So yesterday's leak proved true: a new Borderlands title is due this year. It's a collaboration between Gearbox and Bioshock Infinite support developer 2K Australia, set between the events of the first Borderlands and the second, and coming only to Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.
The format lock may be a surprise given the rise of cross-gen or purely new-gen titles this year, but according to Gearbox's Randy Pitchford, the new-gen install base isn't big enough ("there's fewer Xbox Ones and PS4s than we sold copies of Borderlands 2") to make it worth them bridging the generational gap. As he states when asked directly after the unveiling about the decision - "it's not free to build a game on next-gen."
"When you're deciding where to spend your resources, I think we want to spend all of the attention we can on the game itself," he rationalises. "If you try and imagine the set of Borderlands players have already upgraded, that's not 100 percent. But, if you try and imagine the set of Xbox One owners or PS4 owners that don't have a Xbox 360 or PS3? That difference is close to nil. You can't make a business rationalisation around that."
Looking at what the game is - its creation, its reason for existing, its resources - you can rightly see it as Borderlands 1.5. As much as Batman: Arkham Origins kept that franchise alive and built more Bats for fans by handing most of the development reins over to another developer, the Pre-Sequel keeps Borderlands alive while Gearbox work on their new next-gen IP.
So: brand-new, standalone experience. Not DLC, and definitely not Borderlands 3 ("I've been careful to make sure that no-one should expect, what they imagine in their brains, to be Borderlands 3. this is not [it]," Pitchford emphasises). Though one can make a easy click-baiting headline that Borderlands 3 is not only coming, it'll only be next-gen, as he goes on to emphasis this can't be B3 "because it's on current-gen consoles".
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! (to give it its full, Naked Gun-style title) runs on a modified version of the Borderlands 2 engine and features four characters new to play but not new to the franchise.
Those are: Athena (who appeared in B1 DLC The Secret Armory of General Knoxx, and plays the game's tank-like character), Wilhelm (Borderlands 2's first boss, before he went full cyborg and looks like an older Wolverine) Nisha The Lawbringer (before she became Sheriff of Lynchwood) and Claptrap ("The" Claptrap, the team clarify, with whoever plays as him having to deal with a knee-high camera angle akin to Goldeneye's Oddjob).
The foursome will be working in the employ of Handsome Jack (who "starts off a relatively sympathetic guy" before devolving into the scene-stealing shitbag in Borderlands 2) and shooting their way across Pandora's moon in his name, trying to help him reclaim the H-shaped space station that dominated the skyline in Borderlands 2.
While not going into specifics, the teams promise ‘some variety' on the moon's locations ("it's not all craters"), and there's suggestion that we're not limited to lunar excursions. Breaching the station seems a given, but unless a lot of the familiar faces from the previous games who we're teased in seeing again all got a free space-tour at the same time, we're guessing we'll be touching down on Pandora before the game's end.
But it's the moon we're on for the duration of the gameplay demo, as the teams showcase the new gameplay additions. New locale aside, this looks like Borderlands 2. Same graphical flavour, same HUD. Not much has been tweaked on the modified game engine this time round.
Newer however is the O2 meter below your energy bar. Outside of lunar bases you're going to be continually running out of air (characters had maximum of 150 units of air, loosing one unit each second), forcing you to track down O2 vents that pocket the surface, or track down and activate oxygen generators that'll pop up long-term air bubbles.
O2 is also used to power jet-packs, letting you double jump or ground-pound, Mario-style, with a tap of crouch while in mid-air. Flip-side is these power moves loose you oxygen quicker; no mention yet what happens when you hit zero. Attachable, collectable O2 kits give you pounding perks such as elemental damage or short-term 02 bubbles.
Thanks to lower gravity, you'll be spending a lot more time in the air. Jumps are longer, and the level, white canyon with a straightforward path through, has large chasms for you to leap over. Grenade enemies and they'll be tossed ever-upwards into space, or aim for their digi-structed helmets to destroy their air supply.
We see a handful of enemies types - weak scavengers, jumping Lunatics. Astronaut mini-bosses. A boss called Red Belly who kicks us out of the control tower of the Communications Facility, punting us out a window and into space. They're all designed with the usual Borderlands quirky style, and given who's building this new story, the voices are all Aussie.
We watch the demo through the eyes of Athena, with Wilheim supporting. Athena's classed as Gladiator in-game, tank by the developers and likely Captain America by anyone playing her. One of her main abilities is the Kinectic Aspis, a energy shield that can soak up shots and then be thrown at opponents, before bouncing back onto her arm. Later skill tree unlocks can multiply the number of enemies it can rebound against before returning.
Next to nothing's said of her partners' skill trees. Expect those to be doled out as marketing tidbits over the coming months (interestingly yesterday's leak pegged the game's release for 2014, but a question to PR simply has the reply: 'TBA'. We imagine the game will be out this winter).
They may be quiet on the other three, but we do at least get a few nods to new weaponry and elemental attacks. Lazers are now in, as is a Cryo effect, which can slow and ultimately freeze enemies (who then can be shattered on attacking). A new vehicle - an anti-grav craft custom-built for moon travel called The Stingray.
There's no mention of game size, but we doubt this is going to be DLC-sized. Neither do either team give a clear answer on who's project it really is - 'true collaboration' is dropped during the presentation, "organic" in the Q&A - but from snippets of discussion it seems like the concept and ideas came from Gearbox, but its 2K Australia's grunt work creating and shaping the world.
"We got to go to the moon - that was one of the first tentpoles," Randy explains of early brainstorming sessions. "Everyone expected the sequel thing, but we wanted to dig further onto the Jack character and we killed him [in Borderlands 2]... so [we asked] how did Jack get into power?" Cue the solution to not having to hand off a 'true' sequel to another developer.
"We're making other games too," he begins when asked if finances dictated the lack of next-gen versions, why didn't they also instigate working on a proper sequel than this side-project. Randy says Gearbox are too busy working on their new IP.
"I don't think I'd have to stretch far to suggest there's demand for more Borderlands. If you imagine where that demand lives, it lives on the Xbox 360, PS3, PC. We don't know to what extent it will live on the next-gen.
"Because Borderlands 2 did so well, there's obvious demand there," he continues, harking back to his point at the start of the presentation that the game was the most successful in 2K Games' history. "We haven't been able to serve it sufficiently with just DLC... we're still arguing inside of Gearbox about how much our own time we should spend in the Borderlands space versus our future things."
So, not Borderlands 3. And with the shear amount of DLC that came post-launch for the title, you can imagine Gearbox want a break to recharge their batteries. And by sounds of it, we won't see them return for another three or four years.
So, those Batman: Arkham Origins comparisons. A way to build something new out of pre-existing content and keep the brand alive. If you want more (and that's partly why this came into existence) buy it. If you'd rather wait for the 'real' thing, then wait. We wonder if other developers, other franchises, may sign off from this generation in much the same way.