Borderlands 2 hands-on one hour with the Siren, the Gunzerker and an army of acid-drooling dogs

What is it? Borderlands 2 is the highly anticipated, and seemingly much improved, sequel to 2009’s “role-playing shooter” hybrid. Just as in the original, you wander a Western wasteland-themed sci-fi planet, grinding through waves of nasty mutant animals and robots with an insanely large arsenal of guns at your disposal. And we use the word “grinding” very purposefully here, as RPG elements continue to set this series apart: The number of bullets required to deplete the life bars over enemies’ heads still requires patience, and choosing how to upgrade your character’s skill tree with the experience points you earn still requires some careful strategy.

Who is the developer? Gearbox, creators of the first Borderlands… and the company that finally brought us Duke Nukem Forever last year, for better or for worse. See our interview with producer Matt Charles at the bottom of this page.

How does it look? Borderlands had an instantly iconic style: “colorful” and “cel-shaded” are not normally expected descriptors for a first-person shooter. That look is carried over for Borderlands 2, and thanks to an increased diversity of environments, it’s even more striking. We’ve already written about an icy tundra filled with smothering snowflakes and frozen demons here; during this demo, we battled through a zoological wildlife preserve that’s half crumbling animal enclosure and half sweeping vista of green hills and craggy cliffs. The next area was a soggy brown swamp with a completely different vibe.

In both, the enemies were large and grotesque in a fun, comic-book way: acid-spitting hyena dogs that loved to slobber all over the screen in the zoo and giant half-gorilla half-dragon creatures (with weak points covered by crystal armor) in the swamp. Another huge improvement in Borderlands 2 is the diversity of weapon appearance. The first game had lots of different guns to choose between and modify, but in the sequel, you can actually tell they’re all different. Which, of course, makes you want to pick up and try them even more.

How does it play? Better as both a shooter and as a role-player. Gunplay in the original could occasionally grow tedious, as enemies soaked up a lot of ammunition before dying, but Borderlands 2’s imaginative assortment of weapons are too much of a blast to cycle through to notice as much. Play as the Gunzerker and that cycle is even a superpower – activate Gunzerker mode and hold on to the trigger tight, as your character can unleash every bullet in every one of his weapons without a moment’s pause for reloading. Every few minutes, the screen is just a flurry of deadly hands (there’s dual-wielding now) and discarded guns tossed left and right.

Alternatively, the Siren’s special ability will slow the action down, suspending monsters in a floating blue bubble and giving you time to strategize, escape, or ask your co-op buddy playing as the Gunzerker to go to town on the helpless target. Other RPG-like elements that keep the action interesting: leader enemies increasing the strength and stamina of lesser follower enemies around them, choosing the right ammunition for a monster’s weakness (advice: don’t use acid on acid), and customizing your character with unusual upgrades, like the option to shoot your teammate for more health.

When is it out? Borderlands 2 is out for 360, PS3 and PC on September 18 in North America and September 21 in Europe.

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