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PREVIEW

BORDERLANDS 2

The original Borderlands was a thoroughbred action game with solid mechanics, excellent co-op, plenty of loot and character perks.

Until then, no other developer had managed to make more than a rough console take on the popular dungeon crawler genre.

That Borderlands, with its experience points, lost weapons, lots of statistics and the use of character-specific skills managed it was something few expected. Yet Gearbox has created a natural progression of the FPS genre. A home brew of elements that'd made a familiar genre so radically different, yet so natural at the same time.

It's that naturalism that will once more dazzle me when I jump into Borderlands 2.

Steve Gibson of Gearbox Software gives us a brief introduction of what the developer has brought: two playable levels, Wildlife Preserve and Caustic Caverns. Both will give us a good idea as to how different locations can look in the sequel. Unfortunately, he says, we will not get a chance to try all the characters. We're down to two: the Gunzerker Salvador and siren Maya.

These class choices are likely a conscious decision, as Gearbox are well aware they represent variants of the two most boring classes from the original.

CLASS UPGRADES

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In play, Berzerker substitute Salvador, with his double weapon-focus, is a far better fit than previous class representative Brick, with his tantrum and subsequent melee attempts. But it's Maya however, who represents the most significant improvement of the two, as her Phase Lock opportunities make her almost infinitely more fun to use than the bland Lillith from the previous game.

Given most of my Borderlands memories are with the Soldier Roland, it it makes first choice of character easy. Four different profiles lets me get access to different versions of Salvador, all of which are tuned to level 20 and thus have 15 spendable skill points, which I'm free to distribute.

Each character has three ability trees in which skill points can be placed, but this time there's more emphasis on representing individual playing styles. I choose to focus my points so to increase the chances of critical damage attacks.

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Had I chosen one of the other ability trees, I could instead have evolved Salvador's character around his unique "Gunzerker" feature. Like the last time each character comes equipped with a standard special ability, and in Salvador's case it lets him duel wield, regardless of weapon size, and go crazy for a few seconds.

From the off the ability can cause great harm, but with a few invested skill points you can add extra damage, and even replenish health.

Maya does not have the ability to use two weapons at once, nor the ability to become invisible like her siren sister Lillith. Instead, she uses her magical properties to "Phaselock" an enemy, trapping targets for a few seconds and thus allowing everyone to focus their attacks. Later, Maya can choose to dedicate herself to adding damage into the Phase Lock ability, or instead let it constantly heal the rest of the squad.

THE EXPANDED WORLD

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Had it not been for the wild Skaggs, Wildlife Preserve could well have been the Borderlands universe answer to a favorite resort in the open countryside. It's a compliment to the game's focus on expanding and varying your surroundings.

I have my automatic rifle, my current gun and my automatic shotgun with a telescopic sight ready to protect me at all times. Large grassy plains unfolds on the landscape. Rocks jut out here and there. A river cascades down a mountainous outcrop.

Later in the same stage it becomes clear how Hyperion's on-site development has gradually transformed the natural environment with electronic bastions, cold storage facilities and research areas. The transition between the different areas seems quite natural, and demonstrates a strong contrast to what was one of the biggest criticisms that earlier zones were rarely different.

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When we later explores Caustic Caverns the renewed focus on original and varied surroundings is again evident. Dark caves with bright yellow acid assemblies open up into large areas where purple colored lighting gives everything a colorful glow.

The developer's renewed desire to make Pandora a world full of variation extends not only to the environment, but to the enemies as well. We're no longer stuck to the notion that one area equates to one enemy type; the Wildlife Preserve rapidly turns into a true battleground of mechanical and organic enemies.

THE DANGEROUS GAME

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Hyperion robots are a diverse bunch of circuits and metal plates that are always trying to exploit the roles of the different classes available. Some will deflect shots, others try to topple you over, while the most trigger-happy first will drain your shields then hammer you with the most hard-hitting weapons. The Hyperion soldiers who both have the task to guide and assist the robots are clearly smarter than the crowd of cannibals who populated much of Pandora last time I visited the planet.

Intelligence is not so great in Pandora's wildlife, but their size and number have grown considerably. Thus you will soon encounter jumping, flying and camouflaged enemies that like to call on their older siblings. These "Badass" versions are considerably larger than last time and have far more dangerous attacks that often even add an extra ability as poison or fire, which I find I'm often on the receiving end of.

Thankfully, crazy weapons to counter the new threats are back in droves.

Where the majority are so different compared to last time is in their design so you can tell which manufacturer made them. Some weapons seem like they are pieced together by with iron shards and duct tape, while others resemble early experiments on the mini guns. The most interesting weapon in my collection is an electrical machine, and its rounded corners and minimalist design makes me wonder whether Apple has gone into the arms industry on Pandora.

At first sight it may seem a bit strange why the whole Pandora has chosen me as the global bullseye...until I'm introduced to Handsome Jack.

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His presence in our demo does not extend very far beyond some provocative commentary, but it's clear that Jack took all the credit for having found "The Vault" in the first game, emptied of its riches, made himself dictator of Pandora and made sure to chase off the character from the first title.

Even with two great stages to explore, my time with Borderlands 2 is too short. I would have preferred that the two remaining characters to be included, not least because they have already been revealed elsewhere. Axton replace Roland as the team's Soldier, uses an auto cannon, but which this time is far more versatile in its use. Zero, a cyborg assassin, is perhaps the most unique character to the team, and will with his "Deception" ability to focus damage on individual enemies or instead act as an enemy deflection.

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Gearbox has once again taken the long road. The Texan developer has used the two and something years of development time to hone all the skills it's learnt with the original game and the subsequent expansion packs, given the underlying technology a kick in the rear and borrowed even more from the MMO genre.

The result is now an action adventure that requires more team play, offers a far greater challenge and a variety the previous title had not even dared dream about. I can hardly wait to visit Pandora again ...

YOUR NEW CAST

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