Borderlands 2 blitz: new skills, new looks and a whole lotta shootin'

Gearbox Software is hard at work making sure that everything in Borderlands 2 will be bigger, crazier and boomier than what the original game offered. The team could have just included exploding bullets (which they did) and called it a day, but instead they're overhauling a lot of the core game mechanics.

While veterans of the original will be in familiar territory, we got to see how Borderlands 2 will significantly evolve the amount of customization and control a player has over a character. That means new looks to make your Vault Hunter feel unique, skills that are more meaningful than a bump in stats and lots, lots more. We were also given a tour of Sanctuary, a hub city that will give players a dynamic home base to return to.

Guiding us through it all was Gearbox producer Randy Varnell, who was just as happy to walk us through some new skills, locations and character customization options as he was to teach us the right way to free an enraged dwarf chained to an overgrown mutant's shield. Yep, you guessed it: it involves bullets.

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Not Just Another Cookie-Cutter Mercenary

The original Borderlands was pretty weak in terms of player customization. You were left with little more than a few different color options, and though that didn't matter too much in terms of singleplayer — where you rarely saw your character — in multiplayer, someone else playing your class often left you feeling redundant.

You can forget about all of that. Borderlands 2 starts you off simple: you can choose one of a few different heads for your character, and then apply color schemes that each have their own distinct personality. You won't be stuck with the options you see from the get-go, either. True to form, Borderlands 2 will make both new heads and new color schemes a piece of loot to quest for, so you'll find more as you play.

Varnell hinted to us that there are even rare cosmetic items out there, meaning you could be one of only a handful of people with a given head — if you find something special, that is. He also said there would be cosmetic surprises for owners of the first Borderlands.

Up above you can see four possible variations of the same character, Maya the Siren.

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Skills To Pay The Bills

There are four characters to choose from in Borderlands 2, but Varnell told us that he feels like there are actually 12. That's because each character's skill tree branches off in three different directions (seen directly above), and each of these branches can greatly change the feel of a character. A lot of this differentiation revolves around the unique Action Skill each class has, which are powerful abilities that can turn the tide of a battle, but also need to recharge.

This variety was especially apparent in Axton, a soldier whose sidekick is a big, nasty turret. Investing heavily in one skill tree gave him two turrets to deploy at once, while also making them "sticky," meaning he could pin them to walls and ceilings. Another tree was less tactical and more brutal, slapping an extra barrel and a pair of rocket pods on Axton's turret for some added fire support. The last? Well, instead of bothering with all that thinking to kill things, it lets Axton throw his turret far from himself and, wherever it lands, it sets off a powerful nuke.

Every character has similar tradeoffs and added abilities based on what skills are bought. Varnell told us that Gearbox isn't talking maximum levels yet, but players should be able to buy about a full tree and a half when fully topped out, meaning that you'll be able to mix and match a few of those ability-defining skills from different trees. With Axton, for instance, it could be possible to fully invest and get the sticky double turrets, while still buying deep enough in another tree to add rocket pods to them.

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Plays Best With Friends

Like the first, Borderlands 2 lets you and three other Vault Hunters play cooperatively, and a mix of Action Skills really opens up your options in battle. There are plenty of skills in the game that are just begging for some cross-character mayhem.

As an example, Varnell told us that the development team was having a blast stacking the Action Skills of Maya, a sorceress-like "siren," and Zero, a mysterious assassin who "talks" by projecting holographic emoticons in front of his visor. Maya's unique Action Skill traps enemies in a bubble that can have different effects. One skill tree branch has Maya lifting and trapping opponents in midair, while increasing the amount of damage dealt to the target. Zero's Action Skill, which cloaks him for a few seconds and increases how much damage he does with each passing moment (until the skill ends), can also be augmented to let him dash a short distance as he strikes.

With Maya lifting an enemy into the air, Zero can cloak, wait and then dash up and hit them with his sword where they'd usually be out of reach. The result, as you'd imagine, is usually rather bloody, and it's a fine example of how two characters can team up to decimate a foe.

Speaking of co-op, we also got a peek at how Borderlands 2 is trying to get better at the way it approaches quests. For example, you may join a friend who is ahead of you in the story, meaning they'll have quests that aren't available to you, yet. In the original, these quests simply locked you out. You'd still get experience and loot, but you wouldn't actually get credit for any progress you were making.

Varnell explained that Borderlands 2 will actually "fast forward" your quest log to include the new missions that would have been out of reach, and the next time you boot up your character in singleplayer (or join a different multiplayer game), you'll still retain credit for those completed quests, though the game will start right where you left off. On paper it's an elegant solution to a problem that's often clumsily handled in multiplayer quest-based games. Another plus: when you enter a new area of the game, Borderlands 2 will let you know how many quests you missed in the last zone so you can go back through and see all the quests the game has to offer.

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Sanctuary, Your Oasis In The Wasteland

Borderlands the first featured a few towns and cities for you to visit, though they usually only had one or two characters of note per, and typically felt rather desolate. Considering the ruined state of Pandora, the lack of folks to chat with made enough sense.

In Borderlands 2, Gearbox is taking a different approach, providing the player with one place to access a mess of quest givers, major characters, shops and services that were added later to the original title through downloadable add-ons. You now get access to a bank from the get-go, and Gearbox has added a second, smaller storage cache that can be used to transfer items between your characters.

This hub, alongside the skills and customization, is an example of how Gearbox is learning some valuable lessons from the first Borderlands and all its downloadable content, and coming back with a game that feels much more refined and honed.

You can see the latest trailer for the game right here, and Borderlands 2 is currently available for pre-order ahead of its Sept. 18 launch date.

Via Borderlands 2

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