The 2K section of PAX East’s main exhibition hall was arguably the most dominant and hard-to-miss showcase of them all. Certainly, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed III booth and Rockstar’s enormous Max Payne 3 banner drew convention-goers’ eyes, but the main event was, without question, the Borderlands 2 booth, complete with life-sized statues of the game’s new characters — Salvador, Maya, Axton and Zero.

At the booth was a playable demo, giving players a 15 minute, multiplayer-only, taste of a newly-revealed area of the game called ‘Caustic Caverns,’ and offering 2 of the 4 new characters for play– Salvador the ‘Gunzerker’ and Maya the ‘Siren.’

What was immediately noticeable was the graphical fidelity of Borderlands‘ familiar cel-shaded cartoon style, with visuals looking noticeably sharper than those of its predecessor. The Caustic Caverns themselves however, were typical Borderlands fare. Almost too dull, in fact; and to the point that we thought it an odd demo choice to show to fans, many of whom would be seeing Borderlands 2 for the first time.

We started out in a tall, brightly-lit cavern, with natural light pushing in from holes in the cavern’s roof. Around us were scattered obligatory gray lockers with bright green buttons on the front that fans of the first game would immediately recognize as loot-holding containers. Of course they held cash and ammo for us. Embedded in one of the walls was a huge metal door which we found we could open by rotating a nearby valve. This led to a huge outdoor area — a vast, smokey, expanse of polluted beach, flanked by a rocky incline to the left and a bright-yellow shoreline and sea to the right. Half-sunken ships sat disabled and smoldering in the distance.

Throughout the demo we fought several types of insect-like creatures, some flying, some burrowing into and out of the earth to keep us moving and guessing. Overall, there wasn’t much enemy variety on-show, but the way they attacked and the way their movement behaviors mixed the combat dynamic up felt entirely fresh and new, as we found ourselves playing in a more immediate and inventive way than in the original.

As for the characters we could play and their abilities, Maya, the Siren’s special ability was a powerhouse of a party-trick called ‘Phaselock.’ This would paralyze an individual enemy in a bubble of energy and suspend them in the air for a short time, leaving them open to ludicrous amounts of damage from Salvador’s ‘Gunzerker’ special ability, which just so happens to be dual-wielding any two weapons, regardless of type. As in the previous game, each character’s special ability works on a cooldown system, and can be upgraded over time as the character levels up, while the left-bumper triggers it whenever the situation demands awesomeness.

Borderlands 2 Hands On preview action gameplay

Additionally, enemy encounters will be more varied across the whole game, as opposed to the idiotic “scream and run” AI of practically every enemy type in the original. As just one tiny example, a developer divulged to us that the small, midget-like masked marauders from the first game have been used and abused by the larger marauders for so long now that, in Borderlands 2, they will now aid players when given the chance. Some of the newer, heavy marauder types will carry shields with little marauders strapped to the front to absorb bullets. A carefully-aimed shot at the shield will release the little guys, who will then fight on your side.

One of the main pet peeves of Borderlands fans was the uselessness of the fragmented ‘area’ maps. This vocal fanbase will be pleased to learn that the world map is now a cohesive whole, with each area being its own section that can be zoomed-into and scrutinized at will, and each section will relate to the others geographically when zoomed-out to the overworld view.   Getting lost on Pandora will be a thing of the past when Borderlands 2 ships on September 18th in the US (September 21st for international markets).

User-interface-wise, the skill menu has been split to emphasize the three separate disciplines and level-up bonuses available to each character; whereas the weapon/backpack inventory screen and spin-off gun-comparison windows are almost completely unchanged. The menus are now displayed in floating 3D boxes rather than flat pages, and do feel more dynamic and interesting to look at on the whole, so gun-comparison-aficionado’s will have a grand time driving the menus when they get their hands on it.

Borderlands 2 Hands On preview gunzerker skill menu

Ultimately though, there was little shown that can be considered new. Indeed, the only aspects of Borderlands 2 we saw that set it apart from its predecessor were the abilities of the characters themselves, the skybox, which now sports an enormous space station in low orbit that is shaped like the letter ‘H’, and the souped-up menu design. Everything else we saw could quite easily have been a secret area from the original, and we wouldn’t have known any better.

Is this a bad thing? Well, no, actually. For fans of the original, developer Gearbox is giving them what they want: more Borderlands. Deviations from the original are still plentiful and more than enough to justify a full-priced sequel, versus a bulky chunk of DLC. They just aren’t immediately obvious. For example, in speaking to one developer, it became apparent that Borderlands 2 will feature a much richer and developed story — a fact that the Gearbox team has steadily been building towards with every piece of DLC they have released since the original game’s launch. If you think  about the story-quotient in Borderlands, then compare that with The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, and then Claptrap’s Robot Revolution, it’s clear that a stronger story has been building within the minds of the team’s writers for years.

Our time with Borderlands 2 was brief and although Gearbox didn’t blow anyone’s socks off with the chosen demo level, they did announce the Mechromancer class, that will apparently be arriving at a later, unconfirmed, date via DLC. All in all, it was made very clear to all PAX attendees — and to us — that Borderlands 2 is going to be exactly what fans of the original want it to be: more Borderlands, but bigger, nicer-looking, more varied, and with a lot more to do in-between comparing guns for hours. And all of these are good things indeed.

Borderlands 2 will release on September 18, 2012 (September 21, 2012 for international markets) for the PS3, PC, and Xbox 360.