Sunday, April 20, 2014

PAX East 2014 Preview: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!

One of the surprises leading up to PAX East was hearing about the new game in the Borderlands franchise called Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! Developed by 2K Australia with heavy partnership from Gearbox, this new title focuses on Handsome Jack’s rise to infamy in the period between Borderlands one and two. While the game was not playable by attendees at the show, Gearbox and 2K Australia had a developer-led playthrough of the new game that was focused on introducing new characters, environments and weapon types. It was a great presentation and alleviated my fears that this would be just more of the same Borderlands we are used to.
click to view larger imageThe presentation started with the character of Athena, a Gladiator class who was an NPC originally introduced in DLC for the first Borderlands. Athena’s abilities focus on a shield she can generate to absorb shots and then fire for tremendous damage.
As the presenter moved around the world, which is the moon orbiting Pandora, he introduced some of the new mechanics offered by this new playground. On the moon the gravity is lower, which allows for higher and longer jumps, as well as the potential to knock items and even people off the surface with enough force. The second major addition was an extra item slot called O2 Kits (but which looks like it says “OZ Kits,” a nod to the Australian development of the game); these slots not only give an oxygen timer but also have benefits similar to ones given on shield slots.
As they started to move around and explore, the addition of O2 kits and Oxygen itself started to really come out as a huge difference in this title. Certain areas have breathable environments being generated and others don’t; smash a canister when there is no oxygen/gravity and items float away. Kill a bad guy just right and he floats away into space as well. You can also fire at people’s helmets to cut off their oxygen supply, which could be a key tactic in some battles. The oxygen tank you carry can also be used tactically to trigger longer or higher jumps, but it depletes oxygen faster which is something you have to be aware of.
The O2 meter can easily be looked at as similar to the shield bar – you are in trouble one way or another when it starts to get low. Thankfully there are air pockets all over the place (and marked on the map) as well as atmosphere generators and buildings that can replenish your O2. Plus the O2 kit is another item type, so larger and more powerful ones can be found as you play.
click to view larger imageThe developer then took us to a loot drop in order to explain some of the new weapon types found in The Pre-Sequel!  The first was a cryo gun model that is a first for the series, giving the ability to slow, then finally freeze enemies with multiple shots. If enemies are killed when frozen they shatter, which actually looked really cool in the low-gravity setting. A neat moment occurred with this gun type later in the playthrough when an enemy froze and was shattered in low gravity with the bits floating away. When atmosphere was restored the bits fell to the ground all around.
The other major weapon type is a sustained laser-style weapon that can have whatever elemental power the gun happens to be created with, so you can have a fire, ice or corrosive laser. Of course all the weapon manufacturers have their variants as well, so assume some fire faster, some explode and others do other over-the-top actions you would expect from Borderlands guns.
The developer was playing alone as Athena and she was quite effective especially once the shield’s ultimate power was unlocked, giving her the ability to chain-hit many targets. Soon though a large horde appeared and another presenter jumped in and started playing as Wilhelm, who was the first boss from Borderlands 2. In Borderlands 2 Wilhelm is a giant robot, but in The Pre-Sequel! he is a cyborg and his skill tree is all about adding other robotic components until he is the Wilhelm we know.
His key power is called Air Power and it revolves around calling in Drones to assist you.  Wilhelm is a Defender class and he looked pretty interesting and will be the tank class in this title. Wilhelm and Athena took on waves of bad guys, working together to take advantage of frozen enemies and claiming oxygen-rich areas. Eventually they encountered a mini-boss called Red Belly who kicked Athena through the glass of the compound, and the demo ended with her flipping through space. There will be two other playable characters available upon initial release, ClapTrap the FragTrap and Nisha the Lawbringer (who was sheriff of Lynchwood in Borderlands 2), but they were not presented as part of the demo.
click to view larger imageInitially I did not have a lot of excitement for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! I assumed it was just Borderlands with a coat of paint, but the story of Handsome Jack becoming the head of Hyperion seems interesting and the new tweaks look fun. The inclusion of O2 kits and the new gun variants look to add depth to the game and we were even teased with a new moon vehicle that looks like it will be a blast to drive around Pandora’s moon.
Interestingly enough the game is coming to last-gen consoles (PS3, Xbox 360 and PC) so that the developer could focus on content and not engine changes to suit the newer-generation boxes. This also means we get to play the game that much sooner, and after what I saw at PAX East I am looking forward to finding a gazillion new guns in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! when it is released this fall.

Friday, April 18, 2014

PAX East 2014 Preview: Defense Grid 2

Tucked away at PAX East was a booth for Defense Grid 2, a sequel to the well-loved Defense Grid: The Awakening which to me defined the tower defense genre with its tight action, wit and customizable experience. Despite being a terrific game and a solid seller the first title did not put its developer Hidden Path in a position to fund a sequel and they did not want to go the traditional publisher route. That left Kickstarter, which they approached it in an interesting way: If they got a certain amount they would release an expansion to the original game, while if they achieved their top goal a sequel would be released.
They missed their top goal, but a mystery backer topped up their funding and work was started. They released their expansion last year and then eventually reached out to 505 games for publishing support and are well on their way to releasing the full sequel later this year.
click to view larger imageI had played a great deal of Defense Grid: The Awakening on PC and noticed when I got to the booth that they had an Xbox One version playable as well so I took that for a spin. The point of the Defense Grid series is to fight off hordes of monsters that are trying to steal your power cores. The action takes place on set maps with multiple paths and you have the ability to direct the monsters by placing towers at blocking points. You win if no more monsters are left and you still have cores; you get a perfect game if none are stolen. One of the neat things about the series is that the monsters have to walk back with the cores to steal them, so you have a chance on the return path to finish the hordes off, but cores return to base slowly so care is needed.
Off the bat I could see there were some subtle differences that will improve playability.  First off, the top of the screen has a host of information such as what monsters are queued; the core, shield and resource numbers; and a graph showing your progress and mapping any previous attempts. The monsters now have a health bar, which makes a big difference when gauging how you are doing. Hidden Path also eliminated flying creatures as they were too chaotic and could easily ruin a perfect run; this allowed the developer to come up with many more interesting monster variants. Finally, they added a lot of dynamic content within the maps – towers that move and land masses that rise and fall, for example – which changes the battlefield.
click to view larger imageControl was easy on the Xbox One, with the left stick controlling general movement and the right stick intuitively zooming with up and down movements and shifting viewing angles with left and right. The bumpers are used to speed and slow down the monster movement, and placement/upgrades is controlled with the A button. It worked pretty well, movement was responsive and the system was very lenient when you were hovering on a build point – it would build in the most likely spot.
Despite the controls being a little different I was pulled in right away and enjoyed a round of the new title (winning a perfect match, I may add). The game in its current state did not have any of the story elements in place, but I was assured that the charming AI narrator from the first game (Jim Ward) would be back along with a number of new characters. The company’s goal is to refine and deepen the story and the tidbits I was given have me excited to play through the game’s main story mode.
While the core gameplay of Defense Grid has been tweaked more than revolutionized, the sequel will offer additional modes that will lengthen the life and enjoyment of the title. It will be released across multiple platforms (PS4, Xbox One and PC), but the PC version will have a leg up with Mod support. Tools will be provided with the full version for people to create their own themed maps and voiceovers. This could be a really cool way to get some iconic scenes or scenarios as well as plenty of unique content into Defense Grid 2.
click to view larger imageI was told the game will also have two-player co-op and competitive MP modes. Players can work with or against other players to evolve strategies. Co-op mode allows a player to work with a friend to build towers and defend power cores. Competitive mode allows players to compete and modify each other’s gameplay experience while interacting. That last competitive mode is the one I am really looking forward to as it was described as similar to the old multiplayer Tetris on the Gameboy – as you eliminate monsters on your side, some spawn to the other player.
Defense Grid 2 is shaping up really well on all platforms, but having checked out both the PC and Next Gen console versions I can say that the PC version has a clear edge. The textures were crisper and better shaded, and movement is far more intuitive on a mouse and keyboard than with a controller. This is not to say that the Xbox One and PS4 versions are bad, they just don’t quite measure up to the PC version. With some time left before release we could see the gulf shrink, but if you have a choice go for the PC version first.
Being a big fan of the original I was looking forward to Defense Grid 2 and my anticipation level has just risen further now that I have tried out the game first-hand.  The gameplay tweaks, expanded storyline and solid multiplayer additions make this the one Tower Defense game to look out for when it is released this Fall for Xbox One, PS4, and PC/Linux/Mac.