Gearbox details the revamped siren class in its shoot and loot sequel.
Borderlands is many things, but it's mostly about one thing: pointing your gun at an enemy and firing bullets at it until it dies. You do it again until there's nobody left onscreen, then move to another area and repeat. It encourages a Diablo-like mentality, tossing you into lightning-fast gameplay loops of anticipation, action and reward. As you earn better loot from enemies and chests, level up, equip specialized grenades, shield mods and tweak your skills, the shooting spectacle gets faster and flashier. You kill more efficiently, from long-range with sniper rifles, with sprays of acid-coated SMG bullets and with thundering blasts from fire shotguns. With Borderlands 2, developer Gearbox wants to add even more ways to play.
A big part of that is an overhaul of the class system. The four classes from the original game still appear in Borderlands 2, but they're not playable. They're around for story reasons, but you'll be wielding weaponry as one of four new or reimagined classes. Take Maya, the Borderlands 2 Siren, for instance. It's a returning class, but with completely different functionality.
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While every class uses guns to burn, shock and blow up enemies, every class does so with the aid of a unique primary action skill. This skill essentially defines the class, and can be modified in dramatic ways. The phasewalking of the original Siren has been replaced with something that sounds similar but really isn't: phaselocking. The phaselock ability is the first earned in the Siren's skill tree, allowing her to bind an enemy from range in a kind of energy bubble. At its most basic level that has a few advantages. First, it takes an enemy out of a fight, providing a degree of crowd control. If there's an especially irritating monster that you or your co-op group would rather freeze in time in order to clean up the rest of the battlefield first, phaselock it and return to shooting it after the enemy horde has been thinned out. Second, it locks the enemy in place, useful for turning fast-moving creatures into easy targets.
By leveling Maya and earning more skill points, you can customize the advantages of phaselocking. Paul Hellquist, creative director at Gearbox, explained more. "She's got support trees so she's also kind of a mystical healer and she uses her ability to grant health bonuses to herself as well as the team. If the team or yourself kills the person who has been phaselocked then it grants health to the party. She can use her phaselock ability to revive another player, which is an exciting one so you don't even have to be near somebody to get them up – she can revive people from across the battlefield. Then in some of the other trees she has things that allow phaselock to affect more people. She has an ability that the phaselock sphere shoots out these additional projectiles that then lock those characters in their places as well so she can go into a more control-oriented role."
Though she'll have options for healing, support and crowd control roles, she'll also be able to deal out plenty of direct damage by investing skill points in the Cataclysm tree. "She has a skill called Helios," said Jeramy Cooke, art director at Gearbox, "and what happens there is, when a target gets phaselocked you get a huge [area of effect] explosion and targets in that radius can get set on fire." Hellquist added that the decisions you make with skill point allocation also affect the visual appearance of the phaselock ability, so if you were to join someone else's game and observe their phaselock, you'd have an idea about their skill build, like how armor sets in some MMOs give away class specializations.
In terms of what phaselocking is like mechanically, you highlight an enemy with a cursor and initiate the phaselock. It's not a projectile attack, so you don't need to lead targets to hit them or anything like that. Then affected targets hover above the ground for the duration of the effect. "We had considered doing like homing projectiles," said Hellquist, "but it reduced the player's ability to actually choose exactly who they wanted to take care of, so it lost a lot of the strategy because the homing projectile would just kind of find someone and you were like 'I didn't want this stupid skag pup, I needed the badass gone.'"
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Paul Hellquist pointed out that phaselocking can serve the additional purpose of marking a target, which tends to be useful in situations where especially lethal enemies should be focus-fired into oblivion. To help with this, the phaselock effect can be modified to add additional bonuses to the affected target. In one build after learning a skill called Wreck, according to Hellquist, "while you have an enemy phaselocked you [get] an increased fire rate and damage with all gun types. So you throw the badass up in the bubble and now your SMG, which already had an outrageous fire rate, is just sending insane amounts of lead into this thing. It's one of my favorites."
Badass monsters are the equivalent of elite or veteran monsters in MMOs – generally they output higher damage and are able to absorb far more punishment before finally keeling over, and yield better rewards. Though you can use the phaselock on badasses, you won't be able to on bosses. "You definitely cannot phaselock bosses," said Hellquist, "although the phaselock skill is still useful against bosses and will deal damage when you hit them. There's a neat little thing as well where we found that players were frustrated with accidentally wasting phaselocks so we designed it such that if you attempt to phaselock something and miss, you're skill immediately goes, like resets its cooldown so that you can have another chance to use it again and it works the same way against bosses. Although, if you successful deal damage it will expend the cooldown on it."
There's also the storyline of the new Siren. While it may not be as exciting as the many ways to kill things, Gearbox has pointed out that more substantial story development is a focus for Borderlands 2. "What we wanted to do with the Sirens this time around was to have a kind of a different flavor," said Cooke. "There's some Siren lore that says that there's only a certain number of Sirens around at any given time in our universe and we wanted them to all kind of have unique back stories. [Maya] knows a bit about where her power comes from. We kind of patterned her a little bit after Indiana Jones to some extent. You know, she's the adventurer, roving the universe trying to find the secrets of where she came from and what the Sirens are all about."
You'll certainly find a lot of guns in Borderlands 2 (somewhere in the vicinity of 87 bazillion multiplied by bazilliondier if the recent trailer is accurate, which it's not) and Gearbox has designed each skill tree so specific guns aren't best paired with certain classes. There will be exceptions, but in general, Gearbox didn't want to limit your gun selection with a specific class. "We sort of backpedalled on that from the first game," said Cooke. "We found that people really just wanted to be able to use the weapons they wanted to use. So we tried to be a little less like 'you really want to use this type of gun,' because inevitably someone would just take Brick and go get a sniper rifle and they just wanted to play that way. So we've opened the skill trees up a lot more so that people can access weapons that they want. Now there may be weapons that just harmonize better with certain skills but we're not really kind of forcing that whereas like, you know, here's a buff to this very specific class of weapon. We typically don't do a lot of that."
"This time around we want players to really explore our new guns," said Hellquist, "which have a staggering amount of variety. We want the player to have the fun RPG experience of determining, you know, the min/max area of the best weapons for this class with this build are these types, whether it's this brand of pistols or this brand of assault rifles or whatever. We really want that to be something that players explore instead of sort of saying 'hey, go use the assault rifles all the time.'"
You can actually see even finer detail in the Siren's skill tree if you watch the release date trailer, as the Siren's skill set is highlighted starting at 1:17. You can find a lot more information about the Gunzerker class in a previous article, and expect a lot more about the Commando and Assassin classes within the next few days on IGN.