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Beta’d: Borderlands 2; Or The Best Birthday Ever

Usually my birthday, September 18th, connotes sadness. On that day in 1931, the Mukden Incident gave Japan the pretext to invande Manchuria; in 1970, Jimi Hendrix choked to death on his own vomit; and in 2001, the first of the anthrax letters from Trenton, NJ was sent. This year, though, things are different, because the fine folks at Gearbox are ensuring that my birthday is going to kick major ass by releasing the hotly-anticipated Borderlands 2 for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. If you haven’t played the first game, then what’s wrong with you you still have plenty of time to introduce yourself to its frenetic blend of first-person shooter and RPG-style character building before its launch next month. Nerdist News’ Brian Walton and I had a chance to play a co-op demo recently and, I’ve got to say, I’m really looking forward to my birthday now.

Story: Set five years after the events of Borderlands, in which our intrepid Vault Hunters exposed the secrets of the Eridian Vault, the Vault Hunters have disappeared, and a man named Handsome Jack has not only claimed credit for their deeds, but assumed control of the riches the Vault contained. The newfound wealth allowed Jack (or we can call him “HJ” – your choice) to take control of friendly local mega-conglomerate Hyperion Corporation and, consequently, the entire planet of Pandora (don’t worry, there are no blue-skinned James Cameron furries). The game puts you in the shoes of one of four new characters who win their bodyweight in loot after competing in Ol’ HJ’s gladiatorial combat arena. One thing leads to another, and you are tasked with killing Handsome Jack, rescuing the four original Vault Hunters and stopping an ancient evil that’s about to be awoken on Pandora. All in a day’s work, right?

Graphics: The game looks gorgeous. Like Stephanie-who-sat-in-front-of-you-in-seventh-grade-algebra-on-the-one-day-you-happened-to-wear-sweat-pants-to-school-and-oh-my-God-why-is-my-body-changing gorgeous. The cel-shaded graphics combined with the series’ immediately iconic visual design makes you feel like you’re playing out pages from a seriously rad comic book. Crisp graphics, no visible slowdown and a vibrant color palette means that the post-apocalypse has never looked prettier. Sorry, Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome, but it had to be said.

Gameplay: The demo which we played is apparently an optional side mission that players gain access to near the middle of the campaign. Like the first game, there are four players from which to choose, each with their own unique traits, abilities and play styles. Brian opted for the stealthy, sword and gun-wielding assassin Zer0, so I went for someone who’d pack a little more firepower, the turret-deploying commando Axton. For our play-through, Gearbox set it up so we were at level 20, which gave us quite a few points to distribute as we saw fit. Naturally, I increased the strength of my turret and gave it abilities to heal us and replenish our ammo, provided we stayed within a certain radius. Armed with an assault rifle and a pistol, I was ready to kick some ass and chew some bubblegum. Brian, having not played the first game at all, auto-assigned his skill points in the interest of saving time and sanity. I’ll be honest, guys, he was pretty lost at first until he found a gun that he really liked, an automatic revolver which shot acid-covered bullets. Then he went apeshit (in a good way) and there was acid-covered blood everywhere (also in a good way). And when he went a little too apeshit, the handy revival system from the first game is still in place. If your partner doesn’t reach you in time, you can still spray hot, lead-flavored death at your enemies, and, if you manage to kill one of them, you can get a “Second Wind,” regaining your health in the process. But be careful – the game’s built-in saving throw has been counteracted a bit by enemies who can be rebuilt and/or healed. Just like in a zombie apocalypse, you’re better off sticking together.

Our mission, should we have chosen to accept it, was to infiltrate an industrial city to destroy golden statues in Handsome Jack’s likeness in order to incite rebellion and generally dampen the spirits of some poor sculptor. After getting the lay of the land, trying to get Brian to use his mini-map and follow me, and laying waste to waves of robotic soldiers, we came across our first sculpture. One problem: the statues, we discovered, are indestructible. In the paraphrased words of Radioactive Man, “Our guns! They do nothing!” Fortunately, we found a disused Statue Cutter robot (big statue problem in this town, I guess), hacked its core programming and repurposed it to follow us around. Newly armed with our giant public art-hating robot friend, we systematically made plazas worse for the wear, defending our cybernetic vandal as endless soldiers and mechs attempted to stop us while Handsome Jack attempted to dissuade us with increasingly annoyed, desperate pleas over the intercom.

After three statues and some lapses in attention on our parts, our Statue Cutter bot was in rough shape. His health had been depleted to approximately 25%, so we were understandably tense when it began slicing through the last golden Jack statue. But these are precisely the situations that make Borderlands 2 so exciting, particularly if you’re playing co-op with friends. Deploying my turret, Brian and I circle-strafed like our lives depended on it, riddling our enemies with bullets that lit them on fire or melted their skin with acid, and punching them in their stupid robot faces if they came too close. At long last, exhausted and caked with virtual blood, we emerged victorious. I’m still not sure Brian knows how to use the minimap, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t handy with an automatic revolver.

Impressions: Sweet buttery Moses, I cannot wait for this game. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of co-op campaign-style gameplay, and the beautiful minds over at Gearbox look like they’re ready to deliver another dosage of the clever FPS/RPG action that I’ve been craving. It also helps that the game has a wicked sense of humor; I almost felt bad about cutting Handsome Jack down to size because his quips over the P.A. system were so entertaining. And when it comes to customization and replay value, Borderlands 2 has it in spades. The original game holds a Guinness World Record for having the most guns of any videogame (17,750,000 to be precise), but in an interview with G4, Gearbox head honcho Randy Pitchford said this game would have even more. Can’t wait a month to get your fix? Chase the dragon with The Border Lands, a free de-make from Gearbox of a non-existent prequel that you won’t be able to put down. Looks like this year I’m going to have my cake and play it too.

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