Borderlands was a surprise commercial hit and critical darling when it released in the fall of 2009. The cell-shaded animation, diverse weaponry, bizarre enemies, and tongue-in-cheek humor resulted in tremendous word of mouth buzz that left some retailers short on copies. That said, while the title offered a lot of content for its retail price tag (not to mention worthy DLC additions), there's no doubt that, after 40 hours of looting, killing, and flipping cars, the underlying gameplay was pretty repetitive.
As a result, what has the team at Gearbox done to make their upcoming sequel, Borderlands 2, a worthy (and more robust) successor? The developers have already promised that Borderlands 2 will be less repetitive and offer more frequent enemy encounters but what about the core mechanics of the title's various "classes"? According to the game's lead designer, Jon Hemingway, and lead writer, Anthony Burch, players should expect deep customization options that offer diverse gameplay approaches.
Speaking with IGN, the developers asserted that while all the characters will obviously be able to handle the various weapons they discover throughout the game, this time players will encounter a deeper experience as they build-up their character through a skill tree system that increases the usefulness of their "primary skill" - unique to each class. We'll have to wait to hear more about the other classes, though Burch promises that the gameplay of Borderlands 2 "Siren," Maya will be "very, very different and very, very new," but, in the case of the Gunzerker class, primary skill = dual-weilding weapons (which we already saw in some Borderlands 2 sneak peek footage).
According to Burch, Gunzerker dual-wielding offers some truly devastating combat options - not to mention brutal onscreen action:
"I can combine a shock machine gun and a fire shotgun and charge with my machine gun firing to drop [enemy] shields and then light them on fire with the shotgun at close range and melt their face."
Burch went on to describe the first of the Gunzerker's primary skill trees - Rampage:
""We certainly added more skills. We wanted the trees to be more unique [... It's] about being a whirlwind of destruction. A lot of skills are actually based off of movie quotes. With the skill Yippe Ki Yay, 'while you're gunzerking [dual-wielding], any time you kill an enemy it increases the duration of gunzerking. What happens is that a really large encounter with lots of enemies becomes exciting. You immediately enter your gunzerking mode and every time you kill them you get bigger and stronger and badder and just completely go on a rampage throughout the fight. As long as you can keep killing things you can just keep on gunzerking forever."
Hemingway also gave an example from the Brawn tree, specifically the "Come at Me, Bro" skill:
"While gunzerking you can let out a taunt and get enemies to focus on you. But then for the next several seconds you get a ton of damage reduction. But also the moment you taunt you instantly go to full health -- and so it's actually fantastic. You're in the middle of a fight, you're not doing so well, so rather than die you just start taunting, go to full health and then proceed to kill them all as they all focus on you. It's a fantastic moment, and a great example of something you do in the Brawn skill tree."
According to Burch, the third and final skill tree for the Gunzerker is called Gun Lust:
"[Gun Lust is] all about just doing crazy or interesting things with guns. There's one skill called No Kill Like Overkill and anytime you kill an enemy, any excessive amount of damage you dealt is converted into health for you. Once you have this skill [...] you really want a gun to finish off enemies that does a ton of damage in one shot, so it's not uncommon for us to see gunzerkers go in with SMGs or something -- some, fast, high fire rate but low damage weapon -- because you get a guy's health low and then swap to a sniper riper or revolver and get a ton of health back."
That said, while players will be able to level-up the different skill trees (instead of being locked into a single progression path), Hemingway made it clear that gamers will be allowed to re-organize their skill points as they progress - since they'll likely be honing their play style as they journey through Pandora:
"We won't talk specifically about how you do respec-ing but our philosophy has always been that it should be very, very easy and very cheap. You know in the first game respec-ing was ridiculously cheap to do and you could do it whenever you wanted. We do everything we can to encourage experimentation so the players can try out the different things."
There's no doubt that Borderlands 2 is set to expand on Gearbox's winning formula. In the full IGN interview, Burch and Hemingway also describe how smart use of these skill options, coupled with loot scattered around the world, can make for some truly deadly combat options across various class types and play styles. Most importantly, the improvements don't come at the cost of anything that fans will miss - i.e. Gearbox isn't altering the core gameplay - they're just giving players a myriad of new and enticing options for destroying enemies in Borderlands 2.
That said, some of these skill options sound extremely powerful - meaning that players should expect some enormous combat set-pieces and longer missions in the new title.
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick.
Borderlands 2 releases Summer 2012 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.