Hands-on with Borderlands 2: Slicing and dicing as Zer0, the enigmatic Assassin
Borderlands 2 is anything but your standard sequel. Not merely content with treading the same ground on a prettier engine and calling it “cash”, the guys and gals at Gearbox Software are setting out to craft a game that tops its forebear in every conceivable way. That's no easy feat when your predecessor boasted over 17 million guns and some of the finest co-op action around, but after spending some time with the game at a recent press event, I'm confident that they'll succeed. The stakes are high for this delightfully unapologetic shooter, but so is the ambition on display.
*Editor's Note: Mild story spoilers follow and include references to characters encountered during the narrative of Borderlands 2. Read at your own risk.*
For demonstration purposes, I was given the opportunity to pick from one of the game's four main characters and jump to a point mid-way through the campaign. Fellow PlayStation nerds will understand my infatuation with Metal Gear Solid's Gray Fox, so the enigmatic ninja Zer0 immediately grabbed my interest. I hoped to unravel the mysteries surrounding his combat roles and action skill, so I was all too happy to start my demo at Level 25 with a sizable bank of skill points to spend. In true Borderlands fashion, a single skill point is earned each time you level-up. These points can be spent toward stat boosts and augmentations to your action skill, a powerful move that's unique to each character and largely defines their class. The depth of strategic options in Zer0's three skill trees was nothing short of astounding, but more on that later.
Having seen just how cool Zer0's Deception skill is in the game's latest trailer, I was eager to get out in the wilds and begin my killing, but the town of Sanctuary is where my all-too-brief journey began. This NPC hub is a living, breathing example of how Gearbox is tightening up the overarching Borderlands story with a cohesive and compelling narrative that's supported by what level designer Carl Shedd calls “environmental storytelling.” The dirty streets of Sanctuary, a town manufactured by resistance fighters, are lined with downtrodden citizens under the watchful eye of illegitimate dictator and antagonist Handsome Jack's all-seeing moon base. A bubble shield protects Sanctuary from Handsome Jack's surveillance, but I nevertheless can feel an eerie hopelessness from patrons of Moxxi's bar as I gamble for weapons and cash at a slot machine.
Before long, I find myself tinkering with Zer0's arsenal. A couple rounds from my Tediore rocket launcher is all it takes to tell me that friendly NPCs can't be harmed, but I soon make a more startling discovery. As I swap my rocket launcher for a shotgun, Zer0 decides not to stow the bazooka – instead, he physically throws it in the direction I'm aiming and the high-powered weapon explodes on impact. According to Shedd, the digitally constructed nature of Tediore weapons – the “Wal-Mart guns” of Pandora - means that your characters will reload and dispose of them in this explosive manner. You see, I didn't lose my rocket launcher, as another was waiting to be shouldered when I swapped back. I simply disposed of the digital creation in a way that makes elemental Bouncing Betty grenades look conventional. Gearbox is aiming to give each of Pandora's corporations a more distinctive identity through their destructive products, and I can't wait to see what unique scourge I can unleash with other branded weapons.
Finding our tenacious and ever-talkative buddy Claptrap in a Sanctuary backalley was my introduction to the game proper and how storytelling has evolved from the first Borderlands. No longer will the game's direction be relegated to quest text and the occasional radio messages of your quest-givers. A static menu for previewing quest rewards and accepting the quest still exists, but it's accompanied by natural voiced dialogue – think Skyrim or Mass Effect – that draws you into the world of Pandora and provides meaningful context for your actions.
In this case, that meaningful context is Claptrap's “secret stash”, a direct allusion to one of Borderlands 2's new and much-requested features. The Stash is a profile-specific storage locker that allows you to share weapons, gear, and other loot across save files, turning vendor trash and atypical weapon types into twink gifts that ... (continued on next page) ----