Borderlands 2 preview: The obscene quality of Gearbox’s return to Pandora

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“Quality,” says Borderlands 2 senior producer Sean Reardon, “is a lot like pornography and obscenity: You can’t define exactly what it is but you know it when you see it.” This is the best way he can describe how Gearbox has accomplished the tricky task of creating Borderlands and its world Pandora.

What started as a self-serious science-fiction shooter back in 2007 eventually transformed into a self-aware space opera with a distinctive cartoon look, iconic characters like Moxie, and addictive four-player co-operative play. Quality was something found by molding and reshaping the game ceaselessly throughout its years in development and the result was a bright spot in a gaming world overwhelmed with shooters.

“We tricked players into taking the heroin,” says Reardon of the original Borderlands and its four DLC expansions. Now Gearbox and Take-Two Interactive are ready to deliver the next dose with Borderlands 2.

Digital Trends got to sit down with a two-part demo of the sequel recently, testing out one story mission from the game and one side mission. Just two of the game’s four characters were available, the dual-wielding Gunzerker Salvador and siren Maya. Both characters were loaded up with skill points to apply to three different skill trees, each focusing respectively on passive stat boosting skills, support skills, and aggressive skills.

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A sampling of Maya’s support skills demonstrated the crucial interplay between the game’s different characters. While she lacks the offensive oomph of Salvador, one of her support skills will allow her to shoot companions to heal them.  Maya can also Phaselock enemies, freezing them in midair to chip away at their health with bullets, so if Salvador is in close shooting, Maya can heal him even as she’s gunning down some poison vomiting wolf monster.

Speaking of those poison vomiting monsters, the story mission Gearbox let us tackle had Maya and Salvador infiltrating the Wildlife Exploitation Preserve on Pandora, taking on both security robots and unhappy beasts to rescue a prisoner from villain Handsome Jack. You receive your marching orders in this sequence from Borderlands 1 character Mordecai.

The stage demonstrates two key factors about Borderlands 2. The first is the vast improvement to the game’s visuals. It shares the same cartoon look of the first game, but the Wildlife Preserve is more colorful and vibrant than any location in the first game, with deep green hills dotted with pulsing orange mushroom-like trees, filled with violent neon purple and orange critters, and surrounded by blue ocean. Even the game’s many, many randomly generated guns are brighter than those in the original.

Which brings us to the game’s other major improvement. It is now far easier to weigh the merits of new weapons found in the wild against what you’re already carrying. A handy display listing a gun’s attributes appears to its right when you look at it alongside a display of the gun you’re holding’s stats with positive and negative bumps highlighted by red and green arrows. The ability to alter your kit on the fly is a huge help compared to the clunky menu diving in the first game.

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The side mission available had Maya and Salvador trek through the Caustic Caverns, fighting off subterranean worm monsters and rocky turtle beasts with crystals for legs. This area was both more difficult and more open than the wildlife preserve. A Gearbox representative actually had to steer me towards the actual goal as I was wandering off into areas infested with more and more difficult enemies. As a morsel of Borderlands 2’s sense of humor, you’ve been sent to recover a safe from one of those aforementioned crystal turtles, though this one is humongous. Putting him down and finding the chest reveals what your client wanted you to recover: some of Moxie’s underpants and nude pictures of Borderlands’ jaunty gang leader. Turns out the guy who hired you was one of her three ex-husbands and you’re given the choice to either return the goods to him or to Moxie for a different reward.

Unfortunately we didn’t get the chance to make that choice as that’s where the demo ended. Gearbox wouldn’t talk about the structure of the game, whether you’d be picking up these side missions from central hub areas or not. That’s just one of the cards Borderlands 2 still has up its sleeve though. Reardon did assure me of one thing: Borderlands 2 will be as unpredictable as its predecessor. The team wants players to find weird glitches and overpowered weapons just like in the first game. “If it breaks the game, sweet,” says the producer. The fall release can’t come soon enough.