PAX East 2012: Hands-On with Borderlands 2 and Interview with Art Director Jeremy Cooke
It would have been difficult to attend this year’s PAX East convention without at least sparing a casual glance in the direction of Borderlands 2, a title that made its stateside debut at last year’s PAX Prime; the only thing more massive than the game’s booth, a decorative piece that included a massive statue of series protagonists alongside a loud, decorative backdrop, was the line that so pervaded through it. The wait itself was anywhere from two to three hours and culminated with a 20-minute, cooperative trial run of the product’s Caustic Caverns instance. Naturally, the question is posed whether or not wading through such a long line is worth the end result, and to that question I instantly propose an answer based off of my own personal experience: kind of.
Borderlands 2 is unmistakably a well-designed game. The Caustic Caverns area shown off in this particular demo emanates with a level of beauty not seen before in a franchise that was already well-noted for its distinct style. Environments no longer reek of the brown scourge that so occupies many Unreal Engine titles and instead pop off of the screen as vibrant settings eager to be explored by the player, a fact that Art Director Jeremy Cooke was joyous to point out to me following my experience with the game. Enemies appear unique and unencumbered by the generic tropes of the genre. To say it is stunning would be to undermine the achievements of the art department. Despite this, one must wonder whether or not this outstanding accomplishment is only a set of smoke and mirrors to hide the true face of this sequel to a 2009 cult phenomenon.
It’s hard to say at this point, but my experience with Borderlands 2 is one that reminded me all too much of my experience with the first Borderlands; here I was in a desolate, dystopian world with little to my name other than a handful of abilities and a fistful of bullets. Despite the grim circumstances, almost all of my woes could be solved with several shots in my opposition’s general direction. Having selected to be a Siren, one of the new classes to the franchise designed as a control unit, I expected to have an adventure completely unique to the one I had a few years ago playing the Berserker class in the first game; I did not.
There are a variety of factors that likely came together to produce my apathetic response to Borderlands 2. It bears considering that this was a demo build designed to push players through the experience and not bog them down in the monotony of the typical grind. As such, characters were buffed up to the extent that they were almost invulnerable to the advances of the enemy and weren’t forced to resort to their distinct set of skills and abilities to advance the campaign; I rarely, if ever, dipped into my character’s furthest reaches to pull it out in a confrontation.
It’s also worthy of note that I wasn’t able to see what lay at the end of the Caustic Caverns as 2K representatives had to cut me off in order to satiate the desires of the ever-increasing crowd waiting to play the game. For all I know, there could have been a mind-blowing boss conflict laying in wait to test me and my partner.
Borderlands 2 is promising on paper, but I don’t believe that this demo showed the true potential that the game has. Being a loot-based, first-person role-playing game isn’t a format conducive to the environment that a PAX or E3 provides. I look forward to seeing the game in a more casual, informal setting when it arrives in North America on September 18.
Following my time with the demo, I was able to speak with Jeremy Cook, the aforementioned Art Director at 2K Games, about his part in creating Borderlands 2 and the process as a whole.
Drew Robbins: First, let me compliment you; the graphics are incredible this time. Last time, the style was really good. This time, it feels like [you all] brought [a little more] polish.
Jeremy Cooke: Yeah, we spent a lot of time bringing a lot of the next gen shooters in, and also just punched up the colors a whole lot. Everything was a little bit on the brown side last time. We decided that, you know what, the gameplay is over the top, the action is over the top, let’s bring the color up to speed there with it.
Drew Robbins: Were you guys anticipating the success of the first game or had you settled in on the idea of it being a niche hit?
Jeremy Cooke: Well, I mean, we always do the best we can. With the Brothers in Arms series and with this we felt we did pretty well even though they were, you know, new franchises. So, we hoped it would do well. We certainly didn’t expect it to do as well as it did.
Drew Robbins: Yeah, it caught on pretty quick. I was surprised; having seen it on the blogs it seemed that it was set to be a niche hit and then it just kind of blew up.
Jeremy Cooke: Yeah, I mean I think we owe a lot to our game designers. The core game loot is just really solid and people get their hands on it and they are just stuck to it.
Drew Robbins: Now, can you speak to any of the big changes you guys wanted to make? I mean, the first one was a big hit but obviously with people you’re going to have to make something new to keep them playing.
Jeremy Cooke: Yeah, I mean, there is quite a bit of new loot. We redesigned a lot of the guns and gun manufacturers. There’s a lot of new weapons to explore. There’s a lot more variety in there as well. Each manufacturer has a much stronger flavor to it and much more interesting and unique behavior to it…that’s where a lot of the new is. Of course, all new creatures as well as some of the old ones are back. There’s a ton of that kind of stuff.
Drew Robbins: Now, you couldn’t get a really good feel for the classes while playing the demo. Is there anything you can say for how distinct they are, how they differentiate themselves?
Jeremy Cooke: Yeah absolutely, I mean we have our Siren, who’s very much this time our controller. You can play her in a few different styles, though. She’s got a controlling tree, she’s got a healing tree, she’s got a destruction tree so kind of depending on how you want to play her. We’ve got Zero the assassin, he’s more of our single-target DPS character. Really high DPS. He’s got a kind of neat stealth mechanic; it’s pretty fun. The longer you stay stealthed, your next attack does more and more damage. But you can also play him in a different style where you hop in and out of stealth rapidly and do smaller hits.
Drew Robbins: So it’s a little more diverse? Last time they had differentiation but this time it sounds more like World of Warcraft where there’s such a distinct variety.
Jeremy Cooke: That was one of our main goals is, if you look at the skills tree, kind of at the mid-tier of our skill tree is a high-powered, one-point skill that dramatically changes the way they play. And then, down at the bottom again, there’s three more that really change again. So the way you spec really matters this time around.
Drew Robbins: Was there anything about the first game that you had to preserve? Like, it was the most important thing that you got from fan reception that you had to keep; it was the drawing factor.
Jeremy Cooke: Well, I mean, addictive loot for sure. There was no way that was ever changing. We just put more and more of it in and there’s a lot more unique loot in this game. You know, there will probably be some more new stuff announced at the panel this weekend.
Drew Robbins: There’s no oversaturation of loot? There’s still, like, super rare loot, right?
Jeremy Cooke: Oh yeah, absolutely. When I say more loot it’s really just there’s more unique ways to grow. If you look at what we do with grenades and shields they have eighty-seven bazillion options as well whereas in the old game there was much, much less differentiation there so now you can like grow on relics, shields, grenades weapons…there’s just more depth, really.
Drew Robbins: One more thing I was going to ask you: now, not to rag on other studios around, but I know a lot of them do post-launch DLC that’s already on the disc. One of the things that the first Borderlands did really well was it was a few months afterwards and then there were these giant DLC packs. Are similar plans in the works? Have you guys already started?
Jeremy Cooke: I mean, we’re really just focused on the main game right now; we still have lots of work left to do [laughs] on this one. We tend to wait until after we’re done and then dive in because we really need the whole team to make DLC great.
Drew Robbins: But there will be DLC, right?
Jeremy Cooke: We’re not saying officially, but you can assume there will be DLC.
Drew Robbins: But not on the disc, right?
Jeremy Cooke: No, it will not be on the disc. We really don’t believe in that, we feel like why wouldn’t we put that in the main game?
Drew Robbins: We thank you for that; after Mass Effect 3, I don’t think I can handle that anymore! [laughs]
I would like to thank 2K Games and Jeremy Cooke for their time at PAX East and for their staunch opposition to on-disc DLC.
Borderlands 2 launches on September 18 for the PC, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360.