Hands-on with Borderlands 2: refining Pandora, smarter bandits, badass weapons

There are some great games coming out later this year, but it’s going to be hard to top Borderlands 2. That’s the feeling I got after spending about 90 minutes with the game yesterday and chatting with some of the guys working on the follow-up to the hit 2009 Borderlands.

It was about 30 minutes into my hands-on time with Borderlands 2 that I started to notice some of the most meaningful changes and additions to Gearbox’s expansive and highly addicting co-op shooter-RPG. Maybe I was too focused on lobbing grenades at these heavily armored robotic enemies that surrounded me and my partner, a representative from 2K Games playing Maya the Siren. Or maybe it was the bandits and skags that kept jumping out of the way of my powerful shotgun shells. Just about every enemy we encountered put up a strong fight, frequently attempting to flank us, even charging or leaping behind to catch us off guard.

There is a new intelligence to the A.I., but that doesn’t necessarily translate to a more difficult game. Gearbox loads your characters with plenty of upgrades via the leveling system. I played as Salvador the Gunzerker. My primary upgrades gave my special ability, which boosted my health and added a gun in my left hand, nearly infinite ammunition. This was particularly useful when facing mini-bosses or hoards of enemies. With a tap of the button I became something of a maniac, blowing baddies back with my shotgun while unleashing hundreds of bullets from my machine gun at more distant foes. So while the enemies in Borderlands 2 received a much needed intelligence boost, Gearbox made sure you can handle just about anything the game throws at you.

We played in the Wildlife Preserve and we started as level 20 characters. We leveled to 21 before finishing the first part of the demo. There was another substantial change that was easy to overlook because the game rarely let’s up for more than a few minutes. The Wildlife Preserve is quite large and diverse. The game has a graphical overhaul but still retains that cartoonish cell-shaded appearance. This particular level was more than just the typical arid desert. We played through what looked like a small machinery depot, escaping to small caverns and eventually indoors to search for Bloodwing, Mordecai’s pet from the original Borderlands. There were some story elements to our mission that were easy to overlook in my initial play as I was so focused on the action, but it’s very clear Gearbox is looking to make the sequel far more story-driven. As we progressed through the level, our quest updated.

Fans of Borderlands will likely be happy to know the HUD now sports a mini-map on the top right of the screen. Nearly everything about the game feels streamlined to get you into the action faster. You’ll automatically pick up dropped ammo or health packs, meaning in the heat of the battle you can ignore the clutter of loot on the ground and instead focus on eliminating your enemies. I was also told Gearbox is making some changes to the vehicle mechanics, which for me was a major buzz kill in the original. It was also refreshing to look through the reworked skill trees to see that we’ll get a system that allows for important upgrades early on, in addition to substantial rewards for the late levels.

While an hour and a half isn’t really enough time to judge a game, it’s safe to say that fans of Borderlands (myself included) will have a lot to look forward to when the sequel is released later this year. Gearbox is certainly not trying to redefine its masterpiece so much as refine it and gives fans more of the same. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I for one can’t wait to get back to Pandora. Co-op is still king in the Borderlands universe, but I’ll be anxious to try the game on solo to see if it’s as fun playing alone as it is with friends.