When we were down in Texas checking out Borderlands 2 for our September cover story, it was clear that Gearbox had ambitious plans for the sequel. The surprise success of the original game spawned millions of fans, and it was no shocker when the developer announced that a sequel was in the works. Our time at the studio was hands-off, but the game was in playable form on the PAX East show floor, and I had a chance to sit down with creative director Paul Hellquist for an extended demo.
Two classes were available: the siren Maya and the dual-wielding Gunzerker that graced our cover. Since most of my time in the original game was spent with guns blazing, I opted for the latter. It didn’t take long for me to realize how well these two worked in tandem with each other. Hellquist was able to trap enemies using Maya’s Phaselock ability, which suspends them helplessly above the ground. While they floated, I positioned Salvadore underneath them and let loose with a barrage of shotgun blasts. Used in combination with his dual-wielding Gunzerker ability, we were able to take down daunting foes with ease.
In the same lootfest fashion as the first game, these moments typically ended with a shower of ammo, health, cash, and new weapons. After picking up a promising new shotgun, I entered the significantly improved menu system. The images float in front of your character, giving the illusion that he or she is looking at it in the actual game world. A common complaint in the first game was the unwieldy map system, which has been completely rectified here thanks to the ability to easily pan and zoom.
For the demo, Gearbox started players with 15 skill points to spend however they’d like. Each character has three distinct paths they can take through their skill tree, and deciding which route to take isn’t easy. Maya’s three paths are influenced by your play style. Players that are offensive-minded will want to take the Cataclysm route, those that prefer to heal and support their team should go with Harmony, and those that hope to increase their movement and reload speed should opt for the Motion path.
It’s impossible to reach the end of each path on one playthrough, so you’ll have to commit to one if you’re hoping to buy its most significant upgrades (although it’s possible to respec). These final upgrades are meant to be game changers, which rang true for both classes in the demo. One of Salvadore’s (known as “Come At Me Bro”) lets him taunt enemies with double middle fingers while in the middle of dual-wielding. This enrages his enemies, but it shouldn’t matter much considering it gives you a full health recharge and near-invulnerability for the duration of your ability. Maya features one late-game upgrade that changes her ability entirely. Her Phaselock turns into the Thoughtlock, which hypnotizes enemies into fighting for you rather than simply trapping them.
We weren’t able to see the assassin Zer0 or the soldier Axton in action, but Hellquist explained a bit about their abilities. Zer0 can utilize his Deception ability to create a holographic version of himself, which draws fire from enemies. While the fake assassin commands the enemies’ attention, the real deal activates optic camouflage, allowing him to line up a perfect sniper shot or come in close for a katana kill. The soldier Axton features a similar turret ability as Roland in the first game, but with far more customization options. Upgrades are available that allow the soldier to toss his turret across long distances, add more guns to the weapon, or even grant the ability to throw two turrets at once.
After selecting our initial upgrades, Hellquist and I headed out to the Wildlife Exploitation Reserve area in search of the first game’s hunter, Mordecai. Salvadore and Maya are looking for an upgrade for Claptrap, and it can only be researched once we obtain a chip that’s attached to Bloodwing’s (Mordecai’s hawk) collar. As we battle towards our objective, Gearbox’s focus on enemy variety is made clear via a large assortment of enemy types and functions. Robotic loader enemies went into what Hellquist calls “Terminator mode” once their legs are shot off, causing them to crawl menacingly at the player. When they become injured, flying Surveyors swoop in to repair them, healing damage and re-attaching severed limbs. Constructors serve as a spawn point of sorts, quickly creating new robotic enemies until they’re destroyed. Burrowing creatures called Threshers should remind players of the movie Tremors, and they send your character flying if they emerge under your feet. One area, Caustic Caverns, features numerous organic pods on the ground. They’re harmless on their own, but larva-like creatures can crawl inside the pods and emerge as Adult or *** versions of themselves. Each of these enemies required different strategies to defeat, from strafing around robots to backpedalling to avoid charging skags. Prioritizing enemies is an important tactic as well, considering you can cripple or limit enemy forces by taking out Surveyors and Constructors first.
Constant firefights kept us engaged as we battled from point to point in search of Bloodwing. Once we finally reached the bird’s supposed resting area, we discovered that antagonist Handsome Jack had taken the bird elsewhere. We headed off towards a new objective, only to be stopped by a level 21 *** Constructor. I was able to fire off a few rounds at the giant robot before the Borderlands 2 logo appeared to signal the end of the demo.
My time with the game left me wanting it more than ever, which is impressive considering it was already one of my most anticipated games of 2012 before ever playing it. I spent close to 150 hours with the original, and I’m certain the sequel will grab me even more. The new characters feature some fantastic abilities, enemy variety is significantly improved, user interface issues have been remedied, and the game somehow includes even more weapons than the massive arsenal of the original game. Shooter fans should plan on clearing their schedules (and inviting some friends) for the game’s September 18 release.