Borderlands 2 continues to evolve with news of a level cap bump, third playthrough option

The veil lifts today on Gearbox Software’s third DLC release for Borderlands 2, titled Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt. That’s the third of four planned content packs due for launch before June 2013 under the terms of the game’s Season Pass. As we’ve already seen with the Mechromancer and as various members — right up to Randy Pitchford himself — keep hinting, other ideas for more add-on content are being thrown around as well. The never item on the dev team’s agenda after Big Game Hunt is unleashed on January 15, 2013 is the long-awaited level cap boost.

The first Borderlands capped out at level 50, but each of the four downloadable content packs for that game boosted the total a little further, eventually landing on a final cap of 69. Gearbox is clearly taking a different approach with Borderlands 2, as the two DLC releases so far kept the cap at 50 and Hammerlock will do the same. The plan with this sequel is to boost the cap independently of any paid content drops. Even more enticingly, Gearbox intends to further enhance the replay value by having the newly raised level cap tie into a third playthrough option.

Currently, completing the Borderlands 2 story unlocks True Vault Hunter Mode, a New Game+ mode that carries over all character progress and collected loot into a new game. The world becomes considerably more dangerous too, with level 30+ enemies tearing at you from moment one, but you’re also better equipped to handle it. TVHM, as many fans refer to it, is designed to carry players through the remaining 20-odd levels to the cap. Complete a second playthrough and the entire world automatically levels up to the cap, including any uncollected sidequests (and the loot that they offer).

Gearbox might not be talking yet about the numbers lined up for the coming level cap bump, but having a third playthrough in the mix as well suggests that it won’t be some paltry five-level uptick. I would expect to see at least 10 more character levels — perhaps even 19, to bring the cap up to the previous game’s 69 limit — added in support of a third playthrough. For semi-regular to occasional fans, this is a cool development. For hardcore Borderlands nutcases with hundreds of hours invested, it is game-changing.

While Gearbox insists that the bulk of the Borderlands 2 audience, more than 80 percent, still hasn’t hit the cap, the smaller group of dedicated fans has had plenty of time to get comfortable. The addition of raid boss-esque Seraph Guardians — not to mention the Seraph Crystal currency that they drop and the Seraph loot you can purchase — only served to up the value of farming the creatures of Pandora for rare level 50 loot. Gear that likely took many hours spread out over multiple days — since each Seraph is a one-defeat-per-day proposition — to collect. All of it will quickly become outmoded once the level caps jumps up, and that’s exactly what the diehards have been waiting for.

It’s impossible to ignore what Gearbox has accomplished with a few simple tweaks. A game that was once easily summed up as “Diablo with guns” is now starting to more closely resemble a massively multiplayer online role-playing game played from a first-person perspective. There’s no subscription in the traditional sense, though it could be argued that the scheduled, pre-announced DLC drops being tied to a Season Pass is a step in that direction. There are no microtransactions either, though again, content like the Mechromancer DLC and rumored, upcoming customization packs certainly carry the flavor of value-added micropurchases.

Then, on top of all of this, there’s the existence of Gearbox SHiFT, which has so far been used to feed leveled chest-unlocking Golden Keys to the community. Little has been said about what SHiFT’s purpose is beyond Golden Key distribution. Gearbox admits that the account-driven service — think a simpler, less demanding version of Ubisoft’s Uplay — allows the developer to monitor player data and use that collected info for patch development, but it obviously has other uses as well. Given that it is already a platform for distributing Golden Keys, you have to believe that someone at Gearbox is considering other ways to leverage the tool for the benefit of the player community.

The coming year promises to be an exciting one for Borderlands 2 fans. All evidence points to Gearbox having big plans for the looter shooter, plans that step beyond the pre-launch promise of four DLC packs by or before June 2013. The coming level cap boost and third playthrough option represent major enhancements to the potential longevity of the game, and hints from folks as high on the totem pole as Randy Pitchford — just scroll through his Twitter feed — suggest that even more is planned beyond that. Stay tuned for more news on the rising level cap in early 2013.

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