'They say people don't believe in heroes anymore. Well, damn them! You and me, Max, we're gonna give them back their heroes!'
Sitting down to have a crack at Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel feels like catching up for a drink with an old friend. But this time, you and your mate are having a beer in the middle of nowhere, the pub is surrounded by outlaws and you'll need your sawn-off shotgun to make it out alive. Also, the pub is on the moon and your shotgun shoots lasers.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, co-developed by 2K Australia and Gearbox Software, takes place on Pandora's moon, after the events of the original Borderlands, but before Handsome Jack has his taste of villainy in Borderlands 2. Players follow Jack's rise to power (along with other friends who have their heel turn in Borderlands 2) following the same shoot-em-up RPG format, rendered in the familiar cel-shaded style.
The franchise has perfected the art of not taking itself too seriously. Now, this latest instalment skyrockets us to an arid lunar outpost replete with flawed heroes and desert-hardened gunslingers, where no boss fight is complete without a droll one-liner. And if you think 2K Australia's latest endeavour sounds like something fresh out of Australian cult film history, you're not mistaken.
Based in Australia's capital, a city of less than 400,000 people, 2K Australia is the country's only AAA developer. Despite its size, the local subsidiary of 2K Games certainly punches above its weight -- the developer has a "long history" of collaborating on major titles according to studio general manager Tony Lawrence, most notably the BioShock trilogy.
With this new chapter in the franchise, the developer has created a game that captures the best of Borderlands and marries it with the irreverent, funny, rough-and-ready tropes of Australian pop culture.
There are updated mechanics in this new lunar world, from low-gravity jumps and 'butt slams' (which are plenty of fun) to the dangers of a zero-oxygen environment. And, as with any Borderlands release, there are plenty of new weapons and missions to explore -- all of which has been teased (with references to Doge and Nietzsche) in the game's trailer.
But perhaps the most distinctive part of the Pre-Sequel is its uniquely Australian flavour. For players used to Borderlands' traditional American voice, the new down-under patois comes as a refreshing surprise -- and it doesn't end there.
2K Australia Creative Director Jono Pelling admits that, while the collaboration with the Dallas-based Gearbox studio was pretty much split 50-50 when it came to workload and development, the Australian touches all came from his local team and started as a happy accident.
"We're the ones that know all of the Australian references and are immersed in Australian culture so that was the opportunity that we took," he told CNET.
"We came to the point where we needed to start recording temporary dialogue for the script," he added. "So we just gave various team members the scripts, got them to put on their best fake American accents, which were not really American accents at all, and delivered that to 2K and Gearbox.
"Gearbox found it so hilarious and so endearing that they said 'Are you guys going to do this?' So we did. And in fact we made it one of the strongest pillars creatively of what we were doing. The pillars were Space Sci-Fi/Space Opera, and Australiana. And those two things blended together to become the environment of the moon in the game."
One Night, the Moon
Australian film and literature is littered with harsh terrains and the mythology of the outback, and every Film 101 student learns to treat the landscape as a silent character in the narrative. With Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, 2K Australia has taken this aesthetic to its twisted conclusion -- recreating an Australian outpost on the borderlands of the galaxy.
According to Pelling, the moon-as-Australia vibe was "a natural fit" -- especially considering the "arid world" that was already established in previous games set in Pandora.
"When you think of the outback, you think of these remote desert locations," he said. "We took inspiration from Mad Max, so the crazy bandits and the rusty desert landscape are very much based on Australia.
"We wanted to make sure that we hit on all the expectations of going to a moon, so we drew a lot of inspiration from earth's moon -- the grey, pockmarked, cratered landscape -- but it also needs to be...a hostile world populated by rampaging, slightly insane, or extremely insane, bandits."
Pelling said the 2K team envisaged the moon as a kind of "topsy-turvy version of Australia" -- what he called "Up Over instead of Down Under" -- and moving through the various missions you certainly get that impression. Dusty moonscapes, small settlements clinging to rocky outcrops and populated by ragtag outcasts: it's the very vision of remote Australia, albeit with that colourfully warped and stylised edge.
According to Pelling, "it's basically the world of Mad Max, transplanted into a space suit and thrown into space."
Red Belly's Black Snake
This new Oz isn't without its twisted outback inhabitants -- Pelling said the team had worked to create "a rich tapestry" including Australian-sounding locations and plenty of Australian characters.
"As soon as we made the decision that we needed to be Space Opera Australiana...then all of the characters and the content in the game need to be looking through Australian culture and Australian history and trying to find relevance and speak to the player in those terms," he said.
The Pre-Sequel dishes up a who's-who of Australian pop culture references, but many of them may require a level of explanation for the uninitiated. The game has drawn inspiration from Captain Cook, the first recorded European to make contact with Australia, 19th-Century bush outlaw Ned Kelly, cricket legend Don Bradman and even the Crocodile Hunter himself, Steve Irwin.
Of course, 2K has taken some artistic liberties in recreating these figures -- Captain Cook becomes Captain Chef, a settler who wants to colonise the moon (even though it's populated), Ned Kelly becomes Red Belly (the name of a breed of deadly Australian snake), and Pelling tells us there's a character called "The Don" who, cryptically, has plenty of "cricket-related activities in mind for you".
The weapons also get the Aussie touch, including "Red Belly's Black Snake" -- a gun that shoots two poisoned bullets -- and Boganella, a gun inspired by Australia's version of the redneck: the bogan.
"As you're firing the weapon, she spews forth profanities of the most delightful kind, most of which are bleeped," said Pelling. "It's a very bleepy weapon that one!"
It's all about lampooning the most exaggerated version of Australiana possible, and creating "full-on caricatures". And while Pelling admits there are plenty of inside jokes that might be lost on some audiences (even the Dallas Gearbox team needed the Ned Kelly reference explained), that's half the fun.
"We went in intentionally knowing that international audiences wouldn't get a lot of the references we're making," he said. "But that's fine. The Borderlands franchise is so full of little references and in-jokes -- even in-jokes that only make sense to the developers. "Not everyone is going to get everything...[but it] gives people ownership over the jokes that they do get."
No matter how many cultural references players pick up, Pelling promises a good time "because it's funny and it's irreverent and it's charming".
The future of Space Opera Australiana
It may have been a risky endeavour to pepper the new game with so many in-jokes, unfamiliar accents and obscure pop culture references (especially with more than half of the game's audience coming from the United States, compared to just 2 percent from Australia), but 2K Australia GM Tony Lawrence says the studio had the support of Gearbox all the way and that the Borderlands franchise "really lends itself to having this treatment".
And while Pelling admits that not all games can be given this international twist, it was the perfect fit for this new chapter of Borderlands.
"Whether or not we make more games in the future that are distinctly in Australian in flavour, in this game, it adds such a unique twist," he said. "I think that really extends to international audiences, I think they'll find it entertaining and unique all for the same reasons."
And it's not just about seeing more Australian-looking content; it's also about more Australian-created content.
"I would like to see more game developers in Australia producing great games, whether or not they're Australian in their own themes," said Pelling. "To have a vibrant and a skilled game development community in Australia is definitely something that we should all aspire to, and I'm very proud of what this studio has been able to create over the years.
"It would thrill me if there were more studios working on more content that is high quality and that shows the world what Australia can do."
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel launches October 14 on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Until then, check out the trailer below.