There's a new big Borderlands game coming this year, but it's not Borderlands 3 and franchise creator Gearbox Software isn't in the driver's seat.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is coming to the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC this fall and is in development by 2K Australia. Randy Pitchford, head of Gearbox, met with journalists in New York this week to walk them through the upcoming game and explain why it won't be on next-gen platforms or made by the people who created the first two.
Gearbox, Pitchford said, is a studio right now that very much wants to concentrate on building entirely new properties and creating "technology for the future." But the studio also still sees an unmet demand for more Borderlands by its most passionate fans.
"The last quarterly report that Take-Two talked to the shareholders about, they announced that Borderlands 2 has become the best selling game in 2K Games history, which is pretty awesome," he said. "I'm really pleased with that, obviously. It's a challenge for us, though, because my studio has dedicated a lot of its attentions toward building new IP and towards creating technology for the future, which, in spite of the unparalleled support we gave to Borderlands 2 and the amount of DLC and other additional content we added to Borderlands 2, we still have not really met the demand that there has been from our fans. And to be fair, as well, within Gearbox, we really love Borderlands, so there's a lot of us that keep wanting to do things with it, want to spend more time in the space.
"So we were very fortunate after BioShock Infinite shipped that the 2K Australia team was available, and so these guys have been able to jump in 100 percent to make sure that we could bring more content to Borderlands fans, and that's what's becomes Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel."
Early in his pitch to journalists, Pitchford said he wanted to call this next game Borderlands 1.5 because that's when it takes place, but Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel won out because the game brings with it a host of new features and technology.
The Pre-Sequel take place in the time lost between Borderlands and Borderlands 2 and is meant to be a sequel to the first game and a prequel to the second. Players become one of four characters, four new heroes, fighting alongside one another on the team of Handsome Jack.
"The story is about the rise of Handsome Jack, so it turns out, you'll discover, that he begins his journey maybe with morally good intentions," Pitchford said. "And throughout the course of this game, you'll see how he becomes the horrific, evil villain he is in Borderlands 2 that seems to have enjoyed cutting people's eyeballs out with a spoon. He wasn't always so bad."
While new as heroes, the game's four playable characters aren't new to the fiction of Borderlands. Gamers will have the option to play as Athena, a former Atlas assassin who was introduced in the Secret Armory of General Knoxx in the original Borderlands as a member of the Crimson Lance; Wilhelm, a Hyperion engineer who is the first major boss players fight against in Borderlands 2; Nisha, the sheriff of Lynchwood in Borderlands 2; and the fourth playable character will be the famously chatty Hyperion robot Claptrap. While this is the Claptrap first seen at the start of the original Borderlands and the last surviving Claptrap from Borderlands 2, he is known as Claptrap, the Fragtrap in this game.
The four characters, like Handsome Jack himself, each come with a lot of backstory, or frontstory as the case may be, that needs to be explained in the game. Each character starts out as happily teamed up with Handsome Jack, and through the playing of the Pre-Sequel, players will discover how they changed both morally, and in at least one case, physically.
"You last experienced or encountered Wilhelm as the first boss that you fought, the first major boss you fought in Borderlands 2," Pitchford said. "He was a giant robot under the command of Handsome Jack. Wilhelm was once a man, and in the course, if you choose to play him, in the course of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, as you add skills, you will slowly transform him from a man to a machine. Every skill point you add increases the amount of cybernetic attachments and modification that Wilhelm undergoes. And some of those skills have new features and new capabilities that are a lot of fun."
Pitchford said some of the playable characters start out as kind of "psychopathic but fun and then ended in a place where they were really aggressively wanting to stay with Jack so they could kill more innocent people and get paid for it."
And of course you have Claptrap, who at the beginning of Borderlands 2 is found abandoned in a frozen wasteland.
"We will finally discover what happened to Claptrap between Borderlands 1 and Borderlands 2," Pitchford said.
He added that this Borderlands has more dialog from player characters then in any previous game because they need to tell their story as the game develops.
"Speaking to characters having arcs," Pitchford said, "at the beginning of the game, Jack is not necessarily a bad guy. In fact, you kind of think he's motivated for the right reasons, but as his story progresses, he has to become the Jack we know.
"We know Wilhelm is on Jack's team in Borderlands 2. If you know anything about Athena, you know she once was part of the Crimson Lance, but she actually became disillusioned with Atlas and kind of went rogue. What's her arc like when she's on Jack's team? Is Jack the antidote for everything that was wrong with Atlas, and then what does Jack become and where does that leave her? And these are interesting things too. And of course, I don't want to get spoilery, but we have all the other characters that you know that we have to deal with. We have all the characters from Borderlands 1 and Borderlands 2 and how we're bridging the gap for them as well."
To the moon
The chief impetus for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel wasn't to tell the story of Handsome Jack and how he became so evil; it was to go to the moon.
"Now, when you've played Borderlands 1 and 2, for the people that have spent hundreds of hours on Pandora, they've always looked up at the sky and talked about the moon and the moon base," Pitchford said. "In the pre-sequel, we're going to the moon, going to the moon base."
And journeying to the moon and its base brings with it a lot of new game elements, different sorts of loot chests, and weapons.
During a hands-off demo of part of the game, 2K Australia general manager Tony Lawrence and Pitchford explained some of those new elements.
Gameplay opened on the moon inside a facility that had both some gravity and an atmosphere. Before venturing outside, we got a look at one of the game's new freeze weapons which use a cryo effect to shoot ice bullets.
Hitting an enemy with these frozen bullets initially slows them down, but eventually will freeze them solid. And then you can just shatter them into bloody ice cubes.
The game will also have laser weapons which can fire an array of different types of lasers including everything from the beam shots you'd find in Star Wars to a wavering stream similar to something you'd see coming from a Ghostbusters' positron collider.
One massive addition to the game is the need for a new type of gear, the oxygen kit, or Oz kit. Once a player makes their way onto the moon's surface a helmet digistructs over their head. An oxygen meter tracks how much oxygen they have, but it's not really to make sure you have enough to breathe with. The oxygen tanks on a player's back can also serve as a low-gravity jump jet. By venting oxygen you can double jump, hover, fly a little bit and, most impressively, do a damaging ground pound.
Like much of the game's gear, those Oz kits also can add different bonuses like increasing your fire rate or reload speed or adding different types of elemental damage to that ground slamming attack.
"There's lots of gear variety in the Oz kits as well, so it's a whole new dimension for gear," Pitchford said.
Because of the low gravity of the moon, a players jumps is much higher and a little slower than usual, but the ground pound makes up for that and prevents players from becoming slow moving targets for enemies on the ground.
While we didn't get a look at Nisha or much of Claptrap in action, we were able to see some of the skills that Athena and Wilhelm will bring to the game.
Wilhelm, as Pitchford mentioned, starts out as a lightly augmented soldier. Initially he makes use of a shoulder-mounted cannon and has drones he can call to help him in combat. As you build up his skilltree though, he becomes less and less human.
Athena's main ability is a shield she can digistruct which can absorb damage. As new abilities are unlocked, the shield becomes increasingly diverse and powerful. Some abilities allow Athena to throw her shield like a weapon or even absorb elemental damage and then deliver it to enemies during a throw. She also has the ability to taunt enemies, which combined with her damage absorbing and dishing shield, turns her into an impressive tank.
We also caught a brief glimpse of a new vehicle, a hoverbike called the Stingray.
There are, as with any Borderlands game, plenty of other neat little touches. The game, a full game promises Pitchford, is being written by Gearbox writers including Anthony Burch along with a team of writers in Australia.
Because the game isn't Borderlands 3, there is less of an emphasis on new technology and a new look, and more of one on the game's story, Burch said.
"I thought, ‘OK, well what's a story that exists within our current universe that will make sense?' and we found this by space between Borderlands 1 and Borderlands 2," he said. "Why not tell Jack's story in a way that makes him a little bit more sympathetic and maybe the hunters from the other two games a little bit less sympathetic to sort of push the game's dark tone a little bit further because for all of its jokes, not taking itself seriously, the Borderlands games are kind of about not super awesome people. Like, they're dudes who murder people and take stuff from their bodies, and we laugh about it because it's funny and it's a dark humor kind of world, but we thought, ‘Well, OK, if we're going to do something that's this gen rather than next gen, that gives us license to take more risks.'"
That mix of writers, Burch said, will also hopefully produce a wider variety of comedy in the game.
"It's Australian gags for the most part, which is a very different sort of sensibility, a very English sensibility compared to our very westernized, farts and screaming at the player kind of thing," Burch said.
The team decided early on that it would also be fun to essentially make the inhabitants of the moon Australians.
"That just became the rule," Pitchford said.
Among the voice talent the 2K Australian team brought on is Bruce Spence, the New Zealand actor who is best known for his role as the gyro pilot in Max Max 2 and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
"We definitely have a lot of Australian culture to tap into, and the Borderlands world is kind of perfect to do that," 2K Australia's Lawrence said. "There's definitely that kind of variance of the American humor, British humor, Australian humor, and there's also Dickensian kind of side missions in there. There's cricket side mission in there."
A new beginning?
Work on Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel started about four or five months after Borderlands 2 shipped in September 2012, Pitchford said.
"We started with, ‘Well, OK what are we going to do?'," he said. "I think the first tentpole was, we've got to go to the moon, we've got to go to the moonbase."
The problem they studio faced was that Borderlands 2 so resolved the conflict and setting of the moonbase that going there in a game that took place after those events would essentially be boring.
The team didn't want to undo any of the fiction of Borderlands 2 simply to spice up the moon, so Burch said they did the next best thing.
"If we're going to go to the moonbase anyway, what if we try something completely different that people aren't expecting," Burch said.
Pitchford said they're using this game to "scratch a lot of those itches" players have from playing through the first two games.
"We do want to spend time up there," he said. "We do want to play in that space. We do want to mess around with that moonbase.
"It's kind of like, what fun is playing the events of Star Wars after the emperor is killed? That's lame, the stakes are zero. So we kind of realized that, like how can we scratch that itch and satisfy the interest by increasing the stakes and make the stakes really interesting?"
The decision to have 2K Australia take the lead on development was driven in part by the fact that the studio was able to get started on it a bit more than a year ago, Pitchford said.
"There's been a lot of energy on their side put in," he said. "Gearbox has been able to help out with strategy with these guys and we had a couple of people involved early on. Now we have a lot of people involved, so we were able to get more people involved as things went on. But this has mostly been a 2K Australia-driven effort, and they've been 100 percent dedicated to this for a long time now."
Pitchford said that while all of the team's energy is on developing the game right now, it's not unreasonable to expect post-launch support for the Pre-Sequel.
"I think we all expect to do stuff for the Pre-Sequel," he said. "We don't know what it is yet and we haven't started spending any energy on that because all of our mindshare is on the game, but I think it's a fair expectation and I would be sad if we don't live up to it."
And, he added, he hopes 2K Australia will work on that content as well.
"Most of our core energy is being spent toward other new IPs, but I hope 2K Australia is involved," he said. "When you see things like Oz kits and the idea to have the ground stomp, Gearbox didn't come up with those ideas. That's all Australia, and one of the things I imagine or anticipate is, we've all played content from these guys for a long time, right. We've played the BioShock games, so not many people know who 2K Australia is, and I wonder if this game might be kind of like what Half-Life: Opposing Force was for us, where it might put them on the map finally. And I think that's kind of neat.
"My fear is that they're going to work on other things, maybe their own stuff too, and I kind of hope they do a lot more Borderlands stuff because they're really kicking ass at it, so we'll see what happens. If I could wave a magic wand, these guys would be doing a lot of Borderlands."
Does this new game, then, represent a handing off of the franchise to 2K Australia?
"Borderlands is obviously a Gearbox created brand, but I think if ... it's really tough, right?" he said. "It's a huge success, so there's a lot of expectation. If we only kept making the things that already proved successful, Borderlands itself wouldn't exist. We would just keep making Brothers in Arms games forever. So, I've always been pretty quick to trust people that have passion and energy, and results vary. We did a deal with the Telltale guys to do a Tales from the Borderlands game and I'm really excited about that. This is like a core Borderlands game, you know the Tales guys might do their own type of thing. The 2K Australia guys are super experienced with shooters. They know the Unreal engine, which we license. They were able to learn our stuff really fast. They've done some great stuff in the BioShock universe and I think the results speak for themselves.
"So I'd love to for them to keep going, but we take each decision as it comes. It's not like this moment in time where we go, ‘Hey we're handing things, handing off a franchise.' That's not how we approach problems like that, but I do love the idea of these guys being in a position where, with a lot at stake they're excited about it and being locked for even more Borderlands."