Borderlands 2 is no herp-derp sequel; there's a lot more going on in Pandora this time around.
The first Borderlands was almost a surprise hit for Gearbox back in 2009, especially considering the characteristic art style was an 11th hour change. In talking to Scott Kester, I found out the cell-shaded style freed up the design team to pet their true wackiness come through in both the gameplay and the dark humorous tone. Borderlands 2 gives Scott and the Gearbox team the chance to deliver on a solidly designed game with a distinct voice and vision from the onset of development. From what I saw of the hands-off demonstration at PAX 2011 today, Borderlands 2 might exceed its predecessor when it comes out on the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC sometime in 2012.
For one, the color palette is a bit more varied this time around. "You may remember brown from Borderlands," quipped the woman narrating the demo. "We have more colors than that now." Indeed, the demonstration began in a white and blue icy area before traveling to a more temperate zone beneath a dam and then climbing that dam to get a more bird's eye view of the world of Pandora.
"We feel visually that [Borderlands 2] has really leveled up," Kester said, whose role is overseeing the art. "Variety is something that we're really focusing on: variety in the environments, variety in the enemies, variety in the gear."
Having a clear vision from the start has really helped development. "We had a bit of an identity crisis in the first game," Kester admitted. He said that the shooter mechanics and RPG-style random loot were always solid, but there was something missing in Borderlands - until the art changed and the game coalesced into something that clearly resonated with gamers.
Now that that is out of the way, Kester said the team could focus on making it all work better. Narrative will play a bigger role in Borderlands 2 with a completely overhauled mission system. "We really want to drive home a story through missions that keep you engaged rather than 'Go here and pick this up, go here and pick this up,'" said Kester, referring to how the missions sometimes felt in the first game. "Whatever it is you're doing [in the sequel] actually has importance and is driving the plot forward."
The demonstration played through such a mission with the player battling mining robots converted into warmachines by Handsome Jack, all to rescue "a friend." Upon reaching the dam, the friend is revealed to be Roland - the soldier from Borderlands - which is a nice way for players to feel there is a continuity while still providing that variety. None of the characters from the first game will be playable in the sequel, but they might just show up as NPCs.
The new class showed off at the demo was Salvador the Gunzerker - a take on the berserker class that doesn't have to rely on melee. This heavy duty guy can dual-wield any weapon in the game, including double rocket launchers. I could immediately see how ripping off a few thousand rounds with a gatling shotgun in one hand and a Torgue gun that fires mini-rockets could get addicting really fast. "If you think this looks fun," said the narrator of the demo, "I can tell you it's a million times more fun when you actually play it."
Concentrating on character and creature concepting, designing the look and feel of Salvador is Kester's baby - the thing he is the most proud of in the game so far. "Salvador is the epitome of what Borderlands is: hardcore gun-porn," he said. "There's millions of guns [available], and now I can hold two of any of them."
There's a lot more to Borderlands 2 that I'm sure we'll hear more about in the coming months including a revamped vehicle engine that allows up to 4 passengers, improved enemy AI that will retreat if critically wounded and can *gasp* climb up ladders, and fun new enemy creatures like the lumbering bullymong that can rip up rocks from the ground and chuck them at you.
It was also nice to see that Borderlands 2 hasn't lost any of its dark sense of humor. The demonstration ended in a climactic firefight atop the dam against a monstrous robot. The big badass war loader unloaded a massive assault that ended up tossing the player character off the dam and the gamers that waited in line for hours to catch a glimpse of Borderlands 2 were left helplessly looking up as Salvador fell to his death - but not before he flashed two meaty middle fingers at his murderer.
The gathered nerds laughed and then cheered. Yeah, the chrome might be improved, but the sequel still has a Borderlands chassis.