Reviews

Borderlands 2 – In-Depth Review

Platforms: Xbox 360, PC, Playstation 3
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Co-op 2-4 players.
PEGI: 18+

Thanks to 2K Games for providing a copy of Borderlands 2 to review.

Back in 2009 when it was released, even Gearbox couldn’t have predicted how well Borderlands would sell, how much of a dedicated fan base it would earn itself. Their cel-shaded FPS/RPG hybrid with a deep love for loot didn’t just do well with gamers: it impressed quite a few critics too. Still, it was also a hugely flawed game, a fact that even the most hardcore Borderland’s fan, myself included, couldn’t argue against. Given the problems it had, such as the bad AI, repetitive missions and empty world it should never have done so well. It should never have been a good game Think about it: had any other game had all of these flaws then it would likely have been received poorly by both the critics and the gamers.  But somehow  Borderlands became more than the sum of its flawed parts: it became something good. Something great. Something awesome.

 

It just had a certain magical quality about it that dragged people in. The addictive mixture of levelling up and continuous loot kept people playing for hundreds of hours and multiple playthroughs. But raises an important question: if Borderlands was so awesome even with all of those flaws, then just imagine how good it could have been with them fixed! In other words, imagine how freaking good a sequel would be that fixed all the problems and then went ahead and did everything else the first game did as well, but better. Yeah, Borderlands 2 is here, and it did fix everything. And then did everything else better.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. You see, I’ve spent the past two weeks playing the game like a madman. That’s why this review is a little late. I’m eager to just gush hysterically about it, but no, I need to try to be objective and fair about this. I have to try to take this one step at a time….take a deep breath. Resist urge to go back to Xbox and start playing it again. Let’s do this.

Perhaps the most common and important criticism levelled at the first game was its story, or more specifically its lack of a story. Oh sure, there was some nonsense about a Vault and a strange voice coming from space, but that was pretty much it. There was no depth to any of it and barely any dialogue.  It was nonsense and did nothing to help the repetitive mission structure either. Worse, the often interesting character designs lacked any personality: people like T.K. Baha, Moxxi and Marcus felt like they could have been great characters with interesting stories behind them, but in reality they barely even get a few lines of dialogue throughout the entire game. So it’s with great pleasure and plenty of relish that I can inform you that Borderlands 2 has a story, and not just a story, an enjoyable and fun one headed by a great villain. It all picks up five years after the events of the first game, where a man by the name of Handsome Jack has taken over Hyperion Corporation using the valuable Eridium that has spread across Pandora after the opening of the Vault and the destruction of the Destroyer at the hands of the original Vault Hunters. With the resources of Hyperion at his command he’s built a base on the moon (as you do) and has begun looking for a second, much larger Vault. In the process he rules Pandora with an iron fist.  The original four Vault Hunters from the first game, Roland, Mordecai, Lilith and Brick, are fighting a desperate resistance against him, but with Jack’s vast Hyperion resources it’s a battle they’re losing badly. And so, in good old videogame fashion, it’s up to you to take on the role of one of four new Vault Hunters that have come to Pandora in search of the new Vault and go kick Handsome Jack’s ass.

On the one hand  the story boils largely down to the classic good guys vs the bad guy storyline, making Borderland 2’s plot is pretty standard stuff, but on the other having a central villain to focus on is definitely an improvement over the original Borderlands, especially as Jack is a brilliantly written character. He’s eccentric, often bordering on childish as he constantly talks to you over the radio. He continually insults, berates and attempts to irritate you, making him an easy villain to focus your hatred on. And yet his mad-cap personality also make him an incredibly fun character, resulting in a classic villain that you love to hate. Classic moments include his early conversation regarding a diamond pony that he was going to call Piss for Brains in honor of you until he decided that was too immature and named it Butt Stallion instead. But the real genius of his character is something you won’t realise until much later in the game: you’re never quite sure if Jack really is just immature or if it’s actually a calculated method to get in your head. He likes to annoy you and to play with you, such as one mission where he asks you to jump off a cliff for his amusement for a big payday or another in which he sends you looking for his Grandmother. It also helps that he’s fantastically voiced, as are, in fact, most of the characters within Borderlands 2.

As for Roland, Modercai, Lilith and Brick, free of their constraints as player-controlled characters they’ve been allowed to develop actual personalities, something which was presumably against the law in the first game or something. It’s sort of fitting, then, that the four new characters, who go by the name of Zero, Axton, Salvador and Maya, are just as bland and lifeless in Borderlands 2 as the original Hunters were in their game. Anyway, the point is that without having to act as avatar’s for us humans the Vault Hunters have become genuinely enjoyable characters. Their personalities still aren’t deep in any real sense, but they’re distinct and work well enough for the story at hand.

Don’t let these enthusiastic words lull you into a false sense of security, mind, because truthfully Borderlands 2’s story isn’t all that impressive, instead it’s merely decent, although one moment closer to the end of the game is both surprising and a little emotional. Yeah, seriously. No, where it truly shines is in the writing. The sense of humour that Gearbox demonstrated in the various DLC packs like the Secret Armory of General Knox for Borderlands has been completely unleashed here. That barmy, often rude and largely crass humor is present from the first moments of gameplay up to the very end and even into the credits. It’s a true compliment to the game that I can say that I was smiling, chuckling or laughing for most of my time with it – the writing really is just that enjoyable. In particular the character of Tiny Tina, the worlds deadliest 12-year old, left me both grinning like an idiot and slightly scared of 12-year old girls. It’s not all fun games: over the course of the 30-40 hours it’ll likely take you for an average playthrough there are a number of duff jokes and groan worthy moments. The game also tends to rely a little too much on humour that references some current Internet trend or event, so in a couple of months a few of the jokes won’t even be relevent anymore.

Tiny Tina. She’s crazy.

The improved writing also flows over to the side-quests. In the first game side-quests were generally just fetch-quests with no story to them or reason for what you were doing: you just went and did stuff because that’s what the static little box of text told you to do. Now, though, many of the side-missions on offer boast their own little mini-stories, giving you even more reason to play. For example you might find yourself hunting down a cursed weapon or attempting to get a refund for Marcus from a Echo-net celebrity. These little tales are often where the games humor comes through best. The best of these missions actually tie-in to the main storyline, providing a little extra narrative detail that while not crucial to the story does increase your enjoyment of it, such as finding out a little more about Handsome Jack’s past. Sadly the vast majority of side-missions do fall into the old repetitive trap, generally just asking you to shoot stuff, but with more intriguing stories being included it should take you far longer to grow weary of doing them. And best of all missions, of both the side and main varieties, are now most often given you to via dialogue rather than just a plain text box, making them far immersive. Accept a mission and whichever character you’re doing it for will chime in and explain the details and story basis, and often will continue to talk to you throughout the course of your task. And upon completing your daring quest you’ll quite often find yourself with a choice of reward, such as whether you want a pistol or a shield. It’s a small but nice touch. And bloody hell, is there a lot of side missions! To say you’re getting your money’s worth out of Borderlands 2 is something of an understatement: the game is packed with missions.

 So, to recap, the story on offer here isn’t some contemporary masterpiece of storytelling, it’s not going to set the world alight or anything, but it is just plain fun and funny. And in comparison to the first game it’s freakin’ awesome.

As for the setting of this story, Gearbox have learned that there are more colors in the universe than just brown and the result is a richer and more vibrant version of Pandora that boasts plenty of environmental variety. While there are still a few brown deserts, including a visit back to a location from the original game, for the most part you’ll be exploring snowy ravines, lush wildlife preserves, acid swamps and more, making Pandora feel like a much richer place to explore and enjoy. Of course it’s still all rendered in that now famous Borderlands art-style. There’s been no major technical improvements, but the wider color palette and more expansive and interesting environments ensure that this is a fine-looking game. At the heart of it all is Sanctuary, a city that acts as a sort of hub for your adventures around Pandora. It’s here you find characters like Marcus, Moxxi and Scooter hanging out. The pretty backdrops don’t just serve as eye-candy, though, they’re also home to a variety of new enemies that have been introduced into the game to help combat yet another criticism levelled at the first game: there wasn’t enough enemy variety. Skags, Spider-Ants and an assortment of bandits from the first game are still present and accounted for, but this time around they’re joined by enemies like the mighty Thresher, a massive beast that tunnels underground before popping up and beating the hell out of you with its tentacles. If that’s not your thing then Stalkers might be: these sneaky buggers can actually turn invisible and fire spikes out of their tails, making them a pain to fight. On the bandit side they’ve got plenty of new types like the Nomad Torturer who carries a huge shield with a midget strapped to it and the devastating Goliath who’ll go into a rage and attack both friend and foe alike if you blast his helmet off.  There’s plenty of enemy types this time around to keep things interesting and ensure that you’re always on your toes and for the most part they’re a well designed bunch, but there are a couple of them that prove more frustrating than fun to fight.  Even Gearbox seem to be aware of this as one of the games loading screen messages says you’ll learn to hate certain enemy types.

And then there’s the arsenal with which you’ll be blasting the local wildlife with. The driving force behind the original Borderlands and its undeniable strongest feature was the amazing loot system that could generate millions of guns for players to get their hands on, happily pressing the buttons of loot-lovers everywhere. Every time you opened a chest or killed an enemy there was a chance of getting a new piece of gear put together by the random generation system, ensuring that weapons always had different stats and. Like the rest of the game, though, it was a system with flaws, primarily that while there were different weapon manufacturers, all the guns felt and looked the same. For Borderlands 2 Gearbox went back to the drawing board and rebuilt the system, keeping the core concept of random generation that puts together weapons using a massive list of part, thus providing constant player reward , while solving almost all of the problems the original system had.  The changes begin at the most fundamental level: the manufacturers themselves. Each weapon company now has a very distinctive personality all of its own. Jakobs, for example, are the only company to use wood in their guns, giving them a very Western vibe, while Hyperion has a sleek, futuristic design that would look right at home in a sci-fi game.  Now that each manufacturer has its own unique look you can immediately identify any gun by just glancing at it. And boy did the art-team go to town on the weapon designs! Not only have they given each company its own character, but almost each and every weapon created by the system is a beauty to behold! For obvious reasons the guns you find earlier in the game aren’t the prettiest things as they’re made from cheap materials, but even they often look pretty sweet. As for the weapons you’ll be wielding later in the game…let’s just say it’s gun porn.  It’s not just looks, either, each company has unique characteristics that define their guns set them apart from others. Torgue guns, for example, only fire explosive rounds while Maliwan’s weapons all have elemental abilities like firing corrosive or shock rounds. Hyperion on the other hand boast technology that stabilizes the gun the more you fire it. And as for the newly introduced Bandit guns, well they have sweet paint jobs and stupidly large magazines! Although actually hitting anything with them is tricky.  With each companies weapons looking and feeling completely different you’ll soon find yourself with an affinity for a particular brand of gun, creating almost a loyalty of sorts. I, for example, have a love of Jakobs weapons thanks to their awesome western style sniper rifles and revolvers as well as their focus on huge amounts of damage over all else. Remember, if it took more than one shot then it wasn’t a Jackobs.

Another small tweak comes in the form of how hard it is to find rare weapons. The color-coded rarity system from the first game returns for player ease, but this time finding rare gear is far harder than it ever was in the original game. For all the strengths of Borderlands loot system, how easily it handed out supposedly rare loot wasn’t one of them. Purple items, which, if you didn’t know, are classed as pretty damn rare, actually popped up quite often, while even the rarest of the rare still appeared more than you might think. In Borderlands 2, though, rare items appear far less frequently, requiring you to truly hunt them down. As for the Legendary items, color-coded orange, well, it’s entirely possible to go through an entire playthrough without ever seeing on. I personally didn’t find one until the very last boss battle! Some could argue that the pacing of the loot in the original game was just right, rewarding the player with great new toys often to keep them playing. Perhaps fans of the original may not like the scarcity of Purple and Orange items this time round, but to this game it made finding them a far more rewarding experience. Of course this is where the genius of the loot system comes into play: hunting down that rare loot, that better shield or more powerful gun, becomes an obsession. You’ll lose hundreds of hours in the pursuit of the next Orange piece of gear. And that’s where the True Vault Hunter mode comes in: complete the game and you’ll be given the option of restarting the story with your current character, gear and skills completely intact. Do so and the enemies become tougher and the loot becomes better. It’s also the only way of reaching the level-5o cap.

Yes, that’s right, Borderlands 2 hasn’t given up on the dream of marrying first-person shooting and levelling up. Every enemy killed and every mission completed awards you with XP, which in turn grants you points to spend on your character. Each of the four new character, just like the original four Vault Hunters, boasts their own unique special skill that their upgrade trees are largely based upon. Salvador the Gunzerker can go into a berserker mode where he dual wields guns dealing huge amounts of damage; Zero the Assassin (my favored character) can send out a decoy before cloaking; Maya the Siren can lock enemies into a stasis bubble called Phaselock, and Axton the Commando can toss out a Sabre turret that mows down enemies. Like before each character has three skill trees that you can put points into, but unlike before these skills are far more interesting and diverse, allowing you to craft a wider degree of character builds. Having said that Borderlands 2 is a slow burning game: the adventure itself takes a while to build up steam and grab the player, and likewise the skill trees take a while before they get interesting. Early points spent will only reward you with minor stat boosts, providing almost unnoticeable benefits in a fight, especially if you don’t focus your points early in the game to claim larger bonuses, Likewise not choosing a path for your character, a style of play that suits you, early on in the game will result in you being unable to access the Captstone and so-called Game Changing skills that come later in each tree, though a respec option is always available to you should you wish to redo your skills. Once you start to reach these skills the more mundane stat boosts you got earlier fade into memory. Zero, for instance, can be turned into a deadly sniper where every critical shot you land increases the damage you deal, stacking with each shot until eventually, as long as you don’t miss too often, you’re dealing absurd amounts of damage. On the other side of the skill tree he can also be turned into a close range melee-killer, able to remain cloaked provided you can keep killing enemies quick enough with your sword. Axton can gain an ability that causes his turret to be deployed with a nuclear explosion, or he can learn to deploy two separate turrets at the same time. The range of skills available and their diversity may not be quite as rich as a fully fledged RPG, but they’re still satisfying and massively improved over the original games mechanics. More importantly, though, is that they really do alter the way you play the game. Go down Zero’s sniping route and you’ll naturally be hanging back trying to time your shots, while going down the other route means you’ll be in the thick of the action, giving you plenty of reason to replay the game with different characters and character builds.

Ultimately it’s the mixture of both the loot system and the RPG mechanics that make Borderlands 2 so brilliant and addictive. When combined the two form this near-flawless method of player progression and reward, constantly motivating gamers to keep playing with better weapons and more powerful skills. It’s hard not to get caught up in the almost MMO style of it all. Why do we gamers love loot so much, why does it speak to us, demanding that we hunt every last bit down? Why do the words, “LEVEL UP!” when they flash across the screen give us such a sense of satisfaction? Maybe we just like getting that virtual pat on the head and told we’re doing well. I don’t have the answers, but what I do know is these elements are what truly make Borderlands 2 what it is: bloody awesome.

Still, let’s not take anything away from the rest of the game here: the core FPS mechanics have also been tightened up to make them far slicker and enjoyable. And again one of the fundamental changes is the guns themselves: the physics dictating how they handle has been massively tweaked to make weapons much more fun to use. Shotguns snap your arm back, sniper rifles have a meaty bang and revolvers are fired with one hand while the other smashes away at the hammer. Simply said firing guns in Borderlands 2 just feels immensely more visceral than before, further enforcing the idea that this is isn’t a game, it’s just gun-porn in disguise! Combine the improved weapons physics with the bounty of new enemy types and you’ve got slick, fast, fun shooting action. The AI in charge of the enemies has also seen some improvement making them a bit more challenging to fight, although it does still need work as foes are prone to acts of sheer stupidity and bandits tend to stick their heads out way to much, turning what should be a tense, cover-based shootout in a shooting gallery where headshots rule supreme. Still, AI flaws aside Borderlands 2 can stand up alongside dedicated FPS games without a problem. In fact it arguably outshines all but the top players in the genre, even with its slightly daft AI and actually quite simplistic gameplay style. Yeah, I said simplistic shooting: at its heart Borderlands 2, like it’s predecessor, is largely a run and gun shooter, although using cover and a more methodical approach is always a perfectly legitimate tactic. Keep out for the more in-your-face enemies, mind, they’ll try to force you out of cover.

But what’s looting, shooting and levelling without friends? The much-loved four-player co-op is of course back and boasting a couple of small tweaks to ensure it’s better than ever. The introduction of a new Elemental type, called Slag, is one of them. Shoot a foe with Slag to cover them with it and they’ll take twice as much damage from other weapons, making it the perfect co-op tool. Likewise quite a few of the abilities found in the skill-trees were clearly created with co-op in mind, once again emphasising teamwork over all else so it’s worth planning out both solo and co-operative builds for your character and jumping between them using the respec option when required. One of the best changes to be made is that there’s now a proper trading system so that you and your friends can swap gear without having to drop it on the ground and awkwardly try to compare it. And if a calmly negotiated swap isn’t for you or your mate just went and nicked a gun you wanted then you can always use the new option to challenge your friend to a duel for the item in question – winner takes all style. And finally you can now go split-screen with a friend and then join an online game, further increasing the whole social aspect of it all. With these new features in place Borderlands 2 boasts one of the finest co-op experiences available on console at the moment, providing chaotic and just downright awesome action. Nothing quite matches the mayhem caused by four-people running around unleashing abilities, arguing over loot and blowing stuff up.

But wait, I’ve been a lot of gushing so far, surely the game must have some flaws? Absolutely! Though it may be greatly improved over the original Borderlands it still has its fair share of flaws, including one that has been retained from the first game. Like I said earlier, Borderlands 2 is a slow-burning game, a game that takes a while to draw you in. It takes a while for the guns to become really cool, for the skills to become interesting and for the storyline to really kick off. And much like the first game if you’re playing solo then this problem is far more pronounced, especially as the world of Pandora, despite it’s beautiful new locations, still feels rather…empty. It’s not something you can really put your finger on, but Pandora still doesn’t really feel like an actual place where people live. No, it still feels largely like a world created just for you to go and shoot things in. Even the city of Sanctuary, which still stands well above the small towns and villages of the first game, still feels wrong on some fundamental level. Borderlands 2 may nail the levelling up mechanics of RPG’s, but it still hasn’t quite gotten that fully fleshed out and realised world down pat just yet. Another flaw, if it can actually be called that, I suppose, is that the vehicles still aren’t that fun. A few tweaks to the handling have ensured that they’re better than they were, but ultimately they’re still just a way to get from point A to be B when the fast travel system can’t get you close enough. Another flaw that should be mentioned is that the audio has a habit of cutting across itself: as one character is speaking another will start to, creating a jumbled mess of dialogue, and while it ultimately doesn’t get in the way of the story it’s a crying shame that you might miss some of the funny writing because of it.

The important thing, though, is that while these flaws may slightly tarnish the overall quality of the game they certainly don’t stop it from being an outstanding sequel to one of the most beloved games in recent years. Borderlands 2 blends together shooting, looting and RPG mechanics into one beautiful looking and almost stupidly addictive game that packs tons of content and reasons to play again and again. And it just so happens to be one of the best co-op experiences around as well.

The Good:
+ GUNS!
+ It actually has a story!
+ A funny one at that.

The Bad:
– The world still feels rather…hollow.
– Slow burner.
– Will devour your life.

The Score:

Graphics: 9
Perhaps not the most technically accomplished game around, but it has a distinct and beautiful art-style.

Sound: 8
Great weapon sounds and surprisingly good voice acting. The music has its moments of genuine beauty, but on the whole isn’t anything that special.

Story: 7
In comparison to the first game it’s outstanding, but in comparison to most games it’s merely good. Handsome Jack makes for a great villain and the tale is engrossing and genuinely funny.

Gameplay: 9
Shoot things, loot things and learn new things. And all three of those things are done extremely well.

Lifespan: 9
An average playthrough will likely take you 30-hours, while a playthrough doing absolutely everything will take you around 45-50. A second playthrough on True Vault Hunter mode will take the same. And then there’s playing through with different characters and builds. And with friends. And then just because you want more loot. Yeah, it’s a big game.

The Verdict: 9
It’s a shooter with millions of guns where you can level up set in a massive world packed with content and humor. What the hell isn’t to like? A completely worthy sequel to Gearbox’s shoot and loot title, Borderlands 2 is a hugely addictive, utterly fun game that you should have already gone out and bought by the time you’ve finished reading this review.

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