Borderlands 2 Preview: Big Numbers, Big Guns

 

Even amid the sensory overload of E3, Borderlands 2 was a shock to the system — a three-finger slug at the end of a long night of heavy drinking. With apologies to Gearbox for the boozy metaphor, I can corroborate the verdict of Game Front editor Ron Whitaker, who declared the game a worthy sequel after playing it at PAX East.

Thrust abruptly into the technicolor carnage of Borderlands 2, I took a second to process the incoming stimuli before settling into a familiar pattern: shoot things until they fall over, raining acid, sprouting explosions, and sloughing off a neon confetti of damage numbers all the while. Having sampled the Gunzerker’s hyperbolic brawn at PAX, I opted for the Assassin, Zer0, this time around.

The E3 demo mission took place in a decidedly urban setting — a contrast to the first game, maybe, but one that seemed consistent with Borderlands’ space western bona fides. Like a company town near a brand-new gold mine, everything seemed very slick, very surface — built seemingly overnight by a smarmy, smooth-talking executive named “Handsome Jack,” head of the Hyperion Corporation. Recently arrived on Pandora in the hopes of accessing the contents of “The Vault” (opened by players at the end of the first game), Jack plops down his pre-fab metropolis and starts putting up statues of himself.

It’s your job to destroy these statues, which are impervious to small-arms fire. Instead, you enlist the help of a lumbering, hovering robot to do your dirty work, escorting it around town as it uses a high-powered laser to melt Jack’s various effigies into slag. The outraged capitalist spends most of the mission talking your ear, mixing drawled threats, well-written wisecracks, canny cajoling, and eventually more threats. He also deploys a small army of industrial robots to stop your high-tech vandalism.

 

When faced with industrial robots, it’s always useful to have a giant arsenal of absurd, procedurally generated weapons, which Borderlands 2 provides in huge supply. Since I was playing an Assassin, I stuck mostly to my sniper rifle, perforating targets from long range. When I attracted too much attention, I deployed the class’ special ability: Zer0 suddenly enters stealth, spawning holographic decoys in his wake as he slinks away to a more advantageous position. It doesn’t last long, but it’s available often, and offers both a break from the chaos and a tactical advantage. Delving into the talent tree offered a cool augmentation: when I stealthed up with an enemy in my sights, I could zoom across the map invisibly to deliver a devastating melee attack.

The other weapons had situational uses, but also exposed the weakness of the demo format. Guns in Borderlands aren’t simply disposable, interchangable tools. When you find a good one, you build up a relationship with it, altering your approach to play to its strengths. Cycling through the provided options felt like driving someone else’s car, except with much, much more violence. Perhaps anticipating this problem, 2K was offering a strange promotional perk: pick your favorite weapon from the E3 demo, and the company would provide a corresponding download code, enabling you to access it again in the PC version of the game. A clever idea, but I’m happy to kill for my own loot, thank you very much.

Borderlands 2 is the kind of sequel that focuses its efforts on scale and polish — a wise move considering the elegant simplicity and widespread success of the original. Common-sense changes like a new mini-map are rife, but the decision to leave everything else more or less the same is the most sensible of all. Play the game for new characters, a new story (I’m assured there’ll actually be one this time around), new settings, and most of all for the same randomized, numbers-driven gunplay that made the first game such a hit.

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