Gearbox Software co-founder Randy Pitchford walks Calum W. Austin through the upcoming Borderlands 2 to see what it takes to survive on Pandora 5 years on.
870 gazillion. That's how many guns Borderlands 2 proudly claims to offer players. It might seem like a far-fetched claim: how could a development team have time to develop more guns than a player could ever hope to see in a game? Well Gearbox, the creators of the Borderlands franchise, have cracked the combination of absurdity, outrageous design and endless variety that few other games can imitate to give the player more death-dealing choice than they could ever need. Gearbox gets so many weapons into their game by procedurally generating the guns as they go — a system that means even the developers haven't seen every instance of outlandish ordnance on offer.
But when we get down to it, this is what makes the Borderlands games so successful and such a surprise hit with gamers. They're soaked in surreal characters and stories that perfectly mirror the alien-balls-to-the-wall combat and cel-shaded design. I got to sit down with Randy Pitchford, founder and president of Gearbox Software, to discuss what makes Borderlands so well-loved and how the sequel takes it up a few gazillion notches.
The first Borderlands was a complete surprise when it was released. After halting development mid-way to pursue a cel-shaded art style (concept images of the original, bland design are available online) and a maniacal attitude, Borderlands 1 was well-received by players and critics alike. The combination of light role-playing elements, frantic action and mountains of loot were a refreshing change for the first-person shooter market and gamers instantly embraced it.
You played as one of the vault hunters — a group of four mercenaries who arrive on the planet Pandora (no relation to James Cameron's Smurf village) seeking fame, fortune and carnage. Pandora is a brutish, post-industrial wasteland filled with violent wildlife and even more violent humans.
Without giving too much away, the vault hunters find what they are looking for after killing everything in a hundred kilometre radius. Story was never the focus in Borderlands and the plot was tenuously strung together. It's enough to propel you from one environment to another.
In Borderlands 2 you play as a new set of vault hunters, five years after the events of the first game, are looking to stop the self-made dictator, Handsome Jack. Again, the story is secondary to the gameplay, but the sequel looks to have at least an improved plot that gives a more lasting, satisfying experience.
Pitchford stressed the fact that improvement was the name of the game on Borderlands 2: “Everything from the interface to the crispness of the graphics, the detail and the sophistication of the AI and the variety of the environments, challenges, enemies and loot has been improved. And then there's all these new features and systems that have been brought into it. It's not just about systems — it's about technology too. It's quite an improvement.”
The enigmatic Pitchford is known for waxing lyrical about his upcoming projects, but his enthusiasm for Borderlands seems to be well-founded.
From my hands-on time with the game, the improvements range from vast to more subtly implemented. What's immediately obvious is how far the graphics have come. Cel-shaded games usually take longer to look outdated because of their art style, but Borderlands 2 looks positively beautiful compared to the original. The interface is also far more intuitive and navigating your vast pile of loot is much less confusing than previously.
But as with the first game, the role-playing aspect takes a back seat to the explosive action. The guns I saw were much more distinct than before, with an outlandish number of varieties to each style of weapon. The gun-play is where the changes seem more subtle. The experience will be instantly familiar to fans, but the whole control scheme seems more fluid.
As in Borderlands 1, you start the game with a choice of four characters, each with their own distinct skills that need upgrading. As each class has a special ability, much of your time in the game will be spent playing to their strengths. Should you choose Salvador, the Gunzerker, you will be able to dual-wield any two weapons in the game, regardless of physics or common sense. Axton, the commando, carries a portable gun turret that can be thrown down to mow through the inhabitants of Pandora or upgraded to produce a nuclear explosion as it deploys. Lillith has telekinetic “phase” abilities that allows her to suspend enemies in the air with dangerous purple space-magic. Finally Zero, the assassin, rounds out the group with the more subtle power of invisibility and a great big sword.
Each of the characters is tailored for a different style of play and players will surely have a blast finding out which is best for them. Even though fans of the original will notice some similarities in these characters, Pitchford is proud of the improvements made to the classes. “The first thing we did was create new characters so it felt fresh," he says. "There's some things we wanted to iterate and perfect, but there's other things that we've decided it would be fun to do something completely new. I think that these are intelligent decisions and they offer new experiences and new gameplay while still having a relationship and connectivity to the original game.”
Regardless of whether you've played the original or not, the new characters have been vastly improved over the previous ones and exploring all their ridiculous powers is appealing enough. That's before you even consider the new varieties of enemies, environments and vehicles that round out the rest of the game.
Nor will you be blasting your way through Pandora alone. As with the first game, the entire campaign is co-operative. Playing with friends is the way Borderlands is meant to be experienced, and will keep you from feeling murder-fatigue — a problem towards the latter half of the original.
The first Borderlands was well known for its surprisingly good story-based downloadable content. From the horror-inspired Zombie Island of Dr Ned to the manic Claptrap's New Robot Revolution, the quality of the stories Gearbox produced vastly improved after the release of the original game. Pitchford acknowledges this and admits it's a process of refinement.
“With Borderlands 1, we did some DLC that not only allowed us to explore other ideas but practice our storytelling. The narratives were stronger because we got better at making stories, but we also got better at making Borderlands. We had a lot of passion and momentum when we finished that game and in Borderlands 2, I feel that more than ever.”
Pitchford also briefly touched on Gearbox's desire to create more content. “We have begun development for some [story] DLC for Borderlands 2. We haven't announced anything yet, we're still figuring out our plans.”
Borderlands 2 doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it's not trying to. Gearbox is intent on delivering the same experience that made the original game a cult classic but with far more content and a desire to improve nearly every aspect of gameplay. With the inevitable DLC on its way and a vast wealth of content available to players at launch, it's easy to see why Pitchford is so confident.