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Hands-on with Borderlands 2: Slicing and dicing as Zer0, the enigmatic Assassin

on 13 July 2012

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 your other characters will relish. These lockers will also provide cross-character storage for a new kind of loot – headpieces and skins come by the dozens and allow you to customize your character's look with unique get-ups that friends can fawn over.

It was with great sorrow that I said goodbye to Claptrap, but other familiar faces awaited me. Atop a balcony overlooking the streets of Sanctuary, I caught up with Lilith and Roland – two fan favorites and once-playable characters from the original Borderlands. The two were chumming it up and scheming to thwart Handsome Jack's latest directive (a spoiler-heavy plot element I won't reveal here) and as I stood looking back and forth between the two, I was rather stunned by the degree of emotion on display. Here were two battle-hardened veterans, trading sarcastic jokes and honest concerns, speaking with a familiarity and aloofness that could only be heard from friends in arms. Gearbox has instilled these heroes with genuine personalities that come through in voiced dialogue, and the effect turns a formerly static narrative structure into an enthralling adventure that involves you as much as it talks to you.

With the severity of our situation explained to me, Roland sends me off into the arctic tundra that surrounds Sanctuary to meet up with a resistance agent and master planner whose aid I must enlist. The zone in question is called Tundra Express, and it plays host to a menagerie of deadly creatures. Before I jump into the fray, I decide to allocate the 20 skill points at my disposal and Shedd takes the opportunity to run me through some of what makes Zer0 an interesting character. As an assassin with long-and-close-range options, two of Zer0's three skill trees are dedicated to maximizing his sniper and ninja prowess, respectively. In either case, his Deception action skill can be further defined by “gamechanger” skills that open the door for stylish decimation.

On its own, Deception spawns a holographic decoy that draws aggro and allows an invisible Zer0 to blindside an enemy by highlighting its critical weak points or make his escape. Put points into Zer0's Assassin tree, and you'll unlock the ability to penetrate those weak points and damage other enemies through your target. Take that tree all the way to its high-tier end, and hitting consecutive critical weak points will cause the damage to stack with every bullet. Is there a theoretical limit to the number of times your damage can stack? Shedd believes it's infinite, although the skill's description claims up to 999 stacks are possible.

Elsewhere in Zer0's skill trees, the options are equally devastating. His Cunning path encourages a tactical approach, as enemies can be stricken with a melee attack that “marks” them and grants massive damage boosts for your teammates. On the flip side, Zer0's Bloodshed tree seems poised for solo play and unleashing rapid dash attacks with his trademark sword. At the highest tier, killing targets with a dash attack will refresh Deception's cooldown and allow the chain of massive melee damage to continue. Of course, a full group of players might benefit most from the former build, making each viable (and awesome) in different situations.

With no time to waste, I decide to put all of my points into Zer0's Assassin tree and see exactly where my corrosive sniper rifle should be pointed. As ankle-biting insectile Varkids begin swarming me, I have little time to react and line up those critical shots. Thankfully, I'm still carrying a shotgun, and upon activating Deception, I easily sidestep my confused prey and unload 14 simultaneous rounds of shrapnel into their heads. When one turns tail and appears to flee, I get my first glimpse of dynamic enemy variation. Before I can catch the little bugger, it burrows into its nest and emerges as an Adult Varkid before taking to the skies and spitting acid. The flying nuisance is even harder to get a bead on, but I manage to hit its critical zone with my sniper rifle for extra damage and a quick kill.

At this point, the agent that I'm seeking reveals himself to be none other Mordecai, chilling with trusty falcon Bloodwing atop a tower overlooking the icy fields. He taps into communication with me and explains a few elements of his plan for thwarting Handsome Jack, but before I'm able to act on his wishes, I'm directed by Shedd to a nearby cave and Tiny Tina, the insane pre-teen girl who inhabits it. I arrive just in time to see Tiny Tina gleefully blow up a rope-bound bandit with dynamite and hear her profane ramblings. Before I can wrap my head around this totally eccentric character, I'm sent off to take care of a critter problem for her. Along the way, Mordecai assists me from his lofty perch with intermittent sniper fire and I'm nearly killed by another example of an enemy interacting with the environment. The lumbering Goliath is a raging beast that wantonly kills nearby creatures. The catch? He gains a level and grows larger with every mob he kills, becoming a Raging Goliath, Badass Raging Goliath, and more in the process. I'm finally able to fell the beast, but Shedd assures me that Goliaths can grow to at least a two-story height if left unchecked. I silently thank my stars I was spared the embarrassment this time around.

With several kills under my belt, I crest a large hill and come to an overlook that's marked as my quest destination. It isn't long before Tiny Tina's critter problem becomes apparent; Madame Von Bartlesby, a massive flying Varkid, hovers into my vision and unleashes an assault I'm woefully unprepared for. A combination of acid spit and lunging strikes decimates my health in seconds, but I come extremely close to finishing off the boss in my downed state. Back at the nearest New-U Station, Shedd informs me the Madame is weak to Incendiary damage, so I stock up on elemental Bouncing Betties and get back into the fray. This time, I've got the upper edge. I unleash a Bouncing Betty grenade, and I'm surprised to see it fire off a 360-degree wave of bullets into Madame Von Bartlesby before exploding. The effect downs her in no time, and Shedd tells me that this new kind of grenade is especially useful for clearing tight packs of enemies or unleashing elemental hell into something like Bartlesby, who couldn't endure the Incendiary damage of every bullet fired.

My demo is beginning to wind down, so I take the opportunity to let Shedd explain some of the interplay between character skills that will turn Borderlands 2 into a better RPG than its predecessor. It often starts with Maya's Phaselock, a crowd-control Action Skill that immobilizes and levitates an enemy in place. While the baddie is trapped, Salvador (the Gunzerker) could use his Gunzerking action skill to unload bullet hell of an appropriate element while the bubble shield of Axton (the Commando) keeps the party safe from enemy gunfire. Axton's Sabre Turret will keep minions outside the shielded zone and prevent a wipe, but with a high-tier skill, Axton can deploy a second Sabre Turret and teleport it to the location of Zer0, who is stacking critical damage by targeting weak points from afar. If Zer0 starts the fight by “marking” the enemy in question, the entire party could be dealing twice their normal damage throughout.

Teamwork is clearly even more important to Gearbox this time around, and it's easy to get overwhelmed pondering all the possibilities for meaningful strategy in the middle of intense encounters. With so many badass routes to choose for character development, I began to worry that an invincible party could be built with the right approach. Shedd doesn't think so, and reassures me that much of current development is focused on balancing action skills and making sure enemies will always appropriately scale, even to a 4-member party of max-level characters. In fact, the game's base level cap isn't even hammered out yet, though we expect a solid number will surface in the coming weeks.

My time with Borderlands 2 was criminally short, but that's a given when you're ready to play for hundreds of hours. The attention paid to organic storytelling and dialogue-driven quests could pay off with emotional returns, but whether these narrative rewards will come close to topping the loot-crazed frenzy we relish remains to be seen. Gearbox seems well on their way to making you care about why you're shooting, but if there's one point you should take away from my impressions, it's this: beneath the emotive characters and compelling dialogue, beneath the polished exterior and retooled interface, beneath even the interacting enemies and profoundly rich character development, there lies the core of a game that wants you to put millions of bullets into damn near everything and not apologize for doing it. On that promise, this sequel looks to deliver. The next two months may well be an excruciating wait, but if Gearbox can nail what's new in Borderlands 2, the payoff will be worth it.