Gamescom 2011: Borderlands 2 First-Look Preview

Gearbox is hardly taking the easy route with its next off-the-wall hybrid of first-person shooter and role-playing game.

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If Borderlands is an example of how far an original concept and a terrific sense of humor can take a game, then Borderlands 2 is what happens when the developer takes a step back and realizes that those two qualities aren't everything. In fact, listening to Gearbox vice president Steve Gibson, you can't help but feel tempted to remind him that Borderlands was actually a pretty great game. "We had no weapons in Borderlands 2 for about six months while we gutted the weapon system and replaced the whole thing," says Gibson. "But we felt like we could do a lot better. We thought the AI system could be a lot better. We felt like the quest system could be a lot better. We felt like the vehicle system could be a lot better." We're sensing a theme here.

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Gearbox's laundry list of improvements starts with the gameworld itself. While Pandora was a visually striking place with delightfully absurd inhabitants, the whole place lacked any sort of greater context. Why are you there? Do people actually live in this place apart from those enemies? According to Gibson, "This time around we've actually put the writer of Borderlands in the same room as the lead designer of Borderlands. We're connecting the world and the story and your quests all together now. We're trying to weave a much more intricate tale."

Specifics on said tale are hard to come by right now, but here's hoping it's as endearingly ridiculous as the rest of Borderlands 2. This is a game where one boss fight has you up against a heavily armored enemy who has tied a vulgar midget to the front of his riot shield. This is a game where suicide bomber robots come charging at you with reckless abandon, dragging their torsos around if they were lucky enough to lose only their legs. And did we mention the disposable guns? Instead of reloading them, you just throw the empty ones at your enemies for no other reason than, well, why not? (Even stranger, the next disposable gun just appears in your hand as if out of nowhere.)

Yet it's not all silliness and absurdity. Gearbox promises a wholesale overhaul to the way enemies behave in combat. You'll find enemies who are more keenly aware of their surroundings and chances of survival, jumping up to higher ledges to flank you, dodge out of the way of gunfire, or slink off behind cover and back toward safety when they're critically injured. "Enemies are actually going to work together, call plays, and take more advantage of the environment," says Gibson. At least, the smart ones will do that. The psychos, everyone's favorite raving lunatics from the first game, still operate with a mantra that Gibson describes as, "Wow that's a gun! I want my face in front of it."

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Getting around from quest to quest looks to be easier thanks to reworked vehicle physics. Gibson promises that your car of choice will no longer freak out when it clips the slightest rock, reacting more smoothly to bumps along the road while adding more variance to the previously zero-sum game of trying to run over enemies. (It was either you killed them dead, or they stopped your car.) Speaking of navigation, Gibson also boasts that views of the gameworld from high-up vantage points are now "geographically correct" rather than a faked skybox, meaning that you can now spot someplace you'd like to go and simply head in that direction until you get there.

The one quest we were shown served to explain what Gearbox is trying to do differently with some of the mission designs. In this case, you're out to rescue a friend of yours who is being held hostage at the top of a dam by the evil Hyperion corporation. As it turns out, that friend is actually Roland from the first game--there's a new cast of characters, while the original cast return as non-player characters--and he's being held by a floaty jet engine robot monster called the W4R-D3N. Said robot monster proceeds to lead you on a chase along the dam, where you have to deal with groups of incoming enemies, some of whom are called in as reinforcements from Hyperion's base on the moon. Why? Because why wouldn't the evil corporation you're fighting be able to call in airdrops from the moon? You can dual-wield ridiculously powerful and exotic guns. It's all about keeping a level playing field.

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The point is, Gearbox wants to make quests more about being self-contained adventures and less about being sent off on yet another fetch quest. We could continue to go on about areas that Gibson wants to improve, but suffice it to say that the team at Gearbox isn't resting on its laurels for Borderlands 2. Now we're just eager to play the thing and see how it feels, and whether some of the user interface improvements Gibson promised feel like major upgrades. But we like what we've seen so far, that's for sure.

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