Borderlands 2 is an outstanding sequel, but also one that takes few risks. The team at Gearbox knew they had a fan-favorite on their hands, so rather than go back to the drawing board, they opted to fix and fine-tune rather than revolutionize and risk alienating some of that fanbase. More, more, more is the name of the game, so if you were a lover of the original’s shoot-shoot-loot paradigm, you’ll undoubtedly take pleasure in the improved story presentation, the at-times hilarious writing, and the vastly diversified selection of armaments. If, on the other hand, you hated the occasionally fetch quest-heavy gameplay, the stat-centric shooting mechanics, and the floaty physics – you’d do best to steer clear.
The tale picks up some five years after the finale of the first Borderlands. The Hyperion Corporation has edged out all of its competition and become the dominant force on Pandora under the leadership of the brazen Handsome Jack. Lured to the planet by his promises of fame and fortune, you are one of four new Vault Hunters who are quickly betrayed and unceremoniously stranded in a frigid wasteland. Jack’s a sneaky guy, you see, and he’s got big plans – and it’s up to you and a cast of returning faces to take him down.
The actual plot isn’t anything more than your typical “bad guy wants to take over” shtick, but it’s the characters that sell it. Compared to the first title, there’s a lot more personality to be found in every facet of Borderlands 2. Missions are no longer doled out in static text boxes, but are rather given by animated characters with voices, which make them feel that much more integrated. Your four Vault Hunters each have backstories that are uncovered via audio logs, and the original Borderlands’ cast of misfits are colorful and fun to interact with. Jack himself falls into the category of hilariously evil: he’s such a jerk that you can’t help but like him as he continuously throws his over-the-top verbal abuse your way.
Mechanically, everything functions similarly to its predecessor. You take on requests from NPCs and the bounty board in the hub world (called Sanctuary), and then head off to do whatever has been asked of you. Typically, this involves finding stuff and shooting lots of bullets; where BL2 really improves on the original is in the delivery. There’s a lot more voice acting, and all of it is excellent. The writing walks the line between serious and sarcastic, occasionally dipping its toes in both extremes, which helps you wring a little more enjoyment out of the quests because they’re still just excuses to send you off to one place or another with guns ablaze.
As before, the true thrust of it all is in the lootin’. In addition to the vast array of weaponry, you also find relics, class modifications, grenade mods, and shields of varying quality and effect. There’s a greater diversity to what can be found, and the new equipment types really give you a chance to specialize your character in the way you see fit. I am personally a proponent of the “run up in a guy’s face and shotgun many times” approach, and so relics that increase shotgun damage and shotgun reload speed have been invaluable.
Additionally, the types of guns and their effects have been expanded to include all manner of death-dealing implements. I encountered talking (and screaming) rifles, laser machine guns, shotguns that fired flaming bouncy basketball-like projectiles, and assault weapons that launched exploding pellets in a mortar-like arc, and still barely scratched the surface of what can be found. Grenade mods have also been retooled, and have a number of fun new effects for you to play around with. These can range from gravity wells to spinning fire-wheels; bouncy grenades, sticky ones, teleporters, and a number of others. The joy of discovering something new and crazy has always been an addictive part of this subset of action RPG, and BL2 ups the ante on its predecessor most satisfactorily.
From an interface standpoint, there have been huge improvements to the menu system. Basic actions like buying ammo and selling junk gear are significantly faster. Managing and comparing items has been made easier. Quest tracking (and ignoring, for out-dated low level ones) has been made more user-friendly. The addition of a minimap is welcome, as well, since it keeps you from bouncing back into the map screen as often as was necessary in the first Borderlands. Finally, the new trade screen allows money and gear to change hands either through a traditional swap or, amusingly, based on the outcome of a duel.
Each of the four (or five, if you include the bonus Mechromancer) classes has his or her own set of skills to play around with as you level up. Thankfully, the previous title’s tendency to force certain classes to favor specific weapon types has been replaced with broader kinds of passive skills. Additionally, the new action skills for each character are a bit broader in scope than the original game. Thanks to a variety of customization options, these skills can be expanded to have quite a bit more utility than in the past. My Siren’s phaselock ability started out as a temporary stun move, but eventually grew to instantly revive allies from afar, pull enemies toward it, gravity-well style, and bounce to new targets if the current one was killed. This helped keep my play strategy fresh and gave me a number of tactical options during combat.
Still, it’s worth noting that BL2 is best experienced in multiplayer; with the same group of friends each time, if possible. The balance is clearly aimed at multiple players, and certain fights can devolve into slogs as you die, revive, die, revive over and over again in order to take out a particularly nefarious boss. Having additional players around gives you more tactical options, and allows you to engage in some fun interplay with the varied action skills. Most importantly, being able to revive your fellow players is a key mechanic of multiplayer that the game was clearly designed in favor of. It’s still very playable and fun in single player, but the experience is obviously intended to be one shared with others.
Graphically, everything looks fantastic. The PC version that I spent over 70 hours with has big, open environments full of detail and excellent lighting and shadowing effects. The varied locations you visit far outpace the original’s “lots of desert” aesthetic, and there are some truly gorgeous vistas to take in. If your system can handle it, the PhysX effects are a blast as well, causing your shots to kick up dirt and rocks, slime and blood to pool viscously on the ground, and snowdrifts to crunch underfoot. The PC version’s scaleability is also noteworthy; my high-end system had no problem playing the game, but thanks to a full suite of graphical sliders and knobs, my friend playing on a more modest rig was able to enjoy a crisp framerate and reasonably attractive visuals. This is in stark contrast to the original’s more meager set of options.
In fact, the PC version deserves special mention here. Gearbox made it clear from the outset that they were aiming to create an experience that felt native to the platform, and they’ve absolutely succeeded. Steam integration is seamless, and online game management is a total breeze. You are able to see all of your friends playing at any time, and joining up is a total cakewalk. Menus work well, and the vast majority of the original’s PC-related technical foibles have been ironed out. Most importantly: Gamespy integration is out.
From a sound standpoint, the high production values shine through. The voice acting is uniformly excellent (and often hilarious), and each of the characters’ personalities shines through thanks to a wide variety of reactions and comments to the events around them. Weapons have a nice, juicy heft to them, and zapping an enemy into oblivion with an electric pistol sounds delightfully sizzling. The music is also a big step up, but for more on that, check out my review of the soundtrack.
If you’re looking for something with a ponderous story full of morality and contemplation – one best savored alone – then you’ll need to look elsewhere. Borderlands 2 delivers tons of lighthearted, occasionally juvenile fun with immense replayability, and is best approached with a few buddies in tow. It doesn’t revolutionize the concept pioneered by its forebear, but it refines it to a razor-sharp edge and offers some of the most fun you can have in a cooperative action RPG this side of Diablo II.
And if nothing else, it’s got lots of Claptrap.