In the original Borderlands, combat felt stiff and repetitive. Enemy AI was predictable, and most could be dealt with by simply chewing away at their health with whatever gun you had equipped. In Borderlands 2, it's a completely different story.
Enemies are now smart and vicious, and force you to play tactically. This makes the co-operative experience - for many, the main reason to play Borderlands - even more rewarding. "We call it the AI ecosystem," says Gearbox Software's Steve Gibson. "The idea is that not only are enemies more reactive and more aggressive, but that they can co-operate with each other."
We see this in action in our hands-on. We're fighting a group of Skags, the feral dog-like creatures from the original Borderlands. One special breed of Skag has the ability to 'rally' his weaker companions, which sets them on fire and makes them more dangerous. "This is just one example of the AI working together," says Gibson. "In battle, you now have to prioritise more than just who's closest to you. We want all the combat to feel richer and more tactical."
There are four brand new character classes this time around, with the previous cast serving as quest-givers. First up, we have the Siren, Maya. In the first game, Lilith could use the Phase Walk ability to turn invisible and sneak up on enemies; Maya's power, however, is the Phase Lock. "She can grab an enemy and trap them in a floating bubble," says Gibson. "This can be upgraded too. The Routing add-on, for example, will freeze any enemies near your bubble."
Then there's the Assassin, which is a stealth class. "He's good at finding critical points on enemies, and can create a copy of himself to distract enemies."
"The Gunzerker is self-explanatory. He can dual-wield weapons and blow stuff up twice as fast." This is the class we played in our hands-on. The dual-wield power only lasts for a few seconds (which you can increase with upgrades), and places another weapon in your inventory in your left hand, doubling your damage. It doesn't feel as unique as the Phase Lock, but when we were backed into a corner, activating it would give us the extra punch to fight our way out.
Finally, there's the Commando. "He's an evolution of the Soldier from the first game. He has a turret he can deploy, which has a lot of really cool upgrades. You can place multiple turrets, or unlock the Longbow turret, which can be placed anywhere in the world, even if it's out of reach - walls, ceilings, etc." The new classes have also been designed to interact with each other in interesting ways. "Through upgrades, the Siren can actually remotely resurrect another player, even if they're way across the map."
Adding yet another layer of tactics to combat is a new element, the unfortunately named slag. A weapon infused with this purple gunk will reduce an enemy's stats, making them weaker. "This works well for the Gunzerker. If you're dual-wielding a weapon with slag, and, say, a weapon with the lightning element, you're really going to do some major damage."
"The idea behind including this was to reward the role-playing guys; the guys who think about all the stats and number-crunching happening behind the scenes."
The hour we spent with the game was impressive. The combat feels much more dynamic, and missions have branching paths and unpredictable structures - a far cry from the fetch and carry quests of the original.
Guns are also more satisfying to use, with enemies reacting to every shot in a much more readable way. Gibson also assures us that Gearbox are making the game friendlier for solo players, with a more involving story. Borderlands 2 is a radical improvement over its predecessor, and feels like the game the great, but flawed, original always felt like it could be.