The marketing of games these days, especially shooters, seems to have taken a turn for the serious or seriously melodramatic — with montages of slow motion gunplay, weighty issues and plot points set to a manipulative melancholy or bombastic soundtrack featuring the likes of Mad World or the Carmina Burana.
But the marketing of the much anticipated FPS/RPG hybrid Borderlands 2 is different. It’s silly, light weight and concentrates almost solely on mechanics and gameplay over plot and themes. “I have a lot of respect for the serious stuff”, says Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox Software, to me.
“When we do our Brothers In Arms we treat that subject matter with an extreme amount of deference, but Borderlands is kind of a special brand. It allows us to cut loose a little bit. It is just about joy and happiness and entertainment, so it is fun and we can have fun when we’re sharing the game with people and promoting it.”
That sense of fun really comes through in the “Wimoweh” trailer. “We had to do a trailer around that time so people didn’t think we were denying them,” Pitchford explained. “It was the right time to do a trailer and it wasn’t the launch trailer, and we’d already done the announcement trailer, so we can take a wild risk, and if we take a wild risk and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter because we’re going to have other trailers leading up to the launch.”
“There was a moment we contemplated not licensing the original song and covering it ourselves, all a capella. I went into the booth and there’s a file of this somewhere, I went into the booth with Mark Petty and a capalla‘d the main kind of harmony, and I did, like, eight parts myself.” Randy then proceeded to demonstrate this to me…
…and, although I now have the privilege of being personally serenaded by the President of Gearbox Software, the a capella version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight will (un?)fortunately never see a wide release.
What is fortunate however, is that the same sense of fun and silliness combined with affectionate nostalgia is still present in Borderlands 2.
Upon sitting down with the game one thing that becomes evident very quickly is that the skill trees have a much greater effect on the characters than they did in the first game. “There are completely different gameplay styles that emerge from the different skill trees”, says Pitchford.
“Almost everything in the original Borderlands was just a stat modifier as far as skills go, and now the skills actually give you function and capability,” said Pitchford. The individual skill trees of each character are more defined than in the first game, giving a definite role enhancement rather than just a few modifiers.
Zer0, the assassin, can specialise in sniper rifles or melee damage, turning the character into either an extreme long range attacker or a melee scrapper. The new skill trees also encourage players to specialise and work their way down to the bottom of a tree thanks to some unique and powerful abilities.
Maxing out one of Axton’s skill trees, a commando who plays in a similar way to Roland, causes his turret to detonate a small tactical nuke every time the skill is used. Combined with another skill that allows the player to place a turret anywhere with a flat space within viewing distance and you have some interesting emergent gameplay styles coming straight from the skill trees.
While the fact that Borderlands 2 features four new characters may be something of a disappointment to those who longed for some character continuity from the original game, Pitchford feels differently. “The characters in the original game are what they are, so if we were going to introduce these new styles of gameplay and introduce diversity within a class that wasn’t there before you kind of have to bring in new characters — otherwise you’re kind of corrupting the identity of the original characters.”
That’s not the sole reason. Randy went on to explain that the new characters are also important for experiential reasons, saying “we wanted experientially for everything to be exciting and surprising and new. So the places you’ll visit and the enemies you’ll face and the villain and his motive, and your motives, and the skills you’ll have and the characters you’ll pick from and the loot you’ll pick up, there’s a familiarity to it but it’s all new. It’s all unique for Borderlands 2.”
After having played missions as both the Siren, Maya and Zer0, this new but familiar feeling is palpable. Both of the characters feel new, but there are elements to both that hearken back to characters in the original game. Maya, for example has a phase ability, but instead of being able to Phasewalk like Lilith in the first game (becoming invisible for a short while and moving much faster than the rest of the world) Maya instead concentrates her phase powers on enemies, putting them in short term stasis bubbles. Zer0 feels reminiscent of both Lilith and Mordecai, having enhanced abilities with sniper rifles and the ability to enter stealth and inflict heavy melee damage.
An often criticised feature of the first game was the final encounter, and the abrupt (non) ending. According to Pitchford, “In hindsight it turned out to be a terrible idea but on paper it sounded amazing. What we were trying to do was a twist”. The idea was that the player follows this story about the vaults and amazing alien treasure, when in fact that’s a mistranslation and the vault is actually a prison locking away a powerful evil.
It’s a nice idea but one that, Pitchford explained, failed on three fronts, “On one level one of the failures was the whole game kind of sets this expectation of ‘open the vault and you’ll get your loot’. Since the whole game is about getting loot that seems like what the pay-off should be”.
Instead of a box of treasure, players were faced with a boss and a smash cut to credits, something that Randy sees as another fundamental flaw. The biggest problem, however, was one of level and difficulty. “A lot of players when they got to the ending, because of the nature of the way the RPG game worked, turned out to be OP. They were overpowered for the boss”, Pitchford explained. “By the time they encountered the boss it wasn’t much of a challenge at all.”
“Imagine the difference in feeling if that had been a long, drawn out, difficult fight that you may lose a number of times before you discovered its nuances and figure out how to build the skill to overcome it and then finally defeated it. That would have been a different kind of feeling than what actually happened which was most people went in there, very quickly melted it down and then boom, it’s over.”
The lack of a proper ending shouldn’t be a problem with Borderlands 2. Little of the plot has actually been shown as yet, thanks to a marketing plan that is concentrating on mechanics rather than story, but one thing we were shown at the hands on event hints at a very different approach to both end game content and replayability.
The approach is more in line with that of an MMO than a traditional RPG. What we were shown was a boss battle against an enormous unlockable beast called Terramorphous (seen above). Much like Crawmerax the Invincible, an optional boss in the Borderlands DLC The Secret Armory of General Knoxx, Terramorphous is intended to be fought by a group of character rather than faced solo, but there is one important difference in design.
Pitchford rather succinctly broke down the differences, saying “Terramorphous is level 52. The level cap is 50. When you finish your first play-through you’ll probably be between level 30 and 35, so you wouldn’t stand a chance against Terramorphous, even if you could get to him. You have to spend Iridium to get to him. Iridium is a rare mineral that you can find and use to purchase things from the black-market that are exceptionally rare”.
The giant beast is only the first post-end-game boss in Borderlands 2 but depending on player response they are ready and willing to create and release more as DLC. This idea of meaningful, repeatable content all comes from the team’s desire to add long term value to the game. They want Borderlands 2 to be something more akin to a hobby than a game — and repeatable “raid” style bosses is one of the avenues they want to use to bring players back time and time again.
Another is a new system called, in true Borderlands style, “Bad-Ass”. We didn’t get to play around with the system, but that’s more because it’s not really something you can demonstrate in half an hour but rather something that has an impact over the long term. What the system does is reward players for playing and completing challenges. “I got this idea of an kind of RPG system that was for the player, like a profile level RPG system, so we came up with the Bad-Ass system where you go up Bad-Ass ranks. The idea is that when you go up ranks it’s actually you, the player, not your character,” says Pitchford.
“Every time you rank up you get tokens that can improve the core stats, like how much damage you do or how quickly you can reload or how accurate you are”. They’re not huge upgrades though, only adding a small iterative upgrade each time, and the stats that can be upgraded are randomised each time you gain a Bad-Ass level to stop specialisation, but these upgrades can make a big difference in the long run.
Unlike the normal level cap there is no cap on Bad-Ass levels, so players will continue to be rewarded for play long after reaching level 50. Because the systems levels the player’s profile, not the character, all bonuses are applicable to all characters — though players can turn the bonuses off if they want a more “pure” experience.