You may think that the best thing about "Borderlands 2" is the guns.
And, well, you might be right. At least in part. Like the first (much loved) "Borderlands" game, "Borderlands 2" is a first-person-shooter/role-playing mashup that finds players on a distant planet, scooping up a stunning array of guns (there are "millions and millions" of them) that must then be used to take on a wildly colorful host of bad guys and even badder creatures.
But give this game some real playtime and you'll discover that, like the first "Borderlands," what really makes "Borderlands 2" tick is the people you play with. The new game — which drops players onto the planet of Pandora for a gun-filled, madcap treasure hunting adventure — is specially made to be played cooperatively with up to four people. And playing together — guns blazing — is an absolute, well, blast.
"Co-op is at the heart of everything we do here," Gearbox Software's Randy Varnell, the design producer for "Borderlands 2," told me during a recent interview. And, he said, this time around, the co-op gameplay has been beefed up and polished up even more.
"It definitely has grown up," he said, explaining that they've added new features such as online split-screen gameplay as well as the new Bandit Technical vehicle that lets four players ride and gun together. There's also new enemies that are "far more challenging." (Watch out for Terramorphous the Invincible — a very big, very bad boss that will take four very skilled, very powerful players to take down.)
Meanwhile, "You look at how we’ve designed the classes and abilities, and you’re going to find even more ways to play with your friends," Varnell said.
But playing well with others isn’t always easy. And so I asked Varnell for some tips on how players can make the most of their "Borderlands 2" co-op game. Here was his advice:
1. Mix and match the characters in your team
There are four new character classes in "Borderlands 2" — Axton the Commando, Maya the Siren, Salvador the Gunzerker and Zer0 the Assassin (see top photo). They each have different strengths and different sets of skills you can put to use as you play. And while you can play the same character your friends are playing when you play together, Varnell says you really should mix it up.
"To get the most out of co-op, I would say pick a couple of different classes," he said. "And even more important than that, make a plan (more on that below). Each class has three skill trees. And we really spent a lot of time with 'Borderlands 2' making sure each skill tree is different."
Play Maya the Siren, for example, and follow the skill tree known as "Harmony" and you'll end up with a character who has some really great healing powers that can be a big help to your team. If you put her Harmony skills to use, she will be able to instantly revive a dying friend from a distance and she can even fire healing bullets at her own teammates.
Meanwhile, Salvador the Gunzerker has a "Brawn" skill tree that ramps up his physical toughness.
"He has a lot of abilities that just turn him into the guy who can wade into the middle of a fight and take all the damage from the enemies and distract them," Varnell says. "Which is a really popular tactic in co-op."
These are the kinds of things you should take some time to think about before you start a co-op game because it will really pay off in the long run.
"Especially if you’re playing with more than two players, I almost always say get a Maya in your group and go Harmony," Varnell said, adding, "A Salvador in the Brawn tree and a Maya in the Harmony tree would be really awesome together."
2. Have a strategy
"All of our characters have different things they can do and different ways you can play them," Varnell said. "Talk with your friends. Even if you’re match-making with someone online, we have built-in voice chat now so say hello and say, 'Hey, how are you playing your Salvador? Are you sniping or going melee with Zer0? Are you support Maya or damage Maya?'
"Try understanding how the other player is playing their character and adapt to their play style," Varnell advises. "There are lots of different strategies, but finding one that works in your group is a really great thing to do."
3. Be nice ... and share (sometimes)
You can play "Borderlands 2" split-screen with a friend sitting beside you on the couch or you can let the game's online matchmaking put you together with strangers. But no matter how you're connecting or who you're playing with, "Be nice," Varnell says. "I think that’s a general rule for all of life."
Sure, a little friendly competition is part of the game. Because "Borderlands 2" is set on Pandora — a planet alive with a very wild wild-west spirit — the game involves competing to see who gets the best loot: awesome guns, cash and other goodies that appear in the game as you explore the world and defeat enemies.
"When a gun drops, we don’t give you two copies. You have to decide who gets that piece of loot," Varnell says. "We think that’s really important and that's actually one of the most interesting parts of co-op. But you know, be nice and be considerate. If someone else is using sniper rifles and a good sniper rifle drops, you should probably let them have it. And vice versa. When that shotgun you’ve always wanted drops, they should probably let you have it.
"It really is one of those great heartwarming, awesome teambuilding experiences," Varnell says. "And I’m not trying to be cliché here. It really is awesome when you play with a great team and you have that kind of graciousness and you think of each other."
4. Save your friends when they need saving
Pay attention to what the other people on your team are doing because with all those bullets and baddies flying they may need you — and need you badly — at any moment.
"Borderlands 2" features Second Wind and Revive mechanics. That is, if during a battle you're badly injured and lose all of your health, you will go into a "down state." At that point, you have a certain amount of time to try to kill an enemy on your own, which will will revive you and get you back up in the fight. During that limited time, you can also recover if a friend comes over and revives you.
"Taking a moment to go and bring a friend back into the fight can be really, really important," Varnell said. "Having two people up in a fight is going to take the enemies down faster and it's going to help the fight go a whole lot better."
And for those of you worried about taking damage and risking your own life while you revive your teammate, Varnell offers this important tip: "When you are reviving a co-op teammate, you actually take less damage from enemies."
Being the hero really does pay off.
5. Look for those Class Mods
Class Modsare items that can be found or bought in Borderlands (check those hidden lockers and chests, people) or earned for completing missions. They are upgrades that give an added boost to your character's abilities. But perhaps even more importantly, some of them can give a boost to the entire team.
"There are things like Team Health Regeneration, Team Ammo Regeneration — which is really cool — and Team Shield Capacity," Varnell says. "What’s really cool, especially if you play with a three or four-person co-op group, is if you hunt down those Class Mods that have those team abilities on them and everybody has one of those. Man, it makes your team super powerful."
6. Take the time to hear the story and dialog
Varnell points out that, with "Borderlands 2," Gearbox really took the time to beef up and flesh out the story and the world that players experience.
"The world of Pandora is an amazingly quirky, fun, odd place. It has lot of story and dialog," he says. "And a lot of that dialog is spoken now. In fact, there is some incredible voice acting in the game."
And so he advises players to take the time to hear the dialog and pay attention to the story. And that means, when playing with friends, you have to be especially careful and respectful of what your teammates are doing.
For example, "In the hub city of Sanctuary, there are eight or 10 different missions immediately available, and if everyone accepts a different mission at the same time you're going to stomp on the order of the dialog," he explains. "It will create a less-than-ideal experience if you don’t pay attention to what other people are doing.
"So my pro-tip for people who want to engage in the story and appreciate and understand that story, is take some time. Let the mission play out and let people hear what’s going on there," he says.
Which leads us to...
7. Enjoy the journey
"It’s a big, wild, weird place and it's full of fun," Varnell says of "Borderlands 2." "A lot of people are rushing through because they want to be the first to reach the level cap and they want to be the first to finish the story, but there’s a lot to experience. This is a big game. Enjoy it. Enjoy it at your own pace."
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti, and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.