Borderlands 2 Review
My time with Borderlands 2 has been something of a rollercoaster ride. I spent well over 100 hours with the original, which was undoubtedly the most pleasant surprise of 2009. As such, I was massively excited for the sequel - and found myself surprised by how my response to the game lurched about so readily before settling.
The first few hours of the game were difficult for me purely because it's difficult to get going. New players need the world of Pandora and Borderlands' admittedly unique blend of shooter and loot-grabbing RPG gameplay explained - and it takes a while. I worried the entire game would plod at this pace, but once Borderlands 2 finds its feet, it runs like the blazes.
Much of Borderlands 2 feels like Gearbox and 2K took a list of everything fans complained about in the original game and a list of their personal gripes and hacked away at every issue relentlessly.
Some players complained about a lack of a story connection - and that's been remedied with more voice acting and a greater cast of characters to give them out. Borderlands stalwarts such as Dr. Zed, Moxxi, Marcus and of course Claptrap return and are given a little more depth, but Gearbox also provide a string of new larger than life, often insane personalities to work with and for.
Most notable of all is how the cast of the original Borderlands is used; here you're playing as one of four all-new classes and characters, each an evolution from the four classes of the first game. The original Vault Hunters are instead major NPCs, giving out quests and propelling the story forwards.
There's more story in general to tell - Borderlands 2 is now no longer merely about selfishly loot hunting, but saving the planet of Pandora. The original Borderlands cast are heading up a resistance against the Hyperion Corporation, led by the narcissistic 'Handsome Jack'. The corporation pits bandits off against you deliberately whilst sending a near-constant stream of deadly robots of their own after you.
There are some nice story set pieces, and in general the cinematic flair the game offers is much improved. Borderlands has always been whacky, but it's worth noting some of the writing is so off the wall that it begins to work to the game's detriment.
Frequently characters and ideas are well-realized, but played in the story with a flippancy that in turn makes them forgettable. Handsome Jack stands out in a different way; he's so mouthy that he just becomes an irritant more than an antagonist. It's a shame, as these are slight scuffs on often shining writing.
Pandora itself is a more successful character than Handsome Jack, fleshed out now with more than just dusty deserts - there are cities, factories, snow-capped mountains and warmer ones with rivers running through them.
There's even a variety of times of day depicted across the world, and the game has an artistic flair that makes good use of its cell-shaded, exaggerated style.
Another complaint about the original title lay in how choices panned out - and Gearbox has responded with revamped classes and loot systems which offer a clip more choice than the original game.
The classes will feel familiar - the Commando is a natural evolution of the soldier, and Maya, the Siren, has a different set of abilities to Lilith. The difference between the three different skill tree paths is now more pronounced, leading to greatly different powers for each character.
My main character ended up being Maya, the Siren, and I specced her towards a power which turned her energy ball which by default traps enemies into a mind control power, turning them against their allies. This would cause chaos in enemy ranks, allowing me to back up and fire on them from a safe distance.
The alternative trees had ultimate goals of various elemental effects and health stealing - by comparison, my Siren was a weaker character in a combat sense that had the ability to cause havoc - just the way I like it.
There is a problem with this, though - the game doesn't really signpost clearly where skill trees are going early on. The ultimate goal of each tree is there for players to read if they scroll through, but it isn't actually said early on where each tree will go or suggested that players should read the expanded tree. A player needs to be level 31 to reach the bottom of a tree - even without maxing out all the powers in it - and if you misspend on a power in the wrong place, it'll take even longer.
The game is good about respeccing, though - you can simply pay to respec - but this should perhaps be clearer. It generally highlights a slight problem, which is that even with sidequests the higher-level abilities come quite late in the core story.
Fuller use of the skill tree can come in the encouraged second playthrough, known as the 'True Vault Hunter' mode. This lets you keep your equipment, class and abilities from a previous playthrough for a renewed sense of challenge and tougher enemies.
These changes work out great overall, and mean that no longer if a game consists of four commandos will four identical characters roll out together.
There's now a good chance there'll be more marked differences between them. The skill trees feel more balanced in general - it's harder to turn a character into an unstoppable powerhouse and as a result more encouraging to try co-op - as a lot of skills can be stacked and used together to great success.
To aid in distinction between players in co-op outside of class choice there's a number of player skins, too - different heads and bodies that can be swapped out and mixed up to create unique-looking characters. In addition to just being a cool touch, it's another type of loot to collect, which is always welcome.
Enemies are smarter, no longer merely charging at you. Bandits duck, roll and take cover, whilst some enemies sport multiple forms and transformations and others can cloak themselves on the battlefield. Smarter enemies makes moment-to-moment combat more interesting and exciting.
Classes are more varied, then, but loot has received the same treatment. Guns, shields, grenades, class mods and relics all have a greater number of possible effects, and again everything is better balanced. There are less 'ultimate' options in Borderlands 2; it's more about choosing carefully what strengths and weakness you want to embrace.
A great example is shields - I consistently through the game packed a lower-powered shield than what was generally available - but the one I did have would always emit a deadly force field with an elemental effect once depleted. It worked well for my play style, knocking enemies back when my shields were down to allow me to run for cover.
All loot is randomized as ever, allowing the game to sport that claim of several 'bazillion' guns on the box. There's still more uniformity to weapons this time thanks to how manufacturers are treated now, with each company having its own house style across all the weapons you find.
Maliwan weapons tend to be best at offering up deadly elemental effects, for instance, while Jakobs weapons are often themed like something you'd find in the old west - high power with small clips and low reload times. Another brand is tossed away when you reload and explodes like a grenade, only for a new gun to rematerialize in your hand with a full clip, while another gains accuracy as you fire, encouraging spraying from the hip.
Upgrades to backpack capacity for both guns and bullets can be bought via a limited resource throughout the game, and the standard structure of looting and selling continues here. There's a great number of sidequests with a decent variety to them, though most do of course boil down to shooting and killing a group of enemies. The quest design is generally clever enough that you won't be doing too much backtracking to cash in quests, though that still sometimes happens.
The sidequests are generally well worth doing, and often reap one-of-a-kind rewards. One quest resulted in me having a talking homicidal AI implanted into a shotgun - a concept I loved so much I used it for much of the rest of the game.
The concept of choice even creeps into story missions in a sense - sometimes quests can be turned in to more than one character. This doesn't have an effect on the story at large, but results in different rewards depending on your choice.
The game performs well on both consoles with the 360 version generally standing up a little taller, but the PC is the stand-out here. It's obvious we're at the end of the generation, and Borderlands 2 looks fantastic when allowed to stretch modern PC hardware.
The final and perhaps most notable improvements to Borderlands come in the user experience; the PC version now sports proper PC controls, though still comes packing controller support, and all versions have much-improved privacy, invite and security options for co-op.
An easily accessed network menu lets games be set to open, friends only, invite only or offline, while in-game there's a new trade mechanic for safe weapon swapping. These are small nods, tiny changes - but add up to make a world of difference. It's obvious that Gearbox listened to fans; Borderlands 2 is much, much easier to set up and play.
At the same time, though, it's a little too safe in what it changes. I enjoyed Borderlands 2 thoroughly and am still playing it, but my appetite still feels slightly unfulfilled. That may be down to how much Borderlands I played - the fact I was bitten by the bug so thoroughly previously - but I also can't help but feel that this game is at its absolute best the few times it tries something completely new.
Borderlands 2 is worth playing if you've played the original title or not. In almost every sense it's a superior title to the original - even if I find myself wishing it had done more. Ultimately, it has left me hungry for more - which is probably a testament to how potent a formula this is.