If you've ever just looked up at the sky while playing a Borderlands game you might've noticed the big H-shaped, Hyperion-owned moonbase suspended ominously in space above the planet Pandora. Well, in the next big Borderlands game, coming out this fall, you'll be going to that moon.
I spent part of my Friday last week at NYC's London Hotel, a swanky building in midtown Manhattan. On the 53rd floor, in a penthouse suite that took up two floors, five of us reporters sat on a comfy blue/grey couch in front of a large TV where Gearbox's Randy Pitchford and 2K Australia's Tony Lawrence stood side-by-side, ready to tell us about what's next for Borderlands.
This was the setting in which Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel would first be (officially) revealed to us. You can hear them talk about the game right here:
The Pre-Sequel is a different take on the four playable vault-hunting heroes typically seen in a Borderlands game. This time, it's all about the villains, but maybe not in the way you're used to seeing them.
There are a few main points about this new game you should know about.
It'll release on last-gen consoles—PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360—and PC this fall. Why? Because, according to the Gearbox/2K duo, they wanted to focus their energies on making the game as great an experience as they can without expending any resources to making it work on multiple platforms. They consider their audience to be last-gen users, given that previous Borderlands games have been on those platforms, and want to make a game their audience can play.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a 1.5 in terms of the story, but they insist it's a 2.5 in terms of features and tech, running on the Borderlands 2 engine.
Athena, the Gladiator
Athena is originally a character from Borderlands' General Knoxx DLC. She was the ex-Crimson Lance assassin you probably remember from a few story missions. The Gearbox player leading the 20-or-so-minute demo chose to play as Athena, so she's the one we know most about so far.
Her action skill is called "Kinetic Aspis," which basically translates to a shield that can absorb damage and then can be thrown at enemies with the full force of the damage it absorbed. There are a few choice skill tree attributes that really amp the shield up in different ways—extra damage, healing and tanking attributes, and one skill that let's the shield strike several enemies before it returns to you.
Wilhelm, the Enforcer
Wilhelm is another returning Borderlands character. He's the big robot boss from Borderlands 2, except he wasn't always a robot. He's a human like any other in The Pre-Sequel. Except, as you level him up, his abilities will slowly construct that robotic form he eventually turns into.
Nisha, the Lawbringer
Another Borderlands 2 character who we knew as the Sheriff of Lynchwood. We don't know much more just yet, though.
Claptrap, the Fragtrap
Everyone knows Claptrap! Remember how he escorted you off the snowy ice in the beginning of Borderlands 2? We'll find out more about how Claptrap ended up there in the events that unfold in The Pre-Sequel. Worth noting that the camera view will be considerably lower than that of the other characters', but Gearbox's Pitchford assured us that his other abilities more than make up for that.
It's why 2K's Tony Lawrence led most of the presentation of the game while Randy Pitchford sat back to observe. It's clearly a collaborative effort—both sides of the project told tales of flying to each other's side of the world to exchange ideas and hash out new features—and during the open question-and-answer session they took turns answering journalists' questions about the game.
"They've really done some things to turn Borderlands upside down, so to speak," Pitchford joked. "These guys have been able to ignore rules we've set for ourselves and bring some new things to the Borderlands universe. The Australia team didn't care about the arguments we've had over the years about whether or not freeze weapons would be difficult or whether they'd be appropriate. These guys have actually added ice bullets to the game." More on that later.
If you're worried about any post-Aliens split efforts from Gearbox, I'm told the demo we saw was running on a full build of the game. If we were to step out into the levels just outside this more polished ice-land that we saw in the short demo, 2K explained to me, we'd have seen unfinished maps and missing textures. The telltale signs of a game in progress. The demo wasn't specifically built for this meeting, but rather it was a selected area of the full build they thought was good enough to show off.
Pitchford seemed confident in 2K Australia's ability to take on the next chapter of the Borderlands franchise, as well. Though, of course, he'd have to be. "Not many people know who 2K Australia is," Pitchford explained during the demo. "I wonder if this game might be kind of like what Half-Life: Opposing Force was for us, where it might put them on the map finally." Confident words, indeed!
Given the Australian roots, you can imagine there are a lot of in-jokes, too. I caught some Australian accents and insults I didn't wholly understand, but I couldn't place any specific jokes in the short time we got to see the game. Surely there'll be a roundup at some point post-release. But we were assured there'll be many Australian-specific cultural influences.
From the moment the game booted up, I thought to myself, "Well, this sure looks like Borderlands."
We started out looking at Athena's skill tree:
Without being able to scrutinize every detail, it looked fairly identical to the skill trees we're accustomed to. There are the three different trees for different styles of play, each branching into specific abilities and bonuses. You can opt for defensive or offensive.
We exited the facility we were in and Wilhelm's oxygen mask digistructed over his head. Since we're playing as her, Athena's happens in the first-person perspective. The oxygen mask bounces gracefully, kind of like the bubble-head charm from the Triwizard tournament in Harry Potter.
This is what it looks like:
So, in addition to the already-existing health and shield meters—oxygen is a new meter you have to keep an eye on. I have to admit, I'm not a huge fan of time pressures in games, and adding a consistently depleting oxygen tank to a game where I often find myself running around for loot and bad guys to kill doesn't seem like the best idea. But for all I know the outdoor moon levels are fairly small and spaced out and we won't have to feel too obliged to operate under a time-sensitivity.
But outfitting your character with an oxygen tank also means you'll jump and double jump in a grand, slow-moving arc across the ground. You can slide and hover and even Mario butt-slam down into enemies. The butt-slams sound like a good way to speed up the otherwise slow-moving low-g bounces. Your oz kit—basically, what contains your oxygen—can also be upgraded to deal extra damage and even elemental effects to your butt-slams. Take that, Mario.
Here's an example of a butt-slam:
Early on in the demo, just before we got to an area infested with bad guys, we watched as Athena and her cohort jumped and double jumped across pitfalls and craters on their way over to the moonbase. It took them a few silent seconds to make it across and we watched in what felt like slow-motion to see if they'd timed their double-jumps properly or not.
Here's that scene:
I love the idea of reconsidering the concept of a villain and exploring the grey areas of misunderstood characters. That seems to be where writer Anthony Burch wants to take this next chapter in the Borderlands franchise.
Burch explained the reasoning for wanting to focus on villains rather than heroes. You know, aside from the fact that Handsome Jack was such a popular character from Borderlands 2. "We have playable characters that start as kind of psychopathic but fun and then end up in places where they were really aggressively wanting to stay with Jack so they could kill more innocent people and get paid for it," he explained. They're hoping to explore character arcs for not just Handsome Jack, but the four playable characters that often teeter the line between good guy versus bad guy, as well as the "true" villains in The Pre-Sequel.
"We could revive [Handsome Jack] and do the comic book thing, 'Whoops! Death no longer means anything in our world at all.' We figured [The Pre-Sequel would] be a much stronger thing to do. If we really wanted to go to the moonbase, then setting it after Borderlands 2 would be really boring."
Pitchford put it in his own way. "What fun is playing the events of Star Wars after the Emperor's killed? Ok, there's still some Imperial space ships flying around up there but the Death Star blew up and it's over. Who cares? The mop-up effort? That's boring, that's lame. The stakes are zero."
Borderlands 2 certainly made some nods to the moonbase and so some players were likely expecting a visit there that entailed a follow-up to the sequel, not this newly-coined pre-sequel. But Pitchford feels like an explanation of the events leading up to the sequel will be more satisfying. "We kind of realized that, well how can we scratch that itch and satisfy that interest but actually increase the stakes and make the stakes really interesting? And figuring out how Handsome Jack is created does that and it gives us the perfect opportunity to be up there [on the moon] while the space station is being built."
Instead they decided to investigate how Handsome Jack became the evil villain he is in Borderlands 2 and, in doing so, exploring the concept of villains and how they got to be who they are, as well.
"[The villains] can be morally ambiguous, doing possibly bad things for the right reasons and then have that reflect what [Handsome Jack] is doing. There are several quests in the game where literally the only narrative purpose they exist for is to show you that the bad guy you're fighting is not actually a horrible person."
Handsome Jack, the four playable characters, the main villain in the game—who we don't know much about save for the fact that she's a woman—all get pushed to their respective edges in The Pre-Sequel, it seems. And while some will perhaps surface with a renewed perspective on the world, others sound like they'll succumb to the pressures and the glory of living villainously.
"By the end of the game," Burch continued, "I hope we'll feel like the 'bad guy' of The Pre-Sequel is a better person than Handsome Jack ends up being and that maybe it would have been better if she had won the game."
Now wouldn't that call for some mixed emotions.
And as for all those moonbase teases that somehow never feel resolved?
"We are so bad," Pitchford said, laughing. "For some reason, when we're in the middle of storytelling, we always feel like, 'And let's imagine something and then tease it!' And then life happens and you don't even know what you're going to do next."
"Surely the ideas we think are cool right now we'll totally think are cool in three years right?" Burch said. "Yeah, of course, fine, no problem." We all laughed quietly.
"We've teased what's going to happen after [Borderlands 2] all the time but we sincerely have not actually as a team figured out what the fuck we're even thinking," Pitchford said. "And there's been not a bit of development energy towards any kind of storyline after the events of Borderlands 2." He considers their tendency towards teasing players with next steps and ideas they have for their games and says, "Someday we'll learn our lesson maybe."
...follows Handsome Jack's exile from the Hyperion moonbase, but he's not taking the exit lying down. This is Handsome Jack, after all. The immediate goal is to recapture the communications base that's been taken over.
Here's Handsome Jack sending you out on an earlier mission:
Along the way there during the demo, oxygen-masked enemies will pop out of doors and run up at you. Some come at you from the sky, hovering in the air thanks to the low gravity and the jetpack effect from their own oz kits. Save for the new atmosphere—in both senses of the word—the fighting looked fairly reminiscent. Sure there are some lasers and oxygen tank tricks, but enemies are still yelling angsty lines at you and you're still yelling about throwing grenades in their faces.
As you're killing enemies in the blueish landscape and listening to trippy moon music, dead bodies are floating off into space and loot flies up into the air.
I guess that's to be expected when you add a whole new tier to the already massive lineup of weapons in Borderlands. Namely, lasers. A whole lot of lasers. There are laser guns that shoot single, steady streams and laser guns that shoot in bursts. It's all very alien-world-appropriate.
There are also guns with a freezing element. If you shoot an enemy with it, it'll slow them down. Shoot them enough times and it'll actually freeze them. Then you can shoot or punch them to shatter their frozen form.
Or at least one according to the demo we saw. It's a hoverbike of sorts and it's called the Stingray.
And I'm sure there are more. But our demo ended with an introduction to Redbelly, who is actually two people: a midget, fully covered by a metal bucket, who sits atop a scarily-buff man. With the metal bucket covering the entirety of the midget's body, he's effectively the head of this two-man boss.
A typical Borderlands cutscene with a splash image to introduce the boss appears and then Redbelly is charging at Athena. He pushes Athena up into the air and she crashes through some glass and floats into space. I feel a flash of double birds coming on, but instead Athena throws up dual peace signs and the demo ends there.
That's Borderlands for you.