Borderlands 2 - Mechromancer and Deathtrap 2You can tell the developer was choosing his words very carefully. “Best Friends Forever … this is our newbie-friendly skill tree,” said Gearbox Software’s Jonathan Hemingway. The game designer was describing to us a beginner-oriented set of upgrades and powers for the Mechromancer, a new character who’s available for purchase and download today for the cooperative shooter Borderlands 2.

Hey, wait … wasn’t he just calling this “newbie-friendly skill tree” something a little less politically correct  just a few weeks ago? “Ha, yes, I’m afraid to death now of calling it ‘girlfriend mode!'” said Hemingway, sheepishly laughing at his own faux pas. Guess he read all the fiery backlash on the Internet from female gamers when he first put that unofficial label out there.

But let’s go with “girlfriend mode” for now, since that’s what Hemingway originally called it, with honestly good intentions (he created this skill tree with his nonshooter-playing wife in mind). Also because, conveniently enough for this particular article, I actually have a significant other, Christina, who only started playing first-person shooters (FPS) in the last couple of years. No doubt, she’s good enough now to hold her own in Borderlands. But she’s a girlfriend. What does an actual girlfriend think of “girlfriend mode” after getting hands-on with it?

To be fair, though, Hemingway didn’t just design the Mechromancer to appeal to beginners. Opposite the “girlfriend mode” Best Friends Forever skill tree lies what could be the most hardcore set of abilities a Borderlands player can unlock. Ordered Chaos — let’s call it “boyfriend mode” for … oh, you know why — takes strategy, planning, and perhaps even a willingness to take those counterintuitive low-ammo guns into battle for a greater long-term gain. So … what does a boyfriend (that’s me) think of “boyfriend mode” after getting hands-on with it?

Here are our thoughts.

Borderlands 2 - Mechromancer skill tree

The boyfriend on “boyfriend mode”

I was quite surprised with the Mechromancer. If you look past the pigtails, the teeny skirt, and the whole “girlfriend mode” fiasco, you’ll find this little gal sporting some of the most interesting skills among her playable Borderlands brethren.

“There are a lot of players who have been playing Borderlands for many, many hours — perhaps over 100 hours,” said Hemingway. “And they really want something new and deep. The Ordered Chaos skill tree forces you to play in a manner that’s completely different from any of the other classes. It flips some of the concepts on their head.”

He’s referring to Anarchy, one of the first skills you can unlock in Ordered Chaos. As you kill enemies or empty clips (and let the game automatically reload for you), your Anarchy count — or “stacks” — starts going up. The higher it goes, the more damage you deal. But it comes with a catch.

“The trick is, everything in this tree is very much risk/reward,” said Hemingway. “So as your damage goes up, and you’re doing stupid amounts of damage, your accuracy’s going down. Eventually, you’ll have to get very, very close to hit enemies, which probably means the enemies are probably doing lots of damage to you.”

That’s not all. If you ever reload early or manually — a natural reflex for many shooter players — you will lose all current Anarchy and have to start back at zero. So not only will you have to resist the urge to slap in a new clip after firing off a few rounds, but you’ll have to be careful when trying to open chests or revive teammates, since those actions share the same button as “reload.” Press it too early or too late, and you’ll watch your points drain away completely. Since Anarchy can stack up to 150 times for almost 300 percent extra damage, that can be a heartbreaking mistake.

Funny enough, with the Mechromancer, those embarrassingly low-ammo firearms actually have some serious purpose now. “Guns like a Jakob’s double-barreled shotgun are really great,” said Hemingway. “You can get guns with a one-shot magazine, and every single shot causes you to reload, which is building up your Anarchy stack.” Other skills such as Smaller, Lighter, Faster (increases reload speed while decreasing magazine size) complement Anarchy nicely in similar ways. Get the right combination of baby-clip guns and Anarchy-oriented skills, and you can punch huge, bloody holes in enemy psychos — though you’ll be spending more time reloading weapons than actually firing them.

The only thing not-so-hardcore about Ordered Chaos is that it starts with a killer-robot-summoning action skill. Sounds cool … but it won’t win over any serious gamers. (My girlfriend will explain more on the next page.)

Hemingway wanted to create a character that forces you to play her differently than you have any others in the Borderlands universe. Cue Claptrap throwing confetti in the air: mission definitely complete.

Borderlands 2 - Mechromancer and Deathtrap 1

The girlfriend on “girlfriend mode”

“Girlfriend” here. I have to admit, as a Borderlands superfan, I was initially slightly miffed with Jonathan Hemingway’s unfortunate word choice with “girlfriend mode.” By subconsciously equating “girlfriend” with “newbie,” Hemingway definitely didn’t make any female-gamer fans, but after interviewing him, it’s evident that the game designer had good intentions but spoke purely from his own personal experience with a game-newbie wife. (We’re pretty sure he’s learned his lesson.)

So how does the new Mechromancer, Gaige, help new Borderlands initiates? Her new skill tree, Best Friends Forever, is designed to give a helping hand to shaky newbie ones with Close Enough, a starting skill that allows bullets to ricochet off the ground and walls to hit enemies. No need to worry about pesky laws of physics here! “The bullet will just ricochet at a completely unnatural angle and find an enemy and hit him,” explained Hemingway. Though this can obviously help a newcomer, experienced players can also find ways to take advantage of this skill by hiding behind cover and shooting around corners, trapping enemies in tight corridors with bullets pinballing all around (and through) them.

When Close Enough is paired with Cooking Up Trouble, a skill that regenerates health for Gaige as long as her magazine is full, new players have a buffer to ease their transitions into the shooty-bang-bang FPS world. And we can’t forget the Mechromancer’s way-more-murdery-than-Claptrap pet robot, Deathtrap: He (or she?) materializes when Gaige utilizes her action skill and immediately begins melee-ing waste to all enemies nearby.

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But isn’t the BFF skill tree just “easy mode” then, girlfriend? Afraid not. Ricocheted bullets don’t mean automatic kills, and newbies still have to figure out dual-analog movement control. In fact, the “easy” parts of the BFF tree took the most adjustment for me as someone who’s played over 20 hours as the Siren Maya in Borderlands 2 so far; I had to somehow unlearn my typical Phaselock and careful aiming habits and accept the unnatural benefits of Close Enough in order to give this skill tree a shot. We’ll just say I wasn’t very successful at first and died. A few times. (Investing some skill points in Cooking Up Trouble might have helped in the staying-alive department.)

I had to keep reminding myself that it was OK to not aim sometimes and that a Close Enough ricocheted bullet that does only 50 percent damage instead of an on-target bullet that does 100 percent damage is still a good bullet. I also had to stop inappropriately getting mad at Deathtrap for “stealing” my kills — selfish! Gaige’s killer robot feels big and a bit overpowered, so he’s great for distractions and extra lethal power. But he’s not as fun for players who want to feel personal satisfaction over downing a marauder with a critical hit.

Though I didn’t have time to give the Little Big Trouble skill tree a spin, this shock-heavy route actually intrigued me the most (stir up electrical storms and blow things up!), and the different directions you can take the new Mechromancer make her a versatile addition to the Vault Hunters.

Bottom line: Gaige is a pretty cool gal and a solid option for potential players new to the FPS format who aren’t as adept with dual-analog controls. Hemingway’s redemptive Best Friends Forever summary: “The ultimate goal of this tree is not necessarily ‘easy mode.’ It’s more to help new players get over those initial humps of learning how to play FPS games so they can get into the groove and enjoy all the things that hardcore players enjoy.”

Well said.