Borderlands was not the original ‘up to 11’ game, but it has a pretty good claim to being the first to hit consoles, the first of the ‘new’ generation, and the first to hit the full-on AAA bigtime. Only a quick glance at the marketing shows that this was a throwaway game that lasted 25-50 hours: whether this was a flaw or a triumph depends on your perspective, and largely which of the millions of guns landed in your hands first. Borderlands, more than any of the Call of Gears of Battlefield shooters, is a game about guns. Guns to own and use, guns to covet, guns to be amused by.
It is no mistake, then, that Borderlands 2’s headline statistic is simply ‘more guns’. By a factor of ten or so. It would be a mistake to ignore them: more guns is playing to the series’ strengths, and it speaks volumes to both the designers and writers that gun branding is a Thing That Exists: from the little logo that pops up as you equip your weapon of choice, the player can learn a lot about this gun just by who made it. Naturally, as part of Borderlands 2’s project to be bigger, faster and more explosive, some refinements have been made. Tediore, the Tesco Value of gunsmiths, now aren’t reloaded: they’re thrown away – to explode. New classes are in, too – no change from the structure of the old, with three trees of skills in which to specialise, but now with more attention paid to the play design of each tree, and some truly absurd skills to be found with enough levelling and focus. The soldier, a turret-dropping gentleman who is perhaps the closest to a straight transplant from the first game, now has the ability to let off a tiny nuclear explosion as his turret deploys, after teleporting to its’ location. ‘Up to 11’ indeed – Gearbox understand that, rather than rationing out your nuclear detonations à la Call of Duty, they should be an integral part of each and every fight. Rounding out the class selection are Salvador the Gunzerker: a dwarf with a power to dual-wield any pair of guns in the game, while running around with infinite ammunition; Maya the Siren, owner of various stunlocking and healing abilities, leading up to the ability to convert enemies to allies, then smash them into tiny pieces, and the daftly-named but wonderfully conceptually rich Zer0, a ninja assassin and sniper. Joining the roster shortly after launch, thanks to the vagaries of console certification, is the Mechromancer, built around the ability to summon a robotic familiar and designed both as a deeper class for old hands, and a starter class for new players, dragged into multiplayer co-op by friends or significant others.
The focus on Borderlands-as-social-gaming deserves mention: added in 2 is four-player splitscreen, for bouncing around the campaign as a sofa-full of friends, rather than detached voices in a headset. The touch of designers who prefer their games to be fun right now, rather than a progression of skill challenges to be surmounted (or racial slurs over voice comms to be depressed by) is clearly evident: while the infamous ‘girlfriend mode’ comment will go down in history as a PR disaster, it speaks to a desire in all gamers: the ability to grab someone you care about, hand them a controller, and sincerely promise “come play this thing with me, I guarantee you’ll have fun”. If Borderlands 2 is about generating enjoyable out-of-game social experiences, it’s looking like a dead cert.
But what of the experienced gamer? To settle into a 30+ hour videogame is the same sort of commitment as Russian literature: tough work at times, but with the promise of dribs and drabs of plot and inspiration which are made all the sweeter for the challenge. The story in Borderlands was, while not weak per se, a fairly perfunctory affair: the final boss drew uncharitable if accurate comparisons to that of one of Gearbox’s earlier successes, Half Life: Opposing Force. They promise better this time, bringing in established videogame funny-man Anthony Burch to write: while the plot remains mostly under wraps, the introduction of a recurring adversary in the form of Handsome Jack inevitably lends more structure and more direction to a game that could have easily fallen into the open-world trap.
Borderlands 2 promises the earth (or rather, Pandora). The seeds are all there, though the nature of the game hides its’ success from the demo stand all too well: this is a game to get lost in over hours and days, not blast through a half-level in 25 minutes. Whether it matches expectations is a question that can only be answered in September.
Borderlands 2 is out on September 21st