I don't think anyone was expecting much out of Borderlands 2's story when it hit shelves in late 2012. If Gearbox's previous efforts proved anything, it's that writing coherent storylines or compelling characters is not their forte, and that the random loot generation and guns that shoot exploding sharks would take the spotlight in Borderlands 2. And while those features certainly made up a large portion of my enjoyment, it was the story and the characters, of all things, that left the deepest mark on me after I finished the game.
The highlight of the cast is without a doubt Handsome Jack, a hilariously well-spoken megalomaniac who stands in the way of the Vault Hunters and their goal of finding the mysterious Vault on Pandora. Unlike the angst-ridden, too-serious-for-your-own-good Commandant Steele from the first Borderlands, whose stereotypical villain dialogue and thick Russian accent made it difficult for me to take her seriously as an antagonist, Handsome Jack embraces the insanity of Pandora, opting to throw quick witted insults and absurd requests your way rather than dry threats. Handsome Jack casually informing me that he named his newly bought pony Butt Stallion as I'm getting shot up by bandits, or asking me to jump off a cliff to my own death for some rare minerals (which I actually ended up doing, because I needed the loot) will forever be etched into my mind as some of the most hysterical moments in video game writing. In many ways, this more lax approach for Jack's character gives him a more menacing feeling, as he is truly an unpredictable madman who kills and plunders on a whim. His unpredictability, combined with his casual, almost friendly demeanor, make him ten times the villain that Commandant Steele ever was, and firmly cements him as one of my favorite villains in gaming.
Of course, that isn't to say that the rest of the cast is slacking. Although the Vault Hunters you play as are still often spewing one-liners left and right, the quality of the banter is notably higher, especially with the Assassin Zer0, who emotes with holographic emoticons on his helmet and speaks purely in haiku (to hilarious effect). All of the cast from the original game also make a triumphant return, having developed well past their fairly bland selves in the first Borderlands. Mordecai has become a rather mouthy alcoholic, Roland and Lilith have become likable leaders of the resistance against Handsome Jack, and Brick... well let's just stay he lives up to his name. The relationships you develop with the previous generation of Vault Hunters feel genuine, as they often send you out on quests to resolve personal issues from their pasts, and you find yourself looking up to them as mentor figures who guide you through this cutthroat, do-or-die planet. This solid establishment of the relationships between all the big players of the game, as well as the extremely well-written dynamics among the cast members, is what allows for some of the plot twists later in the game to really hit home and leave strong, lasting impressions. Betrayal and ambivalence are often nuanced emotions that are difficult to evoke, but the main cast of Borderlands 2 surprisingly delivers these feelings with flying colors as you approach the endgame, offering a much more meaningful resolution to the story than the first game.
The antics of Handsome Jack will surely be remembered in the annals of modern video game history...
The supporting cast, while not nearly as impactful on the main storyline, also serve important roles in establishing the universe. They perfectly represent the average citizens of Pandora: the playful cougar vibes of Moxxi, the blatant conning of arms dealer Marcus, and of course, your faithful robot companion Claptrap who never shuts up. The zany essence of the world is perfectly captured in these characters. Face McShooty in particular serves as an outrageously funny reminder of what it means to be a resident of the Borderlands, offering a quest that involves you shooting him in the face. The quest is completed within moments of accepting it, as you promptly obliterate Face McShooty's visage (preferably with the highest powered weapon at your disposal just for laughs), but it's these small moments with the side characters that flesh out the details of the world and allow for a truly engrossing experience.
It's a shame that the later entries into the Borderlands franchise haven't quite lived up to the perfection that is Borderlands 2's cast. Instead of relying on half-baked cliches and grand ideas to propel the story forward, Borderlands 2 is more down to earth, fully accepting its comical universe and relying more on personal interactions to develop the characters — and the game is better for it. The antics of Handsome Jack will surely be remembered in the annals of modern video game history, and for that matter, Borderlands 2 will surely be remembered as having one of the most eclectic and well-written casts of characters to ever grace the scene.