland, but he has a completely different skill set. He’s got a turret, but his turret does brand new, crazy-ass things. You can spec into the longbow skill, which lets your turret basically teleport to a place and appear there rather than having to throw it down manually. You can throw it across maps, and it will just appear. He has a skill that allows his turrets to latch onto walls or ceilings, so if someone is f---ing with you from behind cover, you just throw your turret on the wall behind them and suddenly their cover doesn’t mean anything because they’re not covered from that angle. The whole philosophy with Axton was that if somebody isn’t used to RPGs, or they want to see something that’s more immediately familiar, Axton is kind of the more inviting, Modern Warfare marine type.
Scott Kester: Yeah, I did the characters on the last game, and I did these guys, too. But this time we really tried to give each character a different flavor that’s a little more distinct. To me, the first game’s characters blended together a little bit. Designing Axton was definitely a decision to take a little lighter modern military approach. That was a very conscious decision on our part to try to bring that into the game. We’ve seen a lot of comments saying, “I saw Axton, and that’s who I want to play, because I just love soldiers.” We still think he has a lot of uniqueness to him, of course. He’s not just some soldier guy, but at the end of the day, he’s kind of the everyman shooter character. I think some people see him and can instantly relate with him. When we’re designing the characters, we try to make it so that when you see their appearance, you get a decent understanding of who they are and what they’re going to do and how they’ll fight.
Based off the visual design, Zer0 seems to be this game’s equivalent of Mordecai from the original Borderlands, except he uses a sword. Did you have to add a whole new subset of melee-based loot to the game for this character?
SK: Zer0 is actually a long-range and a close-range character. His skill is deception, where he throws down a clone of himself and goes invisible to get stealth attacks and stealth kills. We gave the option that the way his skill trees are built, you can go down a more focused close-range side of him and get in and get those kills that way. But we didn’t want to pigeon-hole him as a character that only works up close. He kind of fulfills the Mordecai promise, but his skill tree is drastically different. Mordecai is basically, "Go get him, bird," and you sit back and watch the bird cause mayhem. With Zer0, you have to really get in and control the character. It’s kind of night and day.
AB: To answer your earlier question as to whether or not his melee focus means melee loot, enemies won’t be dropping melee weapons, but our new loot in general – the guns, the shield, the relics – will allow you to spec for melee in an interesting way. We have these new shields called roid shields. If you have a roid shield equipped, when your shields go down, you actually get a bonus to your melee damage. If you’re playing as Zer0 and you want to go all-in into the melee tree, you can get a skill where if you hit someone with melee it increases your gun damage, and if you shoot someone with a gun it increases your melee damage. Then you can juggle between melee and guns until your shields go down, and all of a sudden you’re doing a s---load of damage.
So to clarify, Zer0’s sword won’t be changing in appearance or stats as you go? It’s more based off the skills that you build up?
Out of all of the characters in Borderlands 2, Zer0 seems like the biggest departure from anything in the first game. Is there a specific type of player you were trying to target with that character?
SK: As we created him, there was even some controversy inside the studio. I’ve always had an obsession with the loner character, the Snake Eyes or Grey Fox-style character. If you see the characters all together, you can tell that this guy is not going to fit in 100 percent. People that prefer stealth characters, like assassins or rogues – he’s definitely a character that’s more about finesse than Salvador, the gunzerker, who just goes in and blows the crap out of everything. You have to plot and plan a bit more. He’s more of a surgical character.
The trailer had a few great shots of awesome, sweeping vistas. The zones definitely look big. How big is Borderlands 2 compared to the first?
SK: It’s larger. The zones themselves – we’ve learned a lot from the last game and have been able to expand them a little bit more. But the thing we’re more excited about is that the zones are denser. There’s a lot more happening. There’s a lot more activity. There’s a lot more life. It was kind of on purpose, but the last game had a very desolate feel to it. Not to say that there’s not some desolation inside of Borderlands 2, but we really wanted to make sure that there was character not only in the characters themselves but in the environments.
Of course, a game like this lengthens depending on if you’re going to do all the sidequests or if you’re just going to follow the main quest. Choice is a really big word that we use around here. We’re designing huge sections that a lot of people may never see. Maybe they’ll never go over there, but we’re okay with that. We just want to make the world feel real. We want you to think that these people are living here and surviving and these struggles are happening. We’ve pushed it out environmentally not only visually and aesthetically but with gameplay changes and what’s happening inside them.
I’m one of those gamers who has to finish everything in each area. I still haven’t finished everything in Borderlands because of that.
SK: Well, you’ll be busy on this one. [laughs]
There were a couple shots of Mordecai with Bloodwing in the trailer. Are there any companions for the playable characters in Borderlands 2, or was that just a callback for fans of Mordecai?
AB: It’s mainly for his character. Mordecai and Bloodwing are tied together at the hip. Bloodwing will play a part in the story, but no pets really.
We also saw Mad Moxxie in the trailer. Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot was probably the least-liked DLC for Borderlands here in the office. What is Moxxi’s role going to be in Borderlands 2? Will there be more of that Horde-mode style tournament content?
AB: Yeah, she’s in Borderlands 2 mainly as a quest-giver and has some cool quests associated with her. She has a part in the story. I don’t want to get too specific about her presence.
SK: Despite peoples’ opinions on how the DLC was received, she was a character that a lot of people latched on to. As a studio, we think she’s pretty compelling and pushes into an area that the rest of the cast hadn’t. She really fleshes out and does a lot to keep expanding the world that we’re trying to build.
AB: Generally any character from the first game or previous DLC is back in some form or another. Unless they’re dead…. And even some of them still make it back in some ways.
SK: WHAT DID HE SAY?! [laughs]
AB: [laughs] Write that down!
The trailer also shows a hovership briefly. Will there be player-controlled aircraft, or is that restricted to enemies?
SK: That’s restricted to enemies. The bandits got creative and thought they could fly. You’ll find out throughout the course of the game that they’re not really the best at it. You wouldn’t necessarily want to be in one of those. [laughs]
Are you attempting PvP again? The arenas in the first game weren’t the most active part of the game….
SK: PvP is cooler in Borderlands 2 in the sense that you can now duel for loot. When you melee somebody, you can put a particular weapon or shield or whatever up as a wager. Whoever wins gets that. That ties into the whole trade system we have now.
AB: PvP is an interesting topic. We’ve received a lot of suggestions for it, but we’ve also found that a lot of people really enjoy sticking to the core roots of what the first Borderlands was – that strong PvE co-op game. That’s what we’re still focusing on. You never know. We may turn back and look more at PvP and see what we can do, but for right now we’re mostly focusing on the PvE.
Obviously that great PvE co-op experience was one of the big draws of the first game. I saw that you’re adding online split-screen to Borderlands 2, which is something I’m a big fan of, so I was happy about that. Are there any other big or noticeable changes being added to the multiplayer?
SK: Quest eligibility issues have all been fixed. You're eligible for any quest that your friend has. If you join my game, and I’m on the last mission of the game, you can still do it with me.
AB: There’s also some changes to our vehicle system. We have a new vehicle which supports four players. It’s not just two players. You’re not choosing between which friends can join you in one car and then having the other guy follow you around. Everyone can actually jump in one car, and everyone has a role now. One person is driving, one person is on the turret, and two people can be in the bed of the truck shooting off whatever rounds they have from their own guns. There’s a lot of things we’ve been honing to help the co-op aspect even more.
SK: From a higher level, the skill trees now have 30 percent more skills than any tree from the first game per character. A lot of the skills are based around co-op now. The siren can crowd control, and the gunzerker can draw agro. He has a skill where he basically flips off enemies, takes all their agro, and gets a huge damage reduction bonus. You can have people taking agro while the assassin goes into deception mode and flanks enemies. The soldier provides cover with his turret. It’s pretty deep.
One thing that struck me as interesting from our cover story last year – and obviously this is coming across now too as you guys talk about the world and everything – it definitely seems like story is more of a focus this time around. How do you improve the story without distracting from the action or messing up the pace? Part of what was great about Borderlands was being able to just jump in and go. Building narrative has the risk of slowing that down.
AB: The key, like you were saying, is not breaking flow. A big part of that is as few cutscenes as is humanly possible. Apart from our cool splash screens that last about five seconds, there’s maybe three cutscenes in the entire game – one at the very beginning, one at the very end, and one in the middle. I’m not certain on that number, but it’s very low.
It’s always really important to us that gameplay comes first, story comes second. The story informs the gameplay and makes you feel like the things you’re doing in the gameplay are for a bigger reason. It’s never, "Hey, I’m going to grab you by the neck and make you watch this nine-minute cutscene about this character I really like, so deal with it." It’s more about making sure the world itself has more environmental storytelling. Characters constantly tell you why you’re doing what you’re doing, cheer you on, warn you about things that are coming up.
In the first Borderlands, most of the story happened in the text summaries you got at the beginning and ending of any mission. You had some missions where people talked to you a lot, especially in the DLC, but in Borderlands 2 we’re doing even more of that. There are a bunch of new NPCs and a bunch of old NPCs that you haven’t seen in this context. The things that you’re doing in Borderlands 2 are of such a larger scope and scale that it will feel even more interesting – like the stuff we showed at Gamescom of rescuing Roland while two opposing armies fight to get him out of your grips. In the first Borderlands you just never got that scale of narrative importance on missions.
The four playable characters from the first Borderlands are playing a big part in the sequel. Is there still any chance of eventually unlocking them for play in the sequel also, or is that something that you’re specifically avoiding?
AB: That’s something that we’ll always ponder. Right now no one’s thought of what we should do for the original characters. It would be kind of weird to run through with Roland, and you run into Roland again. It’s always been on the top of everyone’s minds, but no one’s exactly sure if that’s something we’ll end up doing or not. It confuses some aspects of the story. We have these new characters as well, and some of those are natural evolutions of the old characters.
SK: Like I was saying before, every character in this game has 30 percent more skills. If we just brought in the characters from the first game, you’d be like, “Where the f*** are all my skills?! Man, Roland sucks now.”
AB: You never know though. It could be something we end up going back to and figuring out some cool way of doing it. Right now, we’re just focusing on the main four.
Finishing with the most important question, the one that everyone wants to know: Is there actually going to be dubstep in the game, or is it just relegated to the trailers? This is pretty important.
AB: We already did all the animations of Claptrap dancing, so I’d be super surprised if we weren’t like “F--- it!” We made the joke in the trailer about how there’s 96.5 percent more wub wub, but there was technically 0 percent in the first game.
SK: We could put one wub in the game, and it would actually be accurate. [laughs]
AB: It would actually probably be more than 96.5 at that point. [laughs]
There’s a lot of readers out there whose purchasing decision probably depends on, "Is there actually dubstep? Because if there is, I’m getting it."
SK: I can tell you that we have the exact same audio guys working on Borderlands 2 as worked on the original Borderlands. We got a lot of compliments on the first game’s soundtrack. We actually released the soundtrack separately. We can assure fans that the music is just as awesome as the last game. It’s an even greater step. Everything with this game is taking steps further with what we can do. Dubstep? Maybe. Right now not that I’m aware of, but never say never.
Want more Borderlands 2 coverage? Check out the full month of exclusives we ran alongside our cover story at our Borderlands 2 hub page.