When Gearbox and 2K Games released the original Borderlands a couple of years back, it introduced an interesting hybrid between first-person shooter and role-playing game, with a strategic way to take down enemies with critical hits and an emphasis on exploration, while also introducing a strength with co-op gameplay.  

Now, two years later, the companies are improving on the formula with the upcoming Borderlands 2, set to release this September for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.  We recently got a chance to check out the game with a hands-on demo this weekend at PAX East to see what should be expected.

The demo contains two levels.  The first takes place in a confined animal sanctuary, where mutant creatures lurk about and require all sorts of damage to bring down.  If that’s not enough, you also need to contend with walker robots and armed soldiers while seeking an objective assigned to you by Mordecai, a hero from the original game (who isn’t playable here, but does make an appearance).  

You’ll notice that with the sequel, Gearbox really went out of their way with the environmental detail here.  No longer are you stuck in the same old deserts, but rather lush surroundings, with beautiful grass arrangements and huge metallic walls surrounding you as you fight your enemies and try to locate your objective.

However, the second level is even more interesting.  Here, you’ll fight your way through a nuclear-ravaged valley, one lined with yellow glowing walls and the kind of terrors that can react promptly to your gunfire attacks.  We’re talking large, encrusted insects that spit crystal shards at you, which can rip through your energy quite easily.  You can seek cover in a nearby shelter, but the best way to bring them down is to rip through their armored legs, where they take the most susceptible damage once you chip away at it.

In both stages, you’ll find an ample amount of gunfire, between both the weapons you pick up from fallen enemies and nearby crates, which hold several clips, as well as new guns.  You’ll find no shortage of guns in Borderlands 2, as Gearbox has literally stated that they go into the “bazilliondier” count.  In fact, they even showed us a small part of the demo where guns upon guns stacked up on one another.  Now that’s impressive.

Borderlands 2 runs at a steady 60 frames per second, but keep in mind that the game was running on an Alienware hardware set-up.  The console version is expected to run at about 30 frame per second, as the previous version has.  Not a big deal.  

The environments show staggering detail here, and the action appears to be non-stop, though you’ll occasionally need to apply strategy.  In one stage, for instance, you’ll need to shut down walkers without destroying them completely, in order to access a gate and move further into the animal sanctuary.  (Otherwise, you’ll just be destroying unit after unit until you finally “get it”, so to speak.)

Gearbox has gone a long way to improving the gameplay, and it shows with each class you take on.  We managed to try two of the four classes that are playable in the game, the Gunzerker and the Siren.  The Gunzerker, in this case the bearded Salvadore, is able to dual wield, in which he can hold two weapons at once for double the firepower.  What’s more, if he’s holding a “slag”, which is a weapon that can chip away at an enemy’s energy count, he can do even more damage.

As for the second class, the Siren, we’re introduced to Maya, who takes the place of Lilith from the original game.  She has the same Phase Walk ability, in which she can turn invisible and strike enemies that don’t detect her.  She also has a new Phase Lock ability, in which she can trap stronger enemies in a bubble, making them vulnerable to your attacks.  This is quite useful, especially against walkers that otherwise deflect your gunfire.

Like the original game, Borderlands 2 leans heavily on co-op support.  You could play solo, obviously, but the game is more fun when you bring friends along for the ride, hunting down Handsome Jack’s rogue forces as a group.  We tried out a little two-player co-op, and though there were slight times in which our teammate wasn’t entirely on the same page, we had a great time shooting folks with him and building up our stats.

Oh, a word of warning.  You will come close to dying in this game quite often.  You either have the option of fighting your way out and struggling to come back from the dead through a “second chance”, or simply respawning and paying a small penalty fee to have a nearby checkpoint bring you back.  As long as you have the cash supply, you can continue the good fight.  So be sure to have plenty on hand!

We can honestly say that Borderlands 2 is a whole lot of fun – especially if you’re a fan of the original game.  If you’re in attendance for PAX East this weekend, don’t hesitate to stop by 2K’s booth and give it a shot.  And don’t forget your baseball jersey!