Borderlands 2 and Artistic Evolution

E3 2012: With Borderlands 2, the series enters an artistic Renaissance.

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You probably knew this already, but the Borderlands we played in 2009 wasn't the Borderlands developer Gearbox originally conceived--at least, not from an art perspective. The strong cel-shaded look we associate with the game emerged from a more muted art design. Take a look at one of the original Borderlands images:

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And now, an image released after the shift in art design:

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Ultimately, Borderlands' art design was lauded as a success, but the game wasn't built with this art style in mind. And while that may not seem so relevant, shifts in style can actually make a big difference on the final product. The Darkness II producer Seth Olshfski has spoken at length about how difficult it can be to use post-processing techniques to create the effects you want, because the result can seem too cartoonish. The Darkness II, like Borderlands 2, is cel-shaded, though its color palette and overall visual vibe are rather different. Nevertheless, the point remains: when you work on a game with a specific art style in mind, the result is a lot more cohesive than if you abandon styles partway through.

Borderlands 2, playable at E3 2012, already has the jump on its predecessor: it was built with a style firmly established, which meant wide possibilities for artistic growth. The resulting improvements were easy to assess while playing the short cooperative demo on the show floor. In part, that's because the level was postapocalyptic urbana, a high-contrast city environment teeming with robots and flanking opportunity. Bright whites and golds proved visually effective against the more vivid colors of the weapons and bots, and the damage digits floating above targets popped right off the screen.

It's difficult to reasonably compare publisher-provided screenshots with actual screens we take in-game. However, comparisons can still clarify artistic improvements. Consider these screens:

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This isn't quite an apples-to-apples scenario, but the screens more or less demonstrate the improvement in art design. The texturing is much more sophisticated; painted-on details and "lighting" elements have been augmented with real-time shadows and traditional drawing techniques. Where there were thick lines of demarcation, there are now subtle color gradations and thinner marks; flat painted surfaces now look weathered and three-dimensional.

The result is a more organic style that still retains the original game's animated sci-fi vision. The level we played at E3 didn't give the impression that the Borderlands 2 world is any less desolate than the original, in spite of the city environment. (It was still designed to be an arena for battle, rather than a populace's ravaged home.) But clearly, there has been a lot of care taken to further iterate on the original Borderlands' visual style. If you appreciate artistic growth in video game sequels, Borderlands 2 may serve as an evocative case study.

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