Thousands of guns. Limbs exploding in space. Jonathan Pile on the subtle return of Borderlands
“We are not working on Borderlands 3.”
Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford’s stance on this was concise and decisive. And, as it turns out, accurate – despite what it might look like on this page. Because game developer Gearbox recently announced Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Set between hits Borderlands and Borderlands 2, it details the rise of the second game’s antagonist Handsome Jack from bit-player to dictator, with all of its murky morality. And guns. Thousands of guns.
Borderlands – for those who only turn their consoles on for Fifa, Call Of Duty or GTA – is the first-person shooter series with a cel-shaded art style, which raced to a combined total of 13m sales based on a compelling system of RPG-style upgrades that allowed you to customise your character. As Pitchford says when explaining why it will be available on current generation consoles rather than next-gen: “There are fewer PS4s and Xbox Ones out there than we had customers of Borderlands 2”. Enough said.
Knowing the truth about these Borderlands 3 rumours, you can see Pitchford’s glee in his misdirection. It’s showmanship the 42-year-old Californian is known for. And it’s not surprising. Before he became a games producer, he was a magician. Which is interesting, but not important right now. Not in comparison with the sleight of hand that allowed him to keep a new Borderlands (mostly) under cover. It’s two weeks before the announcement (and a week before an online leak) when we speak to Randy, and he’s cautiously excited.
“I’m being careful to make sure people know it’s not Borderlands 3, because they’ll expect a story that takes place after Borderlands 2 and a next generation experience. This is not that game at all. I don’t want to undersell it, but I also don’t want to disappoint anybody.”
These are guarded words from a man who’s not known for playing down Gearbox’s games. It’s probably a wise change of tack. The Borderlands franchise aside, the studio has had a rough time recently. First came Duke Nukem Forever – a game almost 15 years in the making that Pitchford rescued after the original studio, 3D Realms, gave up on it due to financial issues in 2009. So he’s the hero, right? Wrong. Pitchford claimed, “It’s awesome.” The Metacritic score was 49 out of 100. Fans were not happy.
Similarly, when Aliens: Colonial Marines – scuppered by delays and controversies – came out last year, it was to a Metacritic score of a mere 48 out of 100.
But we have reason for confidence here. Not least because everything we’ve seen and heard fills us with it, but because this series is Gearbox’s baby. Initially a sleeper hit that defied expectations of a new potential franchise, its sequel was bigger, better and became the highest selling title in the history of 2K Games – its publisher – within five months of release. It’s now the sort of phenomenon that leads to elaborate homemade character costumes (honestly, Google it).
Indeed, there were rumours of people being pulled off the Aliens: Colonial Marines team to ensure Borderlands 2 was as good as they could make it.
Based on how those respective games turned out, we can well believe it.
Onwards and upwards
So, reserve done with, why should we be excited? Take it away, Randy: “I’ve played a lot of the game and I’m just laughing my ass off at it. One thing that was omnipresent in Borderlands 2 was the moon base. In this, we go up there and it’s got some interesting environments; there are areas of low gravity, low oxygen and zero atmosphere in some places. So if you throw a grenade at a guy’s feet, you can blow him off the surface of the moon and watch him glide into space. He’s never coming back.”
Homicidal parlour tricks aside, there are also exciting gameplay benefits. It’s not always apparent where the different gravity areas are – so you’ll be fighting someone who’ll step into a low gravity area, changing the rules for you both.
You can also use the oxygen you’re carrying for more than just breathing. Such as expelling it to propel you upwards in low gravity, like a jetpack. And the team found a blackly comic way to make this count towards your fighting skills.
“We realised it’d be fun if you were up high, to be able to reverse your thrusters and fly down really fast. It’s almost like the Mario butt stomp, for the first time in first person shooters. We added to the feature through gear, so there’s an add-on that gives you electric shock damage when you land. And one that adds fire damage.”
Guns, guns, guns
This ability to unlock new attributes is what set the Borderlands series apart from other shooters – the implementation of RPG-style skill trees we mentioned earlier. And that, of course, includes the guns they’re adept at using. This being Borderlands, there are a lot (the first game had 17.75 million, the sequel had so many nobody counted them all), but a new class of gun has been added; ‘Cryo’.
Cryo, essentially, is a freeze effect. Enemies go blue and are frozen in ice. You can shoot them again to smash them into tiny bits. Then there’s the laser gun, which can either work like one of the blasters in Star Wars, or feel, as Randy puts it, “like you’ve got a Hadron Collider in your hands.” Like we said, the guy’s a showman.
‘How can we make this even more fun?’ seems to be the mantra driving the franchise development. And that extends to shameless fan service, best demonstrated by the fact that the characters in The Pre-Sequel are all cult heroes of previous games. And, as you’re part of Handsome Jack’s entourage, you’re essentially playing as the bad guys this time, although Pitchford questions that: “Bad guys don’t think they’re the bad guys. It depends on your point of view. Bad guys think the good guys are the bad guys.”
And that’s what we can tell you about it. For a game that could easily rehash old glories and still sell (certain other annual shooters spring to mind in this case), there’s a lot of new content and ideas being introduced here. A lot of boundaries have been pushed. Which makes you wonder: when the Gearbox team finally do get to Borderlands 3, where else can they go?
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel will be released on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC this autumn