When the first Borderlands came out in 2009, it seemed like a promise too good to be true. While it admittedly had its issues — namely a lack of strong story elements, little voice work, ho hum quest design and little environmental variety —Developer Gearbox Software brought the first true loot-based first-person shooter to gamers. Now, with Borderlands 2, Gearbox tries and largely succeeds in quelling all the criticisms of the original Borderlands. While it does falter in a few places, Borderlands 2, on the whole, is an always fun, often funny and occasionally frustrating game.
In Borderlands 2 you play as one of four new vault hunters, the term given to daring adventurers that traverse the universe in search of a famed vault of untold treasures or power. The four new vault hunters are Axton, the Commando, Salvador, the Gunzerker, Maya, the Siren, and Zero, the Assassin. Once on Pandora, the fictional planet Borderlands 2 takes place on, all four characters discover that the promise of the vault is somewhat of a lie. It turns out that Handsome Jack, the game’s main villain, is inviting vault hunters to Pandora to kill them off as soon as they arrive. Handsome Jack is the new dictator of Pandora and leader of the Hyperion Corporation that has taken over most of the planet since the happenings of the first game. Turns out, he doesn’t want any competition when unlocking what the vault on Pandora has in store.
The four playable vault hunters are all on the same train on Pandora when they’re ambushed by Hyperion robots, called Loaders, that have been wiping out the other vault hunters. Through combined efforts they survive the encounter and soon find themselves thrust into the ranks of resistance fighters named the Crimson Raiders. The Raiders, along with all in the safe-zone city of Sanctuary, have been outcast from the newly civilized world of Pandora by Handsome Jack for opposing him and his dictator rule. The new vault hunters are their last hope at survival.
While they’re not playable, if you really liked the four main vault hunters from the first game, they all make a return as central characters for the sequel. And, as with most of all the main and supporting characters in Borderlands 2, they have plenty of fully voiced dialogue and their characters are more fleshed out this time around. In fact, the fledging out of the old vault hunters is emblematic of one of Borderlands 2’s greatest triumphs over its predecessor: the main and side quests in Borderlands 2, while in no ways masterpieces, are compelling for more than just the loot they provide this time around. They’re entertaining because they add something to the zany list of characters, both new and old, and almost always involve a host of hilarity alongside them.
Much like the characters themselves, the world of Pandora has seen a terrific overhaul, not so much in terms of raw graphical prowess (though those improvements are there as well), but more so in the variety the world has to offer. Where as in Borderlands 1 players found themselves in seemingly countless desert regions with more shades of brown than a chocolate factory, Borderlands 2’s Pandora plays host to a snowy tundra, grassy rolling hills, cities of glass, metal, and stone, icy caves and, even some deserts for all those that didn’t get enough the first time around. The environmental design is flat out awesome in Borderlands 2.
Equally impressive are the sheer number of enemy types the game throws players’ way. The enemies are split into groups. For example there are bandits, loaders, skags (alien dog things), threshers (sandworms), gorilla-like beast called bullymongs, and more. Each group has different archetypes that exhibit different behaviors and have different weak points and strengths. When attacking in unison, each group has combinations that can easily frustrate and obliterate you. The AI, though not particular bright on it’s own, is formidable enough in groups and enemies dodge and bob to avoid fire as well as take cover.
Even with all the improvements across the board, the meat and potatoes of Borderlands 2 is still the loot. The guns, the countless guns, have even more variety than before. For those unfamiliar, the guns in the Borderlands series are randomly generated. This means you can potentially pick up two similar sniper rifles with similar stats but the guns may look completely different or they may look similar but with widely different stats. The result is literally billions of different guns, and the veritable smorgasbord of loot is what drives players forward.
In the first title there were different weapon manufactures, but it didn’t’ really matter because no one could tell the difference unless they were looking very hard for it. The manufactures make a return in Borderlands 2, but now you’ll know what manufactured made a weapon just by firing it half the time (never mind that the game tells you in the weapon’s menu). Tediore manufactured weapons are cheap, so cheap in fact that the guns are simply thrown by their users when reloading instead of actually reloading the weapon. The gun explodes and does extra damage depending on how many rounds were remaining in the clip at the time of tossing the weapon. The gun then rematerializes in the users’ hands and is ready for firing again. Maliwan weapons function quite normally except that they always have elemental damage, i.e. electrical, corrosive, fire or slag (a new elemental damage type for Borderlands 2. Jakobs weapons generally fire as fast as you can pull the trigger and have high damage, but they are single-shot only. Bandit manufactured weapons are generally inaccurate but have massive magazine sizes to compensate. Torgue weapons only use mini explosive rounds (which do more damage than regular rounds) but the projectiles travel painfully slow. Hyperion weapons start out with insane recoil when the gun is first fired but smooth out into nearly pinpoint accuracy the longer the trigger is held down. Finally, Dahl weapons always burst-fire when aiming them down the sights. In short, Gearbox has created a host of qualities that makes the weapons feel vastly different from one another and allows players to pick their favorites and argue about them with their friends as to why their manufacturer is best.
Gearbox has applied this same randomly-generated system to grenades and shields and it works to great affect. You can have a grenade that teleports to an enemy, creates a vortex when it explodes (and implosion) that sucks all surrounding enemies toward it then lets out larger explosion that electrocutes those foes to death. Yummy. You may also have a shield that, once fully charged applies some of its juice to the first shot of your weapon to drastically increase the damage. Sexy.
The great co-op from the first returns as well as a very welcome item trade feature. Unfortunately co-op players still see all the same loot. This means you’ll have to make a mad dash toward it when you see it or risk loosing it to unsporting co-op players.
There are a few gripes with the game that detracted from an otherwise great experience. It’s very easy to get stuck on the geometry in the middle of combat and be quickly pummeled to death by the various melee-centric enemies. The game still feels designed for co-op in that going it solo is a very difficult task at times thanks to some enemy behaviors that seem like they could have been toned down when playing alone. Some of the gun textures are muddy, particularly the lights on elemental weapons that are supposed to make them look cool. They just look like painted metal at times and very pixelated. The sound is uneven when firing some automatic weapons, especially assault rifles. The assault rifles are largely useless and vastly outclassed by all other weapons for what seems to be the majority of the first play through.
For me, it is also very rare to find one that was scoped or had elemental damage other than fire. Because assault rifles are my go-to guns in shooters, this disproportion was big enough to dampen my enjoyment of the game and there’s no clear reason as to why this obvious imbalance exist. Finally, if you save and quit the game, it will restart at the main entrance to an area no matter how far into it you are. This means you effectively loose 10, 20, even 30 minutes of playtime in terms of ground coverage if you can’t finish an area all the way through or just want to take a break. It’s not all bad because you keep the experience points and weapons gained up until the point you save and quit, but its still frustrating if you’re actually trying to get somewhere in terms of quest progress.
Alas, these are all relatively small gripes and at the end of the day I would wholeheartedly recommend Borderlands 2 to anyone that likes shooters, mindless fun, collecting loot, extremely meaty games, humor in their games or the first Borderlands. It improves on the first game in every imaginable way and then some. It even has great music this time around, which will be good news for anyone that got burned out on the same two tracks that looped from the first game. While the story elements of the game have seen great improvements, I wouldn’t recommend Borderlands 2 to anyone based on just story alone. But that isn’t a grievance. The opposite, it’s a compliment to Gearbox for adding just enough narrative to not get in the way of all the action—and action, Borderlands 2 has aplenty. Let the hoarder of you live through Borderlands 2.