Game: Borderlands 2
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Available On: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Arriving on the back of the incredibly well-received, yet surprising, Borderlands, there must have been a fair amount of pressure for Gearbox Software and 2K Games. Release more of the same and get chastised for it, change too much and upset the fans. Thankfully, Borderlands 2 does so much right, there’s something for almost anyone that decides to play it; and play it you must.
STORY: Taking place after the events of the first Borderlands, the story bares striking resemblance to the one that came before it. Once again, four characters (conveniently distinguished by combat class) have come to Pandora in search of a second vault. Yes, a second vault. From the moment the absolutely incredible opening cut-scene plays, you’ll be roaring with laughter. The sheer absurdity that after all you experienced in the first game, a new set of four will have to go through it again, and it’s genuinely funny. Not video game funny; genuinely funny.
However, I feel I’m almost doing Borderlands 2 a disservice here, because the entire story is so much more fleshed out than its predecessor. The characters you grew attached to in the first title return, but they aren’t bit-part players. Sure, you can’t take over Roland again, but he’s a major player in the story, and he’s not the only one. Some of the story beats (that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling here) are genuine punch-the-air moments, and there has been a tremendous amount of effort put in to making the side-missions just as fun; with some wonderful characters there too.
Handsome Jack is the antagonist for Borderlands 2, a pretty-boy who runs Pandora by force, destroying anyone who stands against him. Jack wants what is inside this second vault, because he believes it will give him the power to do pretty much anything. By opening the first vault, the hunters unleashed Eridium onto the world, a rare material that is worth a fortune, yet also holds mysterious powers. Your job is simple, stop Handsome Jack, and have plenty of fun and games along the way.
GRAPHICS: It’d be a lie to say that the visuals had been completely overhauled for Borderlands 2, but they do look far crisper and cleaner, with a slight design change in terms of art direction. Thicker blacks surround people and places, making them stand out even more. Of course, Pandora is full of colourful characters like the sultry Moxxi, or the crazy-violent gun merchant Marcus (among many, many others) and they all look brilliant. They also have so much more life to them, and when they give you an item they will literally hold their arm out for you to take it from them.
Even during battles where elemental damage is littering the screen, damage numbers are flying everywhere and loot is spraying out of dying foes, the frame-rate is pretty solid and there are very few noticeable moments where it chugs, though it happens mostly when you’re playing with others. The action is fast, frenetic and rendered beautifully, with luscious vistas and locations to visit. There are absolutely no complaints in the visual department for Borderlands 2.
SOUND: If you’ve played the first Borderlands then you’ll find that not much has changed in terms of the music you’ll hear. Despite the kick-ass opening, the moment-to-moment gameplay has that same Borderlands feel to it, twanging country-style acoustic guitar for the desert areas, a chilling soundtrack to fill the ice-caverns, that kind of thing. When the combat ramps up, music will kick in to get the adrenaline flowing. It all works as it should, playing largely second fiddle to the voice acting.
As you’d expect, Borderlands 2 is littered with a wealth of non-playable characters shooting the breeze, or even randomly insulting you as you pass by, expect everything from cynicism to hero worship. The best part of Borderlands 2′s audio design is also one of the things that makes it such an exultant joy to experience. Put simply, the characters that will interact with you are some of the funniest in a video game to date. Whether it’s Handsome Jack’s irrepressible charm-tinted megalomanic personality, or Roland’s sincere “we must save this place” attitude, there’s such a variety that it’s hard not to admire the performances, both on the whole and individually.
Then of course, there’s Claptrap. This joyous little bundle of nutcase-robot can do no wrong, one minute he’ll be offering you riches in exchange for the most ludicrous fetch quest you’ve ever heard (in any game, ever), then he’ll break the fourth wall, showing the kind of self-aware video game design that a lot of developers could learn from. Gearbox know how ridiculous this all is, and they embrace it, rather than try to hide it.
GAMEPLAY: It’s tricky to know where to start when discussing Borderlands 2′s mechanics, because Gearbox have so completely upgraded them, that it’s astonishingly impressive. As with a lot of games containing loot, currency in Borderlands became pointless after a reasonable amount of progress had been made. The player had so much cash it was a worthless commodity. So, to fix this, Borderlands 2 has an additional currency called Eridium which ties nicely into the storyline. If you want to buy the really important things from the black market (more inventory slots for example), you’ll only be able to do so with Eridium. Whilst you still pick up cash at an alarming rate from the richest bandits you’ve ever come across, Eridium is far rarer and seeing some drop, or finding some in a lock-box is a hugely satisfying event.
However, this is purely the tip of the iceberg really. In a normal game, you could level up a character, putting points into their class specific talents, but if you want to experience other classes, it’d mean starting from scratch again. While this is still true for the most part, there is an all new bad-ass rank which allows you to gain additional skills and buffs that are profile specific and carry across all characters. Basically, there are constant mini-objectives you unlock through regular play; kill 10 bullymongs is level one, then kill 50, then 150 and so on. Every time you achieve one of these objectives you gain a bad-ass skill point to use. It’s an absolutely genius move on Gearbox’s part, allowing you to buff up characters when you start again; after all, why should you have to traipse through the early areas of the game as a weakling, when you’ve already experienced it.
On top of that, there is also an early mission that unlocks a storage area that allows you to put items in, and collect with other characters on your profile. This is separate to the vault you have access to allowing you to put items in for that playthrough, but it’s a nice inclusion for solo players. It’s worth mentioning that last time around, the storage vault was part of a paid downloadable add-on, but it’s part of the game and you’ll gain access to it after a few hours play in Borderlands 2.
You can re-spec your character for a small price, but there are so many skills to choose from for each character that the possibilities will have you hovering over skill trees, thinking deeply about how you should progress your build. Even the map has been upgraded, with fast travel telling you which missions are active at each location.
These little additions and tweaks are all well and good, but thankfully Gearbox haven’t stopped there. The enemy A.I. has been completely overhauled too. At points in the first title, you could literally retreat backwards in a straight line firing to take out some enemies. Borderlands 2 isn’t so easy, as even the bullymongs and skags will change up their pattern, darting left to right, jumping and generally making a nuisance of themselves as you try to take them out. Not shooting the same enemy over and over is important too though. Of course there are the bandits and skags we all knew and loved, but there is a real variety to the encounters now, with more things to shoot at than ever. There are even moments where two separate enemy classes will attack one another, allowing for you to run by, or pick a side before turning on them anyway.
The shooting is tight and snappy as ever, which is a good thing because although you can play the entire game alone, grouping together with like-minded friends makes for an even better experience. There have been improvements here too, most noticeably with the way you interact with each other. No longer do you have to throw weapons on the floor for friends to pick up, giving the opportunity for mayhem when other friends pick it up instead. In Borderlands 2 you can open a trade window dialogue and give each other money, weapons, the works.
The overall co-op experience is just a lot more sleek, with a fully integrated party system allowing you to just join each others games as you wish. Character customisation means that you can create a more identifiable you, and you can find more skins in the loot you’ll come across too. Playing with friends changes Borderlands 2, making enemies tougher and revealing tactical elements you may not notice in solo play. Each class obviously has its own unique features, and combining these well can be extremely satisfying.
Unfortunately, whilst improvements have been made wholesale for Borderlands 2, a few areas that still need work are the actual co-op. Loot is still shared, meaning that some missions will reward you with a weapon, but the only person to receive it is the person who turned it in. This means that playing with friends is still very important, as you may find the co-op a frustrating experience if you play with a random user who runs around gathering all the loot before you have a chance.
The other main issue with co-op is that playing with mismatched level players still isn’t great. A level 5 character can join a level 20 player’s game, but you’ll either have to power level the lower player, by having them hide whilst you kill enemies, otherwise they will have a frustrating time, dying repeatedly and their bullets doing literally nothing. The game does balance things a little, meaning that XP is shared with low level characters, but it’s still pretty difficult for them to get involved in the battle at such a low level. The best the low level player can really do is revive you when you are down, as Borderlands 2 rewards players for healing each other.
On the other hand, a high-level player can join a low-level player’s game, but they will be so ridiculously over levelled that, again, it’s not that much fun. The solution is obvious, to try and group together with friends and play through together. It’s a shame there’s not something in-between, a-la Guild Wars 2, but regardless, the co-op is as much fun as ever, with some tweaks that make it that little bit sweeter.
LONGEVITY: It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that you could happily buy and play Borderlands 2 for the rest of the year. The campaign is between 25 and 30 hours long, depending on how many side-missions you complete, or how long you spend customising builds, or finding the right weapons to suit you. Throw into the mix that each of the four characters (with a fifth coming via downloadable content) play very differently and you’re talking about a silly amount of content, and the possibility of losing days and days to Borderlands 2. Further replayability comes after completion, from the vault hunter mode, which allows you to replay the game with your loot and levels from the original playthrough.
While there may not quite be a gazillion guns to collect, I wouldn’t like to estimate how many there are. The same goes for class mods, grenade mods and pretty much everything on offer. If variety is the spice of life, then Borderlands 2 is the spiciest of video games. Of course you can (and should) also play the game co-op, which means you’ll literally never get bored. The drop in/drop out aspect is brilliant too, you can be up and running within minutes of booting Borderlands 2 up, or just stick to offline split-screen co-op (on consoles at least). Gearbox have thought of everything to make sure their game stays in your console for the foreseeable future, including a promised season pass worth of downloadable content.
VERDICT: Borderlands 2 is a stunning video game. It’s rare to see a developer take on board literally every complaint about the first game, and iterate upon it so masterfully, adding in new features along the way. There’s no doubt that some people will see it as “more Borderlands”, but that’s a reductive way to look at a sequel chock full of love and affection for the player that will spend hard-earned cash on it.
Scratching an itch that only the very best games can, it will be the first thing on your mind when you wake from slumber on more than one occasion and, if unchecked, will become a dangerous addiction. There’s an awful lot of games that have come out this year already and many more on the horizon, but if you let Borderlands 2 slip you by, then you’re missing out on comfortably one of the best games of 2012.