I was a bit late getting onboard when Gearbox and 2K Games released the original Borderlands. It was only after they released their GOTY edition that I played my first game and by then none of my regular group of gamer-friends were still playing, so I was pretty much left to the solo experience. That all changed when my review copy of Borderlands 2 arrived. So, for the past 15 days I have been playing two concurrent games, one as solo with the Commando, and the other as an Assassin in a four-player co-op match. And just yesterday I started my third game, a local split-screen co-op using the new Mechromancer.
At the core of the Borderlands franchise is a hearty mix of FPS and RPG, and Gearbox also manages to integrate elements typically found in MMO’s and even shoot-n-loot games like Diablo and Torchlight. It was an ambitious mix of genres that, while refreshing, left the original game lacking focus and direction. Simply put; I lost interest about halfway through the game. Thankfully, Gearbox has tweaked the gameplay and rebalanced all these elements, so Borderlands 2 is a much more engaging experience –engaging enough to have me playing it three times.
The game kicks off with a narrated graphic novel opening before launching into one of Gearbox’s infamous intros that highlights each of the new characters and their abilities so you have some sort of idea on their gameplay style when it comes time to pick your character/class. While similar from the original, each class has been tweaked with new talents and even some new names. But despite these superficial changes, the game hasn’t changed much.
You run around the massive world completing quests, killing enemies, looting everything that’s “lootable” and earn XP to rise through the ranks, granting you access to bigger and better weapons required to defeat the more powerful enemies in later sections of the game. While everything about the gameplay screams "massive" (number of weapons, size of the world, your customization options), the designers rein it all in with a much more personalized story that grabs you from the very moment you take control of your chosen character.
A big part of the narrative improvement is Handsome Jack. Every story needs an protagonist and an antagonist and the first game lacked the latter. Handsome Jack is the quintessential guy you “love to hate” and quite possibly my favorite disembodied villain since GLaDOS from Portal 2. Humor has also been interjected into the story in much greater proportions; some of it obvious like the clever one-liners from Claptrap, and some in the amusing names of people, places, and objects.
The first hour or two of the game is mostly tutorial stuff but still cleverly buried in lore and gameplay. Once you are released into the world to do your own thing; that’s where the game starts to stumble. Borderlands 2 mission structure is hub-based, which means you will be exploring a lot of familiar territory and killing the same enemies over and over again, giving the game a “grindy” feel. Sure, you’ll earn XP, but previous loot is not replenished so there is no cash incentive. Side quests are also poorly implemented in that they are presented as optional, but the game is relying on you doing them in order to keep your level to their scripted desires. If you fail to do enough of the "optionally-required" side objectives you will find yourself too low a level to use that fancy new weapon you just earned in one of the story missions.
It’s a shame that the story missions only provide incentive to visit a fraction of this huge world of Pandora. In my solo adventure I “finished” the game at level 29 and there were areas of the world I hadn’t even visited and at least 20+ secondary missions still uncompleted – something I didn’t even realize until my four-player party attempted a more thorough approach to checking off the side missions and grinding through every square foot of the map. I suppose it's a testament to the engagement of the storytelling, but in a game that seems to demand secondary goals, they need to kick you out of the campaign at regular intervals.
Borderlands 2 rewards almost everything you do with a Pavlovian pat on the back. In addition to your standard leveling via XP and the exploration of your class-specific skill tree, you’ll want to be checking off those Bad-Ass challenges which can be used to unlock a variety of permanent perks that then carry over to any new character you might create. And don’t forget to collect that purple Eridium to upgrade your weapons.
Combat is fun but hardly challenging thanks to a forgiving auto-aim feature that makes everyone a sharpshooter. Thankfully, many enemies have specific zones you need to target, requiring a bit of added effort over the standard pop-n-lock. Headshots are great for instant human takedowns or you can pick them off limb by limb; a great tactics for robotic enemies. You also want to make strategic use of the elemental features of your weapons and have various types ready for quick access as some enemies require multiple elemental attacks in a certain order.
Of course a well-coordinated and well-armed team can eliminate a lot of weapons swapping, and that is just one cool aspect of playing multiplayer. But sharing the experience also means sharing the rewards, and since there is no class-specific loot everything is shared included rare items. This can obviously lead to some “issues”, especially if you find yourself co-op’ing with strangers – not recommended. The game also bumps the difficulty up for each player added to the party, so four-player games can be quite challenging in the later portions of the game. There can also be some issues if you have a large disparity in player levels amongst your party.
Presentation is excellent with that same stylized cel-shaded look as the first, only it is much better this time around with lots more detail, smoother animation, and flashier effects. The character and creature designs are superb and the wasteland environments and survivor-style architecture all creates a viable and believable world. Combined with great music, powerful sound effects, and some fantastic voice acting, Borderlands 2 is a treat for both eyes and ears.
Borderlands 2 is fun and certainly a lot more engaging than its predecessor, but there is still room for improvement. Perhaps all that unused terrain is going to be explored in upcoming DLC, but for now, the mission structure just seems far too limiting, and retreading familiar ground killing enemies you killed moments ago is better left to MMO’s. There is a lot of game content on this disc, but don’t rely on the story to take you through it. And plan on a lot of tedious grinding to experience the most from Borderlands 2. Hopefully the non-stop character perks and insane amount of weaponry will keep you interested long enough to complete it.