A radical departure from Borderlands this sequel is not. But you don't go back to the drawing board when your first game hits on a winning blend of punchy gunplay and compulsive, massively multiplayer online-style loot chasing, nor when it shifts a surprise 6 million copies and several cartloads of DLC.
Borderlands 2, then, is more about expansion and refinement and less about novelty. "[The original game] required invention because no one had really done that before," says Gearbox's Randy Pitchford. "Borderlands 2 gets to benefit from all that being figured out. It knows the strengths of Borderlands 1, and it can double down and invest in that more."
Twice as Much Money, Twice as Much Stuff
It doubles down by doubling up; this is a game exploded to twice the size of the original by a budget twice as large, says Pitchford, meaning more guns, more enemies, and more Pandora.
That's not to say it is invention-free. In the Vault Hunter's box of tricks are novelties such as slag, an elemental effect that coats baddies with a goopy purple debuff, and explosively disposable Tediore guns which, when empty, can be tossed like a giant grenade.
The classes of the four new playable characters, meanwhile, now emphasise skills rather than weapon specialties. This leaves you freer to experiment with different types of weapon while you sink experience points into one of your character's three distinctive skill trees, each of which enhances their class-specific ability.
Stab Anyone, Dual-Wield Anything
Axton the commando, your workaday soldier, can lob an upgradable turret onto the wasteland battlefield. Tucked away in the skill trees of the masked assassin Zer0, on the other hand, are various skills engineered for flashy, ninja-style melee and, at the end of one branch, a nifty holographic decoy.
Salvador the gunzerker is a gun-loving mini hulk; he will dual-wield any combination of boomsticks you care to put in his hands, and can be geared towards an aggro-grabbing tank or an all-out damage dealer. Maya the siren, last of all, has the swirly power of phaselock, with which she can fix an enemy in place. In one of her skill trees, this power can be specialised to heal and revive friendlies, or to steal enemies' health.
A glimpse of Sanctuary, the game's first hub town, reveals a big burg packed with returning characters--among them Roland, Marcus, Lilith, and Dr Zed--and wandering civilians, playable slot machines, gun vending machines, and Quick Change character customisation booths. The crisply cel-shaded settlement, all cool blues and neon bar signs by night, is buzzy and alive in a way the last game's hubs couldn't quite muster.
They Heard You Like RPGs (So They Put an RPG in Your RPG)
The game's Badass Ranks, finally, are wholly new to Borderlands. These ranks track and reward your whole Borderlands 2 career's worth of progress, letting you accrue badass points while you level up a character, then carry them over into new characters, permanently boosting crucial stats while you max out hero after hero.
Pitchford says dedicated players will clock up hundreds or thousands of ranks, calling the system a kind of "meta-RPG" masterstroke on top of the existing RPG-ness of progression in Borderlands 2. If you couldn't tear yourself away from Borderlands back in 2009 and 2010, this is the face of your new addiction: persistent, cross-character levelling. See you on Pandora in September.