Video Game Review: Borderlands 2
Game: Borderlands 2
Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
All images via Gearbox/2K Games
Borderlands 2, as one of many games to end their title with that number this year, should feel like just another sequel, more of the same old Borderlands. Even with the little additions like better enemy AI, more character customization, an improved PC interface, new classes, and, by Gearbox’s estimate, 87 gazillion more guns, it should feel like an iteration, not much more than more of the same.
In practice, yes, Borderlands 2 is every bit its predecessor. You get a pile of missions from goofy townsfolk in whatever corner of Pandora you find yourself, grab the most powerful guns you can find, go kill a bunch of crazy creatures, turn in your quests, and get even more powerful guns. Despite the lack of change to this cycle, Borderlands 2 feels like a lot more than just the sum of its marginally improved parts.
The game starts off with the four new playable vault hunters traveling to the familiar planet of Pandora by the request of Handsome Jack, the president of the Hyperion Corporation and new dictator of the entire planet. Jack has been mining eridian, a rare new alien element, in the five years that separate the two games’ narratives, and he plans on using it to become even more powerful than he and his corporation already are. Axton, Mya, Salvador and Zer0 (commando, siren, gunzerker and assassin, respectively) are almost killed by Jack, but Claptrap, the ridiculous robot from the first game, returns to save the new kids in town from the wreckage of the failed assassination attempt, easing new players into the game and cracking wise along the way.
I must say, as someone who experienced the tutorial of the first Borderlands a good nine or ten times, I felt Gearbox has delivered a much smoother introduction this time around. Just as in the first game, it takes a while to get all the pieces in place; your guns, shield, abilities and other character-modifying items all come in stages. However, the rate at which new pieces of the puzzle are introduced is much quicker, without requiring you to sit through tutorial videos or doing any training sessions to practice something simple like hitting the A button. As the intro only constitutes a few hours of this forty-to-sixty-hour experience, I won’t spend too much time talking about it.
If you played the first Borderlands, you know Gearbox loves to put you in hilarious situations. The characters, quests, and dialogue are almost entirely ridiculous and, unless that’s not you’re thing, you’re going to be laughing your way through the story of this game. I was a bit nervous going in that the usually foul-mouthed Claptrap would be the comedic crutch for this game to lean on, but it turns out I had nothing to worry about.
While CL4P-TP and his jovial tone certainly do return, he is now the last of his kind and, therefore, permeates much less of the world. When the little yellow bot is involved, he’s in good form, but much more of the comedy comes from the surrounding characters, like Scooter and Moxxi, whose names you may also recognize, and even the enemy Handsome Jack actually brings a lot of morbid humor along with the hate. Because they are willing to let you laugh at the world and the characters they’ve created, the story doesn’t come across as hokey as do many other video game narratives.
Along the line of story quests that lead you to take down the handsome head of Hyperion, you meet each of the main characters from the previous game. While they aren’t playable this time around, they are very much involved with the story. They give you more quests, provide support in some, and swap stories of vault-hunting days gone by for you to overhear while you’re hanging out in Sanctuary, the home base and only safe location on Pandora, now that Jack is in charge. The story really picks up when Sanctuary becomes unsafe and you have take Jack down before he takes you down. The only problem I have with the narrative is that, once all is said and done, the world returns to business as usual and it doesn’t act as if you’ve affected it at all, as many other open game worlds do.
Story aside, this is a loot game, and if you like stats and min-maxing and seeing numbers fly from enemies when damaged, this will definitely scratch that itch. While there are still the same categories of weapons (pistols, shotguns, SMGs, sniper rifles, assault rifles, rocket launchers, and grenades), a few extra modifiers have been added. Each brand of gun in the game has a different flavor to it that greatly changes how the weapon is used.
Maliwan weapons, for instance, are always going to do elemental damage. While they don’t inflict a ton of base damage, their elemental statistics are generally the highest. Jakobs guns, on the other hand, almost never have elemental effects, but they tend to do a lot of damage and have a quick fire rate. On top of this, you have guns that fire faster or become more accurate the longer you hold down the trigger, some that have homing bullets and some that do extra damage on a critical hit. 87 gazillion guns just might be about right. Gearbox has also added a lot more variability to the shields; there are now some which provide extra damage to melee attacks when depleted and others that absorb a percentage of the ammo fired into them, adding it to your character’s backpack. In the grenade department, you now find some that will draw in nearby enemies before exploding and others that drench enemies in slag, the new element that increases all other damage done to an enemy covered in it. The possibilities are almost endless when you combine all that with the new options in customizing your class.
On my first playthrough, I decided to use the new gunzerker who can go into a rage, wielding two weapons at once, since no one else in our party seemed to want to play that class. I soon found myself tanking for the group, soaking up bullets and sending them back twice as fast. While I did tend to die more than everyone else, I did not mind much, since the penalty at respawn in this game doesn’t sting so severely. Just as in Borderlands, a certain percentage of your money is taken every time you die, but the economy seems to have been smoothed out and, even after a particularly horrid streak of deaths that led to me losing about a third of what I had in the bank, I still had plenty of money to buy weapons and shields if I wanted to.
Another thing money came in handy for was tweaking my character’s skills. At any time, once you reach the town of Sanctuary, you can spend a small percentage of your fortune to gain all your skill points back and reuse them to progress in your character’s three different skill trees. At first, I had been spending my points exclusively in the “Gunlust” tree, which gave my character increased fire rate, reloading speed, and weapon swap speed. After I received many a shotgun that only had two bullets per clip, I decided to spend a few thousand, out of my hundreds of thousands of dollars, to get my points back. This time, I spent a few on a skill in the “Rampage” tree that increases my magazine size and ammo carrying capacity for my weapons, gaining a third shot with my extremely powerful shotguns. Of course, even once I started playing the game solo, I was now plenty powerful enough to take on the scourge of Pandora alone.
Another way this game improves a lot upon the first is in its accessibility to the one player team. I mentioned already that I had started the first game close to ten times, if not more. I should also mention that I never finished it. This was mainly due to my inability to get the gang together over and over again to play. I tried a couple different characters solo, but I never had enough fun, or even felt powerful enough, to make it through the entire story that way. Borderlands 2 has been very different in that respect. I started with a full squad, quickly losing them to schedules that just don’t line up well. However, I didn’t care. Yes, the enemies are tougher and the loot is better the more people you play with, but I gained plenty of enjoyment from rushing into a horde of enemies, letting them surround me, and seeing if I could get out.
The way the enemies act in this game also allows for better solo play. In Borderlands, almost every enemy would just run directly at you, unless they were firing a gun, in which case they would move slowly toward you. In the sequel, there is a lot more variation to the enemies and the way they attack. They use cover or even travel underground to get a better vantage point to fire at you. They strafe and roll to avoid your fire. Different groups of enemies will even attack each other if they meet on the battlefield, allowing you to play them off of each other. It didn’t feel like I often needed cover fire or a diversion from a companion, so what good would a team be, anyway? I’ve got a few side missions left to complete and then I would like to hop in with some friends for “True Vault Hunter” mode, this title’s new game plus, as every enemy is at its maximum level and I would not want to experience that level of difficulty on my own.
With a second, more difficult, playthrough ahead, I am excited to hop back in and continue Salvador’s adventure and start a new one with some of the other characters. Zer0′s melee abilities intrigue me, and I am pumped to see what the new mechromancer class, being released mid-October as DLC, plays like. But this time around, there’s more than just new characters and DLC to add replayability. Gearbox has also added the new Badass Ranking system to give you yet more goals to strive for.
When you complete Badass Challenges, such as traveling to every location in a new area, killing so many enemies with corrosive damage or taking enough damage with your shields, you gain Badass Ranks. Rank up enough and you eventually get tokens. You can spend these on permanent skill increases that apply to any character you play with on your account. So far, I have accrued enough to gain about six percent increase in gun, melee, and grenade damage, as well as a decrease of the same in recoil reduction for my weapons. I’ve improved many others stats as well, but there are honestly too many to name here and many more possibilities that I haven’t even touched. Since you can redo these challenges with any character, these ranks keep going up the more you play the game, giving us all something extra to do while we wait for the level cap to increase. Right now, fifty is the maximum, but I am sure that will go up, as it did last time, with further updates.
If you pressed me for gripes, I would have a few. Borderlands 2 is pretty good about presenting you with statistics on all your loot, but there are still some quirks about weapons that you won’t find out about until you use them. Several times I sold a weapon I had been using because I thought I had found a better version of the same thing, only to find out that this new one was completely different.
For instance, I used a lot of assault rifles and I came across one with much higher stats than any I was holding. I sold the others to make room in my backpack, but when I fired the new gun, my bullets didn’t go straight. They did a lot of base damage, had a good chance to light enemies on fire, and gave a very large critical hit boost, but the projectiles coming from the barrel fired in an arc, as if it was an automatic mortar cannon. This meant I could fire behind cover, but it was very hard to hit enemies with it at all, and it was almost useless for a guy who usually is the cover. I had other weapons that I almost through away that ended up having heat-seeking bullets or other odd stats.
This never-know-until-you-use-it idea is used to comedic effect in some spots (I won’t say any more for lack of ruining the fun), but I wish I hadn’t had to use every weapon to know if I should sell it or keep it around for that special use case.
Also, I played with both the keyboard and mouse combo and a controller on my PC and it took a while for me to figure out how to fix glaring key binding problems. The interface and the menus in game are better, but they still don’t feel great with a keyboard and mouse. I’ve also found some pretty bad lag issues when I play with people online, which get worse as we continue through a level until it’s almost unplayable. At the complete of a mission, we had to exit the area and load a new part of the world. As these things usually get ironed out with updates, I won’t bother complaining too much.
In almost every way possible, Borderlands 2 is building off the foundation its predecessor laid, and it isn’t doing a whole lot to change the formula. While you might say that means this is just more Borderlands, and you wouldn’t be wrong, I have trouble finding fault in Gearbox for giving their fans exactly what they want and fixing almost every issue the first game presented. Maybe if people hadn’t kept asking for more DLC for the first game, even after four packs had been released, I could blame them for not re-inventing the wheel. Now, if you will excuse me, I know of a robot who would rather be human and is asking me to steal some bandit clothes for him so that he can be a real person.
I will be in Pandora if you need me.