Borderlands was a game about shooting stuff. Sure, it gave us interesting weapons to shoot and varied targets to fire upon, but that was the long and short of it. Borderlands 2 is still about shooting, but there's much more to it than that. Its gorgeous world, creative set pieces, and ludicrous humor aim to flesh out the blueprint set out by its predecessor.
The demo begins with our character, the new Gunzerker class, on a wintry plain. The pale blue landscape obscured by howling winds and flakes of snow is more reminiscent of Okami's water coloured wonderland than Borderland's brown wasteland. "Imagine that, new colours," jokes Gearbox's Steve Gibson, running the demo. There's a story about trying to rescue your friend in this mission, but it's not important. The priority is on survival.
While the cold doesn't seem to have any tangible effect on you, danger quickly presents itself as abominable creatures called Bullymongs pop out of the icework. All arms, fur and claws, they hop around like overgrown frogs picking up anything they can get their hands on to throw at you, including stalactites, cars, people, and quite innocently, snowballs. Bear in mind that this is still early in the game before threats escalate from elementary school hijinks to astronomical assaults.
As we eliminate the Bullymongs we're introduced to some new guns. First off is the Tediores, which Gibson refers to as "the Walmart of gun manufacturers." They're disposable, so rather than emptying a clip and reloading, you throw them out and grab a new one. If their empty shell collides with an enemy it'll explode, stunning them for a moment.
Next up is a bandit assault rifle; a scrappy contraption of garish nuts and bolts strung together in a slapdash fashion. Its clumsy design shoots weak bullets, but their clips are enormous, so you can burn through rounds before running out of ammo.
After this ordeal is over we take a jeep-like vehicle for a spin. While I couldn't get my hands on the controller, Gibson promises they handle better than in Borderlands and no longer come to a complete stop every time you bump into an enemy.
To demonstrate this the demo rep drives over some smaller enemies as they fly over the hood and we cruise on without bothering to exchange our information. The other change to vehicles is that they now support four players, three of whom shoot while one player takes the wheel. Perhaps the most major change to navigation is the inclusion of a mini-map, a baffling omission from the original.
The UI has been improved in the menus as well. No longer will split-screen require you to go through the headache of scrolling across menus and inventory screens. It's not long before we find an outpost full of bandits. Unlike its predecessor, wounded enemies in Borderlands 2 react to their injuries with knockdowns, staggers, and stuns being commonplace. There's still a slight disconnect between them being shot and their muted jerky reactions, but the correlation between your bullets and their bodies is a step forward at least.
Their AI is more advanced, too. "They can now go anywhere you can," explains Gibson. They'll hop up roofs and give chase, so you can no longer use ladders as a cheap getaway. Different enemies will have unique capabilities like healing, so they'll replenish their comrade's health if you don't eliminate them in time. This should add a greater degree of tactics to the combat than shooting everything that moves until it stops.
Once the bandits are put to rest, we come upon our first boss battle with the Nomad. Adorned in red leather, he resembles a cross between a Tusken Raider from Star Wars and one of Hostel's torturers. Holding up his shield, he reveals a terrified half-naked midget chained to it. Considering the impracticality of maneuvering such defense I'm reminded of what Gearbox creative director Mikey Neumann said when presenting the first Borderlands at E3 a couple years back; "Realism can eat s**t and die." Borderlands 2 appears to be the natural progression of that philosophy.
Shooting the chains releases the midget, who turns on his captor and repeatedly stabs him while we pump the nomad full of lead. During the fight we get to see the Gunzerker's special ability: a dual wielding barrage of bullets.
While it's nice to have variety, neither dual wielding nor extra-power boosts are innovative, but they're fun inclusions nonetheless. More promising is that the Gunzerker can dual-wield any two weapons, including rocket launchers. I almost find myself criticising that being a strong badass shouldn't have any bearing on your firearm's strength, but then I remember what Neumann said about realism and realise I'm over-thinking it.
Crossing through a lush green field, we come upon an outpost at a dam run by Hyperion Corporation. Hyperion was once a mining company but has since changed their focus to creating war machines. Their outpost's technicolour flags and bloody red rafters make this the most colourful post-apocalypse since Enslaved.
Getting to the dam's peak we see an awe-inspiring waterfall on one side and a majestic expanse of plains and a river on the other, with the futuristic metropolis of Hyperion City lingering in the background. "If it looks like you can go there, you can," Gibson emphasises, giving us a tantalising peak at what's to come.
We're now introduced to enemy robots that lack the ability to feel pain, so they behave a lot more aggressively than the organic Neanderthals and creatures we're used to. Even after getting their legs blown off they'll lunge towards you, crawling on the floor before exploding in a shower of sparks.
Eventually, we see Roland from the first game make an appearance. Only something is different about him. For one he seems to be stuck in a blue force field cage atop a giant tank like platform. His robotic base scurries away, destroying everything in its path. As we try to catch up to him we're surrounded by a swarm of robots.
If that weren't bad enough, Hyperion's base on a ghostly afternoon moon starts shooting at us and sending reinforcements. As 30 Rock's Liz Lemon once said while cursing at the moon with Buzz Aldrin, "You dumb moon! Don't you know it's day?"
Borderlands was a proof of concept combining the post-apocalyptic open world of Fallout with co-op first-person shooting of Left 4 Dead and the loot-whoring of Diablo. It simply lost the refinement of some of the shooters it wanted to emulate and its world was a one-trick pony of barren deserts.
Borderlands 2 maintains its predecessor's lowbrow spirit and Gibson himself admits, "we love dumb s**t at Gearbox." Such improvements to the environments, combat, and UI are so promising that this could be Gearbox's smartest rendition of stupid yet.