PAX East 2012: Borderlands 2 Sticks to Its Guns

by Reads (13,522)

UPDATE: Well, how’s this for a substantial change? On the last day of PAX East, members of Gearbox hosted a panel in which they revealed that there will be a fifth playable class in Borderlands 2, the Mechromancer. The class will be coming to the game post-launch as paid DLC (price and release timing have yet to be confirmed), but free to those that pre-order the game. The Mechromancer will be a female character that is a human/machine hybrid with a robot pal, D374-TP, aka Deathtrap.

Also announced were character customization abilities — costumes that can be unlocked by completing quests — and a $149.99 special edition of the game.

Borderlands 2 Display at PAX EastGearbox Software, the developer behind Borderlands 2, seems to be a big fan of the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

After playing a demo for the game at this year’s PAX East in Boston, I had to ask Borderlands 2 concept designer Scott Kester to give me a better idea of what some of the major changes were. I knew it was an expansive question, but in my 20 or so minutes with Borderlands 2, I just couldn’t find many notable differences from its predecessor, a cel-shaded, co-op FPS/RPG hit released in 2009.

“You’re going to need a lot more time with the game to really get a feel for it,” admitted Kester. “In a perfect world, everyone would get one and a half hours with it.”

So he gave me the big picture as succinctly as he could. “Basically, we took anything that was there [in Borderlands] and improved it,” he said. And indeed, this was the feeling I got as I played through the demo: there really wasn’t anything new here (not that there is anything wrong with that, as I have played through the first Borderlands and it’s excellent) but it felt like a more polished, refined experience.

Borderlands 2 Axton and TurretThough the three of the four classes from the original Borderlands have been replaced with new ones — the only legacy class being the Siren — all of the new characters in Borderlands 2 have fairly clear parallels from the first game. “There are certain character archetypes in video games, after all,” said Kester.

Maya is the new Siren, taking the place of Lilith, while Zero is the Assassin, who plays similarly to Mordecai the Hunter from Borderlands in that he’s good as both a sniper and close-quarter combatant.

Then there is Axton the Commando, who, like Roland the Soldier, throws down turrets to help provide some extra firepower (though, in a new feature, his turrets are now customizable). Also, as Kester explained, Axton is more about “balancing out his teammates,” whereas Roland was more of a support class.

Finally, there is Salvador the Gunzerker, who is taking the place of Brick, who was basically a berserker himself in the first game. “Salvador acts as sort of an extension of Brick,” said Kester. But instead of wielding two fists, like Brick did, Salvador’s special ability is wielding two guns. I played as the Gunzerker for my demo, as the only other option was the Siren, a class with which I already spent some time in the original Borderlands.

While I have to admit the ability to dual-wield was a lot of fun and a great way to take the over-the-top nature of Borderlands to new extremes, it was Salvador’s action skill, meaning that it could only be done temporarily before it had to recharge. And aside from that, there wasn’t much else that I got to experience while playing as Salvador that was new.

Borderlands 2 Gunzerker Skill TreeThat’s not to say that I got to see every new aspect that the game has to offer; again, most of what Kester covered sounded like changes that could only be enjoyed over the long-term. Each of the characters’ skill trees now feature 30% more skills, for example. “With all of the new and different skills and the way they can change based on what artifacts or weapons you’re using, the builds go deep,” said Kester. “It’s amazing the synergy you get between four characters with unique skill sets.”

Zero, for instance, can create large amounts of damage in the chaos of a firefight with his action skill, Deception. Deception creates a decoy of Zero to attract the attention of enemies while Zero himself becomes invisible, much like Lilith’s Phasewalk ability from the last game. Zero only remains invisible for a set period of time, however, and as the clock ticks closer to zero, the more damage he does when attacking. Hitting an enemy exactly when the clock strikes zero allows the ability to recharge faster, allowing particularly skilled players to become invisible more often.

But regardless of the complexity of some of the skills and skill trees, those unfamiliar with the series aren’t going to be completely befuddled by the depth of Borderlands 2. “We try to make the game as accessible as we can, so we can make both FPS and RPG fans happy,” said Kester. I can say from experience, though, that this isn’t really a new design choice; part of the appeal of the original Borderlands was that it could be as deep or as simple as you wanted it to be.

“Take Axton, for example. We’re hoping he’ll be a kind of gateway drug if you’re a FPS player and you’re generally not into RPGs as much,” he said. I can safely say that Salvador offers a similar experience, with his running and gunning (while soaking up mountains of damage) does not take a world of finesse, nor is it a particularly foreign experience.

“We’re just trying not to completely alienate people,” said Kester. “We tried to bring in an experience that is familiar, but also completely new…you know what I mean?”

Borderlands 2 Zero and BugMorphIn the hope that Gearbox tried to do something noticeably new this time around — and that maybe I just hadn’t stumbled across it when playing the demo — I asked if there would be melee weapons in Borderlands 2. Unfortunately, Kester said that while each of the characters have a unique melee attack (Maya uses a sort of force push, Zero has a sword, Axton has an axe, and Salvador has brass knuckles), players can’t find melee weapons out in the field. Players can, however, find blade attachments for their weapons, which will change their melee attack. But ultimately, said Kester, “We decided to keep the focus on the guns.”

And there’s certainly no shortage of guns, with the game adopting the same system as its predecessor by having a decent variety of gun types (including sniper rifles, pistols, SMGs, shotguns, etc.), a robust selection of base models for each type, and then various modifiers placed on top of each of the base models to create countless possible combinations. Granted, there aren’t quite “a gajillion guns” available for use, as Gearbox advertises, and many variants have the same physical appearance on the screen (save for perhaps a different color skin), even if their stats differ. But there’s no denying that Borderlands takes the concept of loot seriously.

“We looked at the guns and decided that we can do much better. Every gun, every component is brand new,” said Kester. “The shields, the grenade types — you can do ridiculous things with grenades now — the class mods, the artifacts…they’re all new.”

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