The tiny, beaten-up Claptrap robot calls me over with a cheery “A quest for thee! Your master commands you!” I keep finding people in the ramshackle rebel fort of Sanctuary willing to offer me sidequests, but this is the only one I’m allowed to accept during my special hands-on preview of Borderlands 2.
It’s just as well, because this hyper little automaton plans on keeping me busy.
“I have a secret stash hidden very, very far away from where I currently am!” it tells me, and I must perform several super-devious tasks in order to get it. “First, collect a few brown rocks for me! Then defeat the badass skag! Then pilfer the lost staff of Matt Shuler! Then you shall bring me the head of the Destroyer of Worlds! And then…you shall dance for my enjoyment! MUHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”
Or, alternatively, I can go five feet, nudge a sheet of aluminum siding, and help myself to his goodies. As appealing as Matt Shuler’s staff sounds, I take the easy route, snickering to myself.
I’m on record as not being a huge fan of Borderlands, and the general consensus coming out of the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show pegged Borderlands 2 as Borderlands with a different color palette (blue instead of brown). But now, having taken a few cracks at the sequel to 2010’s RPG/shooter lootfest — and surprise hit — I’ve got to admit it’s cracking me the hell up.
Yes, Borderlands has a warped sense of humor, and the comic relief Claptraps often suffer for your pleasure, but now the designers aren’t holding anything back. Borderlands 2 (due this September on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC) takes the full go-for-broke gonzo approach. Even when it downshifts into a close approximation of “subtle,” the jokes feel sharper, and the timing feels fine-tuned to the second. No lie: Developer Gearbox Software basically serves up more of the same in terms of gameplay (with a few tweaks to skill trees and stat perks) and character classes, but in practice, it’s like watching the next episode of your favorite comedy. And it’s funnier. Borderlands 2 is the trigger-happy sitcom you always dreamed about.
Plot? Sure, they’ve got one. Five years after the first quartet of Vault Hunters nearly unleashed a Lovecraftian horror on the universe (and then shot it), they’ve become a merry band of freedom fighters. A self-loving jerk named Handsome Jack moved in, took over the ubiquitous Hyperion Corporation, and laid claim to the violence-prone planet Pandora and its one-of-a-kind precious metal, Eridium.
Roland, the first game’s soldier-class character, has built a resistance movement called the Crimson Raiders out of the remains of General Knoxx’s troops (the fella from the first game’s downloadable add-on, The Secret Armory of General Knoxx). So while Handsome Jack routinely bombards Sanctuary’s protective shields and the titular borderlands from his H-shaped space station, four new Vault Hunters arrive to help Roland, Lilith, Mordecai, and Brick send Jack to an early, good-looking grave.
First order of business: Swiping a vault key from Jack’s thugs on a speeding train. That’s right…turns out Pandora’s got more than one vault, and some of them hold things far more dangerous than world-ending gigantor tentacle monsters.
I’m reluctantly told to decline a mission called Splinter Group (“This mission has it all…violence and pizza!”) in which you beat the crap out of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in favor of going after that key. Naturally, nabbing a key to Pandora’s “box” involves doing a lot of prep work…like waking up sniper supreme Mordecai by setting a few screechy bugs on fire.
That’s the most normal thing I’m going to do for the rest of this demo.
My run-in with Handsome Jack back during the E3 demo should’ve set the stage. That mission had me destroying huge statues of — who else? — Handsome Jack while the man himself insisted he’d just replace them with bigger, better statues of himself desecrating my corpse in increasingly horrible ways. Oh, yes…that palette was blue in more ways than one and teetering closer to outrageously offensive than merely offensive. Certainly not for delicate sensibilities, but I laughed my guts out.
Now, a month later, Mordecai offers me a plan focused on heavy, heavy drinking and Tiny Tina, “The World’s Deadliest 13-Year-Old.” Tina’s totally sane solution? Outfit her stuffed bunny friends, Mooshy Snugglebutts and Lucious Sexobitz, with train-busting warheads. But before Tina will point you in the train’s direction, you’ve got to help with a little tea party she’s got planed. Like, for instance, stealing crumpets from local bandits and shooting down their gyrocopter gunships for enough scrap metal to make a teapot. Because why wouldn’t you?
Next, you’ve got to “invite” a few guests, starting with the emancipation of her date, Sir Reginald, “a local aristocrat and purveyor of the fine arts,” according to Tina: a baby Varkid bug in a glass jar according to the naked eye. Its mother objects to Reggie’s dinner plans and your role as matchmaker.
Last, you’ve got to lure a psycho into the Guest of Honor chair and then defend Tina’s tea party as waves of his bandit buddies come a’ calling. Most notably, you get a few tanked-up giants carrying shields with live midgets tied to them. If you shoot off their ropes, they’ll harass their former captors for a few seconds. Midgets sure hold a grudge.
All of this put a crooked smile on my face and a song in my bullet-riddled heart.
So many shooters take themselves so seriously: You’re fighting World War III, or the fate of the galaxy hinges on your sure aim. Borderlands 2 might introduce some of that later on, but so far, it seems perfectly happy to thumb its nose at those grim alternatives and get down into the mud and the blood and the beer. Sure, Roland occasionally reminds you Handsome Jack will wipe Sanctuary off the map if you fail, but then Mordecai’s pet bird breaks in to squawk something vitally important to you. Borderlands 2 is that kind of game.
And that’s a game I, an avowed Borderlands hater, want more of. It made me laugh. A lot. So few games even try where Borderlands 2 swings for the fences. That’s more than enough to win me back.