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Borderlands 2: On Skill Trees, Psychotic Children, and the Joys of Being a Ninja

Gearbox gives us a couple of hours with its upcoming shooter/RPG sequel, and we give you this preview. Fair trade, no?

The magic of 2009's Borderlands was somewhat lost on me, I'm afraid. While I adored the aesthetic of Gearbox's ludicrous shooter/RPG hybrid, the lack of any meaningful story and my own aversion to games that trade heavily in "loot hoarding" (I refuse to use the more crass term for it) all but ensured that, with nothing else to excite me, I'd give up a short chunk of the way through. For me, it was like the difference between understanding something to be funny, and actually laughing at it. I could see why so many people, our own Jeff Gerstmann among them, could fall victim to Borderlands' beguiling charms. I was just immune.

Characters can be customized with all sorts of new outfits and heads, many of which are hidden throughout the game.
Characters can be customized with all sorts of new outfits and heads, many of which are hidden throughout the game.

So understand that when I say to you Borderlands 2 appears to be a massive improvement over Borderlands, I realize that the things that are important to me might not necessarily be the things that are important to you. What I have seen of Borderlands 2 thus far shows me a much more cartoonishly over-the-top game, a game that embraces the undercurrent of lunacy from the first game, and jabs a pitchfork into its ass to rile it up. It's bigger, louder, and more willfully nutty than last go around, which for those who just care about the loot and the character building might not care so much about. Don't worry, there's plenty to talk about there, too.

I'll admit that the first time I sat down to play some co-op Borderlands 2, I wasn't overly impressed. Having now seen it a second time, I realize that this has got to be one of the most nightmarish games to show to the press. Quests and sidequests are so sprawling and deliberate in pace that anyone trying to show off multiple aspects of the game would be hard-pressed to do so in a timely fashion. In fact, just before letting the press have a go with it earlier this week, Gearbox head Randy Pitchford spent damn near 10 minutes just explaining the myriad things they wanted to cover, and the various developer cheats they were going to have to use to show us all those things. It was a long list.

I also think I just wasn't digging the classes as much at first. On my first play, I messed around with the Gunzerker and Siren, the two classes Gearbox has been showing for the last few months. They're fun, interesting classes (that dual-wielding mechanic the Gunzerker has is deeper than it first seems), but neither really clicked with me. Fast forward to this week, and I found myself with access to the Commando and Assassin classes. Now I'm all turned around on the subject.

It was really the Commando that did it for me, though the Assassin's pretty fantastic as well (more on him momentarily). But the Commando, with his wonderfully helpful turrets and outlandishly explosive upgrades, really won me over.

Skill trees go deeper than ever before, and the upgrades have more impact.
Skill trees go deeper than ever before, and the upgrades have more impact.

Having only messed with Roland a bit in the first game, I'll just say that while his turret stuff was neat, Axton (the Commando) is a whole other deal entirely. We were shown characters at levels 25 and 35, so we got to go pretty deep into one of the individual skill trees for each character. For the Commando, it's all about how you build out your turrets. You'll of course start out with minor upgrades like ammo counts and cool down periods, but as you start going further in, you'll be able to do all sorts of wacky stuff. You can add grenade launchers, rocket blasters, and even stack a second turret on top of your main one, with all upgrades included. There's even an option to make your turret stick to any surface, including walls and ceilings. When you're trying to avoid getting swarmed by rabid creatures, this can come in handy.

The Assassin goes the other route, focusing on stealth and deception. But what's great about the Assassin is that it doesn't rigidly put you into one box or another. There are a variety of ways to Assassinate, after all, and depending on which skill tree you opt to go with. If you're a sniper who likes to pick enemies off from afar, then there's a whole line of upgrades just for that task. If you prefer things up close and personal, you can pump up his melee stats majorly, as well as his hologram/cloaking abilities. Yes, he projects a hologram of himself as a special ability, and while it's there, he stays cloaked for a few seconds, letting you dive in for the kill. Without giving away too many of the ways that ability can be improved, let's just say there's a fun way to turn that combo into an insane chain of attacks.

These customizations go a good bit deeper and are more immediately impactful than many of the first game's, but really, it wasn't necessarily any issue with the class customization of the first game that prevented me from really enjoying it. More, it was the sense of emptiness I got from the game's story. Loot, on its own, is not enough to attract me to a game. And while a "bazillion" more guns sounds promising enough, I needed something more interesting to rope me in.

Enter Borderlands 2's script, penned by Anthony Burch. I'm not going to say I've seen enough to definitively say whether Borderlands 2's story is good, exactly, but everything I've seen is damn funny. It's quirky, irreverent stuff that has a purposeful rhythm and pace to it, something that video game comedy often fails at. Nowhere is this clearer than with the new character introduced in this latest demo: Tiny Tina. You may have noticed that pig-tailed tween girl with the murderous glint in her eye in the latest trailer. That's Tina.

Tiny Tina throws the worst tea parties... but maybe don't tell her that.
Tiny Tina throws the worst tea parties... but maybe don't tell her that.

Tina's a survivor, a 13 year old girl who's spent a good chunk of her life living feral in the wastelands of Pandora. All that time alone has, perhaps unsurprisingly, left her a bit south of normal, mentally. She's an Adderall-addled manic pixie nightmare, who may or may not be using you to seek revenge against those who killed her parents. Oh, and she's voiced by Ashly Burch, who you may know from her and brother Anthony's web series, Hey Ash, What'cha Playin'. Accuse nepotism all you like, but Burch is perfect. She's hysterical, and gives Tina just the right mix of girly sweetness and unhinged lunacy.

Several hours with Borderlands never managed to sell me, and yet just a few hours with Borderlands 2 has piqued my curiosity anew. Yes, this is in many ways just more Borderlands, but it's a lot more of Borderlands, and with many of that first game's more underutilized aspects suddenly getting more attention. In short, Borderlands 2 looks like it's going to fix a lot of things I didn't like about Borderlands. Come September, we'll all find out for sure.

Alex Navarro on Google+