I had the rare pleasure of sitting with Gearbox Software boss Randy Pitchford and Borderlands 2 design producer Randy Varnell this week as they guided me through an hour-plus hands-on demo of the upcoming sequel, which arrives on September 18, 2012. I became fairly obsessed with Borderlands following its 2009 release, hooked immediately by the striking art style and lootfest factor but sticking out the long haul for the silky-smooth co-op play and varied DLC. I mentioned to the two Randys how the previous game came to feel like a platform to me, an attitude they both emphatically agreed with before diving into exactly how the upcoming sequel will capitalize on that.
Aside from being a significantly larger game with a more well-developed world — we’ll get to that in a minute — Borderlands 2 also introduces a new feature in the form of Badass points and rankings. These are essentially rank-based challenges that task players with completing big picture tasks, such as “kill X bandits” or “light Y enemies on fire.” Each challenge has multiple levels to rank up through, and you’ll accrue a score as you earn them, eventually unlocking tokens. The token can be spent on stat buffs of your choosing. They’re always a small bump, measured in tenths of a percent, and they boost to things like damage, reload speed, etc., but you can also conceivably collect an unlimited number of tokens over time.
What’s especially compelling about this new feature is how it applies to your characters. Your Badass score and unlocked stat boosts are specific to your entire profile rather than to individual characters. Purists have the option of turning off the boosts whenever they’d like, but the idea is that you’re constantly building up a history in your Borderlands 2 profile, and any character you run with will be rewarded for that show of commitment. You’ll also unlock a new Stash feature part of the way into the game, a four-slot inventory (that can be expanded) where you’re able to store items accessible to any character in your profile. It’s not a new concept for video games, this sort of Stash feature, but it’s new to Borderlands and it’s absolutely fitting.
All of these broader profile elements will ultimately feed into some sort of browser-based stat tracker. Pitchford told me that a lot of the fine details for how this web-facing community portal will work are still being ironed out, but now that Borderlands has properly proven itself as a franchise, the aim is to grow that community and provide fans with the resources to enjoy their place in the world of Pandora even when they’re not playing. Nothing more is confirmed yet, but the eventual plan is, of course, to extend that sort of stat-tracking and social functionality to other platforms. You can probably figure out the directions that might go in.
There’s also an added level of player-to-player connection in-game. When you’re in a game with one or more co-op partners and you want to show off the sexy new Tediore gun you just found, there’s no longer any need to chuck the thing to the ground. Now you can interact with co-op players in a separate inventory screen. You’re not limited to sharing or trading items either. Duels return in Borderlands 2, and you can initiate those duels from these player-to-player menus. You can even put specific items up as spoils for the duel’s victor to claim.
The hands-on portion of my demo showed off a new chunk of Borderlands 2‘s Pandora while also offering me the opportunity to try out any of the four core characters in the game. Since Maya the Siren and Salvador the Gunzerker were already the focus of an earlier demo, and since many of my Borderlands hours were spent with Mordecai, I immediately turned my attention to Zer0 the Assassin. You’re still working with three separate ability trees that allow you to hone your abilities in different ways, same as the first game. The difference now, other than larger trees, is the amount of attention paid to having later skills complemented by earlier ones.
The key to this in each ability tree is the so-called “Game Changer” skill, which introduces new mechanical elements to your character’s Active Ability. In the case of Zer0, that AA is called Deception: the Assassin leaps back as he throws out a holographic decoy of himself. It can be used defensively, to divert hostile attention away from you for a few previous seconds, as well as offensively, with Zer0 using the distraction to rack up some more kills before anyone is the wiser.
Zer0′s Game Changer in the Sniping tree offers two specific and very helpful boosts. For starters, enemy critical hit locations are highlighted with a target box whenever Zer0 is in his cloaked Deception state. The skill also amps up his bullets, allowing him to fire through enemies, with an additional damage boost for anyone hit by a shot that has already passed through one unlucky soul.
At the top level, these skills start to get truly wild. The Commando character, Axton, is able to drop turrets as his Active Skill. Many of the unlocks in each of his three trees are built around boosting those turrets in various ways. The top level in one tree, for example, allows him to put down two turrets at a time instead of just one. In another tree, the top-tier skill triggers a nuclear blast whenever the turret goes down. Combine that with an earlier skill which allows you to teleport a turret as you deploy it to a designated location, and you’re left with a potent grenade-like special that also handles the job of picking off any remaining stragglers. I’m told that hitting the game’s level cap will unlock enough skill points to boost yourself through roughly one and a half skill trees, though raised level caps through DLC are certainly a post-release consideration.
If you’ve noticed me avoiding talking much about the actual A-to-B play from the demo, that’s intentional. Gearbox has worked hard to avoid spoiling too much of the story in Borderlands 2 and I worked equally hard to tune out much of the dialogue from the demo. I can, however, tell you that there’s a much stronger sense of place to Pandora in Borderlands 2. You can now walk up to anyone on the street and exchange a few words of chatter with them. The town of Sanctuary, a main hub for the game and also somehow a key story point, is home to a wide variety of random pedestrians, quest-givers, and familiar faces.
Claptrap is here, naturally. Once you’ve met him and had your first exchange, he’ll wheel his way around the town doing whatever random things a Claptrap does to occupy his time. He’s a bit more interactive than your random pedestrian too; at one point, I approached him and was prompted to hit a button for a high-five. He took off immediately with one mechanical hand raised up, offering high-fives to the whole of Sanctuary. I also got to meet Tiny Tina, an explosives-obsessed 13-year-old girl who lives in a cave on the outskirts of Sanctuary. I won’t dare spoil her most excellent quest, but I will say that it involves finding explosive badonkadonks and organizing a tea party. It’s also worth noting that Tiny Tina is voiced by Ashley Burch, of Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’. She delivers a hilarious reading for the character, one of the many colorful, entertainingly sadistic souls you’ll encounter on your return trip to Pandora.
Borderlands was a superb, if slightly rough-edged, gem that very solidly established the world of Pandora and the rules of a fresh, new IP. By all appearances, Borderlands 2 expands on that base design in an impressive range of ways, all while preserving the killer drop-in/drop-out four-player co-op and millions-strong arsenal of firearms to be found and hoarded. The sequel is certainly bigger, but it’s apparent even in previews that it is definably better as well, offering players a much more concrete platform from which to enjoy their zany sci-fi adventures.