Borderlands was a surprise smash hit, but things could have been very different. Dropping the first game's original gritty photorealism for the now-iconic cel-shaded style mere months before release was a move that most studios would have thought suicidal. Three years and six million copies later, it's impossible to imagine Borderlands without it.
Coming together late in a traumatic development process, the first game benefited from luck that the sequel doesn't seem to need. Returning to Pandora for a second adventure, Gearbox radiates a confidence that simply wasn't present the first time around. For a series defined so much by style, a big part of the process of refining this formula was expanding Pandora without losing the tone.
"If you're an artist and I ask you to draw me a wasteland, it's natural to draw a desert," explains senior producer Sean Reardon. "It was important for us to be thinking about the feeling of a wasteland and what it means to be in one, but not to trap ourselves in 'yet another brown game'. Each environment needed to be legitimate and beautiful."
The expanded colour palette and variety of styles is the first thing you'll notice about Borderlands 2, but art director Jeramy Cooke argues that it's the impact this has on the game that really matters. "The art style and the story all come together, which allows us to be free to explore stuff in a way that a lot of titles don't. If I do a mechanic about throwing away my guns - that won't make sense in the 'traditional shooter' universe."
Changing the art for the sake of tone has since become the core focus of the entire design of Borderlands 2. "It's fun to come into an established franchise like Borderlands, because it was clear that it was a game about having fun," admits Borderlands 2 writer Anthony Burch. "It's not a game about intense, emotional, slow-motion tragedy.
The most complex question we ask is: what happens when you shoot a psycho in the face with a shotgun that fires lightning? This lets us do things in the story that you might have never seen before. We have a quest that intentionally lasts 15 seconds because it's different, funny and it changes the pace."
We've seen what this means in practice, and we can't deny the appeal. One quest is entirely Top Gun-themed - asking you to burn a volleyball net to avenge a spurned team member. A side objective in another quest rewards you for being a cinematic badass: walk away from an explosion without looking back, and your enemies will freak the hell out. Burch argues that Borderlands 2 is in a unique position to be silly: "If we did a serious story about getting a kidnapped family member back from terrorists we wouldn't have that freedom."
Despite ramping up the elements that feel wilfully weird, Gearbox still wants to keep a leash on the tone of the humour. "I wouldn't say it was funny or 'zany' - it's more of a dark humour," says Reardon. "We're inspired by movies like Total Recall or Robocop or Starship Troopers."
Wherever Gearbox takes Borderlands next, some things will always remain the same. "Shooting things is compelling and primal," admits Cooke. "That experience of just going forward and blowing stuff up is in Gearbox's DNA."
Playing the numbers game
Loot and shoot might have been the addictive glue that held the original together, but Gearbox didn't do a fantastic job of squeezing the best out of the RPG genre. Punchy guns and smoother aiming make pulling the trigger more satisfying than ever, but this isn't the improvement that has us vibrating with excitement.