Review: Borderlands 2
posted on 09.19.12 at 12:51 PM EDT by (@admeady)
The one that shoots things is best. Honest.

The red ones – you know, the ones that set things on fire. Wait, no – it’s the green ones, the ones that corrode things. They’re my favourite. Wait, wait, no – it’s definitely the one that looks like a shotgun but shoots rockets. Or maybe it’s the one that tracks things. That’s pretty cool, too.

Or – or – maybe it’s that one, that gun, which has a scope, an orange hue, sets enemies on fire and has an incredibly fast fire rate. It’s huge, too. It’s better than your gun; it’s the best gun on Pandora. It’s the bestest gun everer, and it’s all mine – gunzilla is mine – all mine.

Ahem, as I was saying.

Welcome to Pandora, again

For those unfamiliar with the arid wastes of Gearbox’s loot-em-up, Borderlands is a loot-centric co-operative first-person shooter with a cheeky sense of humour and a worrying addiction to explosives. With role-playing elements such as experience points, talent trees and active skills, it provides a sense of depth and customization at a level rarely found in the genre.

And so the story goes: Handsome Jack, leader of the Hyperion Corporation, has control of Pandora. In search of a vault beneath the planet’s surface, Jack has unleashed an army to wipe out those who get in his way. A group of Vault Hunters – a quad of individuals with unique talents – also have the same goal. Naturally, conflict ensues.

As a premise, Borderland’s story gives the game enough ammunition to make things interesting. What’s more, it rewards players of the original, integrating the characters of both past and present in a way that puts the player in a position of hero worship – moment’s that’ll make you say ‘yeah, that’s pretty awesome’.

But as a story within the context of a single-player campaign – combined with ability to roam around and complete side quests on a whim – its story can feel largely detached. Although it helps justify the murder of countless things whilst weapon hunting, it won’t be the sole purpose to play for many.

But what about Light Sabres?

It’s easy to get lost in a descriptive mire when trying to describe the jillions of guns in Borderlands 2. Indeed, if Mary Poppins was a private military contractor, her endless bag of things would be Gearbox’s first-person looter.

But it’s just as easy for the experience to get lost under the weight of this single, not-over-exaggerated-in-the-slightest marketing motif. It’s easy to miss the stunning vistas, the comedic characters and the numerous mechanical improvements in the sight of things that go ‘bang’.

And so this addictive focus on loot comes at a price. It’s possible to roam the world for hours and not find a notable upgrade. If, like me, your sense of progress is inherently tied to your weaponry, the game seemingly ‘stalled’ in these dry spells regardless of the developer’s chosen pace.

No, seriously – what about the Light Sabres?

Although Light Sabres are disappointingly absent, it’s difficult to care with so much else in play. Shotguns, sniper rifles, pistols, machine guns, sub-machine guns, rocket launchers, energy weapons – Borderlands 2 is clearly a ‘kill’em till they drop’ experience. If the idea of killing to your heart’s content in the name of discovering a new weapon doesn’t light your fire, then perhaps this isn’t the game for you.

To describe these by their generic names does them no favours, really. Pistols can shoot explosive pellets, shotguns can have scopes, everything can seemingly posses almost any attribute. Borderlands 2 pays little attention to the standard weapon set of the typical shooter.

Weapon variation manifests itself in a number of ways. A gun can be imbued with elemental properties, such as corrosion or fire. Aspects we take for being set, established values in other shooters – such as reload speed and fire rate – can vary wildly from weapon to weapon.

And so a ‘better’ weapon is typically a weapon more suited to your tastes. You might choose to sacrifice fire speed for accuracy or opt for additional critical hit damage. Take these considerations with the myriad of attributes across each of the four classes, and a dedicated group could conceivably spend lifetime in search of the ultimate set up.

The Border Band

With up to four player co-op, Borderlands 2 is clearly intended to be played with other Vault Hunters. Having spent some hours playing alone, it’s clear that the formula loses something. That spark. There’s nobody to discuss your latest toys with.

With others in play though, every new find triggered a frenzy of discussion and demonstration. Whether they’d offer it up for trade, or talk us through its stats and capabilities, a new weapon was a shared experience. Play alone, and something is lost.

Speaking of classes, Borderlands 2’s various roles are presented in the forms of Axton, Maya, Zero and Salvador. Each with their own unique ability and three talent trees, each class can be taken through to a level cap of 50. Zero, my character of choice, has the ability to vanish for five seconds, unleashing a decoy in the meantime. Salavador, on the other hand, is able to ‘Gunzerk’, which allows him to temporarily dual-wield any two guns.

So, combine this ability with Maya’s Phaselock, which traps enemies in an energy field, and Salvadaor can do untold damage whilst Gunzerking. Axton’s deployable turret could also be deployed for massive damage. Although a simple scenario, it’s incredibly easy to see how Borderlands 2 might be a very different game when played without others.

Co-op, for me, is the way to play.

Blandora no more

Gearbox has found Pandora’s sense of place. What essentially used to feel like an outside dungeon, the world feels like a inhabited and historic planet. Creatures feel like they’re part of an ecosystem, instead of being entirely dedicated to the barrel of your gun. Sanctuary, a hub city where characters give quests, is ostensibly ran by the people of Pandora; it feels alive. And the inclusion a day and night cycle and the various changes that entails finally transforms Pandora into a world in strife.

Gearbox ostensibly made a conscious effort to introduce us to Pandora in an arctic tundra, an environment far flung from the dusty rocks of play times past. Greens, reds, blues – Pandora now taps into a much wider environmental palette. Pandora’s topography is punctuated with ups and downs, and everything about this new take on a troubled planet was obviously designed with exploration and diversity in mind.

And the word ‘diverse’ is best suited to describe Borderlands 2, particularly in relation to its prior. Everything from the weapons and environments to the enemies and the boss fights keeps that simple premise – to kill things and collect bigger and better guns – from ever becoming stale. When framed in that context, it’s undoubtedly a success.

Everything +1

In loot speak, Borderlands 2 is truly “Borderlands +1”. Almost every aspect – bar its driving, which is still as bland as it ever was – has markedly improved. From its visual design to its world and weapons, Gearbox’s vision has finally had its day – it’s clear that its predecessor wasn’t a stroke of good luck, it was a stroke of good design.

Despite its technical and mechanical proficiency, though, it’s a difficult experience to recommend to lone Vault Hunters. If you plan to play in split-screen, system link or online, the game – as both a means of enjoyment and spending time with others – multiplies infinitely. There’s more laughs to be had than guns – and that’s at least a hundred, million bazillion, and one.

And though it’s easy to gawk at the big things – the number of guns, the landscapes, the skybox – it’s the little things that count too. The ability earn Badass Tokens, for example, by completing challenges at any time, which provide an incremental but universal stat boost to all your characters provides incentive to play with newer players, as playing as a new character still provides a benefit to your ‘main’.

Ultimately, this is an experience designed to be played with friends. Certainly, it feels that way. Should you have friends willing and waiting to play, Borderlands 2 is a sure fire purchase. If, however, you plan to go at it alone, Gearbox’s latest, as with most loot games, is genuinely difficult to recommend at full price.

And to those people, I would suggest that they… hold fire.

8.5/10

Borderlands 2 was reviewed on Xbox 360. Vault Hunter a mode – which is essentially a New Game+ with tougher foes – was not played due to time constraints. The campaign was played in bouts of both single player and online multiplayer .

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