“Bigger and better”, and “going all-out”: sequels may be easy things to pitch – after all, everyone is familiar with the basics already – but they’re also dangerously susceptible to such hyperbolic statements.
The first Borderlands quickly endeared itself to gamers. Set on a distant, arid planet called Pandora, players were presented with a frontier-like interpretation of the future: pioneers and outlaws, and the promise of wealth beyond measure for those with the gumption to reach out and claim it for themselves. Gearbox’s looter shooter was Tattooine meets Diablo, John Wayne meets Mad Max.
But if a single criticism could be levelled at the game it would be its confined scope: a worrying sameishness to its gameplay, its environments, its enemies, its quests. Some lack of context, and characters that left the player with the lingering impression they were cardboard cutouts (Claptrap aside, I can’t now remember the name of a single NPC from Borderlands); the niggling suspicion it was all set on an elaborate Hollywood lot rather than on a living, breathing planet.
So then, a sequel: If the fundamental formula captured the public’s imagination, it didn’t mean there wasn’t ample room to “dial it up” and “flesh it out”. Happily, Borderlands 2 appears to deliver on all these clichés and more with confident aplomb.
“The first Borderlands – as we got to the end and got the game finished – we needed to focus on the core, most basic formula which was the shooter-looter, the role-playing shooter,” says Paul Hellquist, the creative director at Gearbox on Borderlands 2. “We had to present this new concept to the world and have them get it”.
“Once we had done that and people really responded to it, then we did a whole process of going through all the reviews and what the reviewers were thinking, going through forums and what the fans were thinking and what did they want? We collated a big wish list from the world and found the common threads,” explains Hellquist. “And then talked about things we really wanted to do as well.”
Borderlands 2 returns gamers to Pandora five years after the opening of the vault in the first game. A powerful new element has appeared on the planet, and has become its main commodity. The Hyperion Corporation – and its boss Handsome Jack – have arrived to exploit the resource, and in doing so are necessarily oppressing a rugged populace with a fiercely autonomous mindset. The firing of bizarre guns – and plenty of them – is the inevitable result.
The variety of environments is the most immediate, and arguably, necessary, change apparent in Borderlands 2. The two levels demonstrated to press in San Francisco variously depicted savannah, military facilities, noxious mires, and of course, arid, rocky outcrops. The game’s main menu alludes to even more environs, such as volcanic areas and the Oceanside – also a full day-night cycle.
“Borderlands is special in that for the most part very few things are like, ‘that would never be in Borderlands!’” continues Hellquist. “So we have a little bit of liberty there. Most ideas that other games can’t consider because of their style or their environments or whatever, we can consider.”
Even so, as the game approaches its intended release in September, some ideas have had to be culled. “We had a long discussion about trophy rooms for a while,” notes Hellquist. “That’s still an idea, or something that we know fans would really get behind, but during the course [of development] and with all the other things we wanted to improve it wasn’t able to get the attention it needed. So the idea of a trophy room area where you can show off all your cool stuff is something that didn’t quite make it this time around.”
Wes Parker is one of three artists charged with bringing more variety and depth to the characters and creatures of Borderlands 2. The sequel puts aside the original cast – although Mordecai the hunter makes a welcome appearance as an NPC quest-giver in the first level we play – in favour of four new heroes, each seemingly more distinguishable in their roles, and by virtue of that, more compatible for cooperative play. Salvador is the squat, dual-wielding “gunzerker”; Maya, the crowd-controlling, support-like Siren (something of a departure from the original’s Lilith); Axton the commando; Zer0, a mysterious assassin with the ability to deploy decoys.
“When we began talking about the four characters for Borderlands 2, we began looking at what we wanted as far as each archetype goes,” explains Parker of the characters’ genesis. “We had the names, we needed to fill in the faces.”
“I think the secret to making a memorable character is telling a story with them. That’s one of the things that goes into all 3D art, especially texturing or character creation, you have to be able to tell a story that’s not told to the player, not ‘this happened on this day.’ But you can see a little background in how their facial features work.
“Salvador, for example, besides being a huge burly guy, he’s also short.”
“In addition to showing that he’s muscular, he can carry two guns, he has a lot of tiny touches that you only see if you really de-construct the character, such as tattoos on his hands that say ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’. All of the characters in Borderlands 2 have that kind of thing going on, where we’re telling stories.”
"As far as the actual execution, that was handled by Adam May, who does a great job of taking [fellow artist Scott] Kester’s comic-like concepts – because he actually started in comics so it translates nicely to our style.”
In addition to anchoring this demonstration to the first game, Mordecai reveals how Borderlands 2 is managing the expanded narrative and its integration into gameplay. “We don’t just want to tell the story, we want players to live the story,” resumes Hellquist. “So that worked into our mission system. We totally revamped how missions are built and the capabilities players have in missions.”
We meet Mordecai atop a craggy spire where he informs us that Hyperion has captured his pet, Bloodwing. As we set out to free his companion in exchange for his needed assistance, he keeps us abreast of changing events. At one impassable door, we’re tasked with damaging, but not destroying, a number of hostile robots so that we can sneak into a facility when their mechanic comes to their aid. Elsewhere we’re tasked with retrieving some lurid photos and given the option to return them to the photographed subject, or the chap who commissioned us to retrieve them.
“There’s a ton more dialogue,” states Hellquist. “We’ve got about seven times the dialogue than we did in the first.”
Of course, it’s all for nought if Gearbox doesn’t compound on the very heart of the series, looting and shooting. The firearms come thick and fast, and a new mechanic whereby cash and ammo is hoovered up by moving near it makes for a welcome simplification that ensures players can focus on placing foes in their crosshairs.
The brands of weapons themselves are also more defined from one another. Go Dahl for military grade ballistics, Jakobs for frontiersman gunslinging, and so on. The loot casino, or lottery returns unfettered and, when combined with greater distinction between the classes, promises to keep character strategy in a constant state of flux.
When considered in addition to the already positive changes outlined above, Borderlands 2 becomes an increasingly attractive proposition. “It’s the humour elements that are important, the quirkiness of the characters, and, from a monsters, weapons and creatures design standpoint, those things start seeping in, you know?”
“We have a much greater ability to surprise the player during the course of play than we did in the first game,” concludes Hellquist.
After two hours of dynamic, engaging, and outrageously over the top gunplay, we can confidently state there’s no hyperbole there.