Preview: Borderlands 2

While Gamescom was in full swing, Gearbox Software CEO Randy Pitchford chose instead to fly down to Singapore for the Borderlands 2 Asia preview. Much of his hour-long presentation was devoted to the game’s four character classes, as well as the somewhat controversial fifth DLC class called Mechromancer. Myself and about twenty other journalists from around Asia then had a chance to team up for some hands-on time, where it quickly became clear why the character classes are such a major focus area in the sequel.

The hands-on preview at the event didn’t include the campaign, but instead the new Robot Slaughter mode, an independent arena mode similar to Gears of War’s Horde mode. In retrospect, this was a far better way to judge just how much attention has gone into developing each of Borderlands 2’s classes and to display how their various abilities work in tandem. While each of the four classes is an evolution of those found in the first game, there’s a lot more depth and their abilities are far more complementary to each other than before, making teamwork in co-op not only a necessity, but immensely rewarding.

The Robot Slaughter mode is set in an arena of sorts, where the team of four is tasked with fighting back wave after wave of robots of various shapes, sizes and abilities. The map we played had a few points of elevation, with enemies converging upon the central area from three directions. There were robots that transformed and flew around, suicidal bots that exploded on taking damage, and others that created temporary force fields which could protect all bots within it from gunfire, just to name a few. The longer you survived, the tougher the opposition got. You know the drill.

Between rounds, you can take an elevator up to the vending machines, where you can equip new weapons, buy ammo, and spend earned skill points to unlock new abilities for your character. This is also an opportunity to interact with the Innuendo Bot, who can always be relied upon to lighten up the mood with one-liners like “Prepare to be penetrated. With bullets”.

My first obvious character choice was Axton, the assault class, whose special ability is deploying the devastating turret. Additional skill points earned can be used to equip the turret with extra firepower or unlock the Longbow ability that lets you deploy turrets far away. Combine Longbow with the nuke ability and it will unleash a devastating explosion where the turret is placed, vapourising enemies in the vicinity. We tried various character combinations to see which one was most effective in fighting back the waves, and having two Axtons in the team made things a whole lot easier.

The most fun class is arguably Salvador, the shoot-first-think-later tank. His special ability is the Gunserker mode, where he can dual wield ANY two weapons. A rocket launcher and machine gun? No problem. Gunserker mode also gives Salvador faster health regeneration and extra ammo, making him the perfect bullet sponge. Activate the ‘Come At Me Bro!’ ability and all enemies will divert their attention towards him, allowing his teammates to take advantage.

That’s where the assassin Zer0 comes in. While like all the other characters, he’s just about fine with gun in hand, Zer0 does most damage in melee combat, and his special ability – Deception, can be lethal when used effectively. Activating it makes him invisible and creates a decoy, allowing him to circle around the enemy and stab them in the back for a critical hit. What’s more, when in Deception mode, you can pull off combos, and the more assassinations of nearby enemies Zer0 can pull off, the longer he can remain in stealth mode, and the more damage he can inflict.

For those who’d rather keep a safe distance from the enemy and take on more of a support role, there’s Maya, the Siren. Her Phaselock ability allows her to lift and suspend enemies in mid-air, where they’re helpless and can easily be picked off by her team mates. Maya is also a healer and the Phaselock ability can also be used for crowd control or to do massive ranged damage. As you progress deeper into her skill tree, you’ll be able to use the Sweet Release power to use downed enemies to heal the teammates that need it the most.

The first few rounds of Robot Slaughter were embarrassing, as seasoned gamers failed miserably at even passing the first round. But understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each character (thanks to a lot of prompting from the 2K guys) and using them well delivered much better results. And that’s how Borderlands 2 is best approached – as a team. And while the Robot Slaughter mode is mostly about survival, the campaign will allow each character to flex its muscles in offence, as they scope out areas, flank enemies, strategise and plan attacks in Gearbox’s beautiful, hostile world of Pandora.

Borderlands 2 is scheduled for release on 21st September for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, and there’s quite a bit of incentive for you to preorder it.

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