I'll never forget the moment when Borderlands — a game into which I would pour at least 60, probably 80 and maybe 100 hours — utterly hooked me. I peered through my scope at a slow, stupid, posturing Bruiser and blasted him with my newly acquired electrified sniper. I held the scope view, and watched him spasm and jerk until his eyeballs popped out of his head and rolled around in the alkaline dust of the Dahl Headlands.
That feeling of whoa when trying out a new weapon, and the rowdy hilarity that coursed through the dialogue and interactions of the first game, is all that the Gearbox Software development team wishes to imitate or replicate in Borderlands 2, due out in September. In the rest, they're striving for a sequel that isn't an update, a love note that reminds you of your first time, but not the fact there is only one first time.
"My perspective on it is, I'd really love it if this game felt like Firefly," writer Anthony Burch told Kotaku in an interview on Friday, referencing the beloved science-fiction television series starring Nathan Fillion. "Ninety per cent of that show is people laughing and joking and doing hilarious things and then, every once in a while, something happens to make you sit up and go, 'Holy shit.' And you end up really connected to the characters because of it."
Borderlands was shot through with unforgettable NPCs, led by foul-mouthed, country-fried Scooter, the high-strung, marginally sane Patricia Tannis; and the obliviously cheerful amputee T.K. Baha. The four playable characters, however, were largely rooted in the silent-protagonist school of games design, with some interstitial dialogue and conversations obliquely describing a backstory common to all of them.
Borderlands 2 will bring back the original playable characters Brick, Roland, Mordecai and Lillith, as NPCs, which should be a treat for those who grew attached to one of them over dozens of hours of gameplay. The four new playable characters will also have more dialogue and will interact more with other NPCs, Burch said.
"The amount of stuff that we've recorded is two, three, four times bigger," he said. "One of the bigger pieces of feedback we got is that these were good stories, but a lot of it came in text before and after the missions (of the first Borderlands> We've made a big effort so that the characters you interact with bring you through the story of Borderlands 2."
The story finds you back on Pandora, the dysfunctional, deadly world whose native species exact a relentless vengeance upon those who have come to exploit its resources. This time, it's five years later, and the Hyperion corporation, from an ugly moon base close on the horizon, keeps watch over Pandora as it mines out iridium uncovered after the Vault was opened in the first game.
Reconstituting Borderlands 2 as a pure treasure hunt, like the first game, was too difficult to pull off within the established canon, Burch said. While the four new characters will be pursuing a new vault, this time they're doing it to thwart the designs of Handsome Jack, who is running Hyperion's operation and, as Burch puts it, is trying to turn Pandora into a "fascist paradise."
But that's how the story will handle the question of loot. The game will still provide loads of it, and the shields, weapons and class modifications will both be familiar and pack new features. Scott Kester, a designer, described "roid," "juggernaut" and "impact" shields, for example, which do everything from drain your health to provide greater shield protection, to deliver a health burst when fully depleted. Guns themselves have gimmicks, too — Hyperion weapons get more accurate the longer the trigger is depressed.
"We really amped up the manufacturer distinction of the weapons," Kester said. "They look very distinctive and also will act that way. There'll be a lot more texturing, so you'll see a gun that's rusted and know immediately what it can or can't do. You're not going to just pick up a gun that has some stat differences, and the visual variety will be more impactful."
One of the strongest criticisms of Borderlands gameplay was the fact the enemies were, well, pretty damn stupid. The Crimson Lance, the private military force encountered in later levels, did use some tactics, but the psychos and bandits and hyperaggressive animals all had behaviour patterns that could be turned against them. Kester said they'll be toughened up in Borderlands 2.
"The Psycho is still stupid and will still run straight at you, because he's a Psycho, but there's a lot more of a group dynamic," Kester said. "If there's a leader or an alpha male around, they'll rally around him."
The game, Kester said, will be balanced such that a player with brute force, determination, and the stats to weather a brutal firefight, can still prevail, but tactical exploits will present themselves to those who know to look for them. Exploiting the game's "Second Wind" saving throw — killing an enemy as you are bleeding out revives you with a full shield and critical health — will be tougher as certain foes can be healed or rebuilt.
Players will get a more diverse skill tree in their classes, two of which are basically new. The Commando and the Siren return to fill the Soldier and Siren roles of the original. The Gunzerker is Borderlands 2's heavy-firepower class, like the Berserker. The Assassin is for those who enjoyed playing as the Hunter.
"If somebody enjoyed playing as Mordecai (the Hunter) or whoever, a lot of the skills will be similar," Kester said. "We're giving you the opportunity to play a similar role, but with a lot more variety. We felt it would have been a disservice if we simply gave you the same characters again." The new variety will come in the form of a remodelled skills tree that, for example, gives Axton (the Commando) a Longbow Turret — borrowing the teleporting capabilities of the Longbow grenade in the original game. With the skill, you can place the turret anywhere that is visible, such as a nearby ledge outdoors, or on the ceiling indoors. Special talents and melee combat will also get more attention and be more useful in the new skill trees.
I worry, though, about when or how this game will deliver its hook, what Borderlands 2 moment akin to electrocuting the Bruiser will be — or even if it can be, considering this is an extension of a story as much as it is a new game. Burch promises Borderlands 2 will have those moments.
"This psycho midget was coming at me while I was shooting at him with a Tediore pistol," Burch said. When you run out of ammo with a Tediore, you throw the entire weapon like a grenade, and a new one "digistructs" into your hand. It's basically a disposable gun. "But I forgot that," Burch said.
"So I wounded the midget badly, but then I threw the gun at him and it exploded, and blood and body parts just shot everywhere," Burch said. "And I went, 'Whoa!'"
Zero, the Assassin, fills the role left by Borderlands' hunter, Mordecai.
Salvador, the Gunzerker, is the heavy class, akin to Brick, the Berserker.
Maya, the Siren, brings a new twist to Lillith's phase powers.
Axton, the Commando, is an all-purpose fighter similar to Roland, the Soldier.
Handsome Jack is the slimeball from Hyperion Corporation whom you and your vault hunters are trying to stop.