In Praise of Cartoon Violence: Borderlands 2 at E3 2012

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2K Games

If you watched any of the press conferences during E3 2012, you likely witnessed some gruesome displays of violence–faces stabbed, throats choked, bullets penetrating skin in explosions of flesh and bone.

As I sat in the audience at those presentations, watching Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft make a bloody mess of her assailants, or Splinter Cell‘s Sam Fisher shooting some thugs in slow-motion, it was hard to avoid the sense that the brutality was all a bit, well, senseless.

So it was actually refreshing to play 25 minutes of Borderlands 2 during the show. Like its predecessor, Borderlands 2 is a game about collecting guns and causing tremendous violence with them. But Borderlands 2 doesn’t flaunt its carnage.

Your reward for attacking an enemy with a brand-new shotgun or rocket launcher isn’t excessive gore, but the satisfaction of seeing that enemy’s health bar deplete by a little more than it did before. Enemies take a handful of shots to die, so each confrontation presents a chance to judge the gun in your hand. Borderlands‘ reputation as the Diablo of first-person shooters–boiling down the carnage to a game of calculations and statistics–is well-deserved.

Borderlands 2 plays up the cartooniness that goes hand-in-hand with this approach to violence. The comic-style graphics in Borderlands 2 (cel-shaded, to use the gamer’s jargon), seemed to really pop this time around. The futuristic setting of the demo level probably helped, with its blue skyscrapers, bright red and yellow mechs looming large, and changing pace from the first game’s endless deserts. All the while, the game’s new arch-villain, Handsome Jack, taunts the player with snarky banter. Jack is 2K Games’ effort to better define the enemy forces in Borderlands 2, and his barbs, though slightly noisome, help lighten the mood.

A time-limited demo isn’t conducive to Borderlands‘ defining characteristics of gun collection and character building. Those are the two areas that least needed improvement from the first game, but their addictiveness in Borderlands 2 will go a long way toward determining the finished product’s success. It’s hard to make any grand judgments about the game without spending serious time with the system at its core. For the moment, I took the demo for what it was: a brightly-colored, boisterous break from all the merciless slaughter.

MORE: Check out Techland’s coverage of E3 2012