Borderlands 2 Review
Borderlands was a funny sort of game. For a great many it was a loot-fest shooter like nothing they had ever seen before, but for an admittedly unfortunate few, the game turned out to be frustrating, repetitive, and at worst, bland. After playing the first incarnation multiple times, both online and off, I found myself in the middle. In the end, I concluded that as good as Borderlands was, it could have been better with a few minor tweaks to the original idea. So you will understand how excited I was when the sequel was announced! Here was a chance for Gearbox to take what worked in the first game and expand upon it in the sequel while forgoing what held the prototype back. And let me tell you, for the most part, they nailed it! Borderlands 2 is fantastic because Gearbox listened to their fans and made some smart changes to an already successful formula.
The story was one of the big downfalls of the original for me. What were we after again? Oh yeah, the Vault! I’d forgotten since I was doing 6000 side quests that had nothing to do with anything! Well, surprise, surprise there is another Vault on Pandora! While that flimsy premise had me rolling my eyes from the opening sequence, I’m happy to say that the narrative is far more focused and well developed. Handsome Jack is now your nemesis, and he is deliciously malevolent. Ol’ Jack suggests he was behind everything in the first game, playing the original cast for chumps and getting them to open the Vault for the Eridium that lies therein. In turn, that will allow him to open the true Vault, and unleash the alien horror that dwells therein. Only he who opens the Vault will be able to control the so-called “Warrior.” As one of four new Vault Hunters, it’s up to you to stop Jack’s nefarious plot.
Along the way you’ll meet the old crew who want to help thwart Jack. This helps progress the story as well as shed light on the motivations of the characters themselves from the last game. Sadly, the new team hasn’t developed much in this one either, which is a little disappointing. However, overall the narrative is far better paced and presented than the original.
There are four new classes to get to know in Borderlands 2. They are just different and unique enough to distinguish themselves from the original. Axton is the new commando class, who has a turret similar to Roland’s from the first game. Maya is the new Siren, but her power is different from Lilith’s. Phaselock allows her to target enemies and lock them into a sort of bubble where they are then at your mercy. Zer0 is an assassin who excels at both long-range combat as well as whipping out his sword for close encounters. Either approach is viable depending on how you augment his skill tree. Lastly there is Salvador, a new class called the gunzerker. His skill involves dual-wielding… well, pretty much anything you want. Pistols and submachine guns? No problem. Sniper rifles at the same time as shotguns? That’s easy! My personal favorite is dual wielding rocket launchers… I’ve rarely felt as bad ass!
This new cast of characters has a whole new set of skills to enjoy and experiment with. Each one offers a different, unique experience. Fortunately, the skill trees are better fleshed out. There are some really interesting end games that force you to plan ahead about how you want to play the game. However, this time they’ve included the ability to reset your skill points at any time (for a small fee), so if you don’t like your build, it’s not the end of the world.
Gun variety is even more impressive than the original, as if that were possible! It’s fantastic – I found a machine gun that had explosive damage and fired three round bursts… but I didn’t realize that meant they were firing grenades! There are so many options it’s hard to know what to keep. Even the more simply refined comparison system isn’t always indicative of what should be your primary focus; it more depends on your play-style. But far and away the biggest improvement beyond the variety of weapon design (that must have been a fun job, design as many weird weapons as you want), is the fact that you aren’t limited by class. You no longer need to play as a ranged fighter to get the most out of sniper rifles. I can’t overstate just how freeing this is!
The variation of enemy types was a major issue with the first game. Thankfully, Borderands 2 offers a far greater array of bad guys/bugs/monsters to soak up your bullets. A lot of forethought obviously went into the design of the new monsters. No two play the same and strategies will have to be altered to survive. There are even more variations on the simple bandits, with some new classes injected to spice up the action. And naturally, there are “Badass” versions to all the enemies as well, so keep your eyes open!
Despite all the improvements, some things become problematic simply because of the nature of the type of game they are trying to create. One of the things that drives me nuts about loot games is the timing. What I mean is that you find so much useless crap! Ninety nine percent of the stuff you find, you just end up selling. I’d like to see things pay off a little more; rather than doing a side quest and getting another average weapon as a reward; I want to see something tangible if I’m going to put in the effort. Finding that rare gun can also be game breaking, making things a breeze for a while.
The other problem is backtracking through certain areas means you waste time battling inferior enemies that are a waste of ammo and effort. It’s surprising in these cases that they don’t level to you the way enemies do in other role-playing games. It’s a similar issue with the stores. Once you level past a certain area where you can’t wait to see what Marcus’ Guns has in store for you, you know that every time you go back to that particular vending machine, it won’t be worth a look because they will all be underpowered. Fortunately, there is a loophole.
The slot machines are an interesting side attraction. I almost hesitate to tell you this, but for the majority of my initial playthrough the best gear I got was from the slot machines. Sadly, like the first game, money doesn’t mean a lot in Borderlands 2. There was never anything useful to buy from any of the shops (apart from the first time you found them), so money just sort of accumulated. Even spending your hard earned dough on the gambling devices mostly ended in selling nine weapons out of ten. This is the problem with a loot-based economy. However, no loot-based game I’ve ever played has solved this conundrum so I can’t fully fault Borderlands 2… they weren’t the first, and I’m sure they won’t be the last.
I love the “Badass” rank system. That’s right, now your Vault Hunter can earn that prestigious title, not just special baddies. It really gives you a feeling of accomplishment for the little things that come naturally while playing through the game, without being intrusive as these sorts of things so often are. What is clever (and addictive) is that these challenges now have multiple levels. Even if you have shot 50 Slags in the face, who the hell cares? You have to kill 150 before it’s actually worth anything tangible. And there is a tangible benefit. You can spend these earned points to permanently upgrade a whole slew of skills. Everything from gun damage to reload speed to shield recharge rate can be improved by completing these tasks, even if it’s not a priority. You’ll find yourself checking there often to see what you’ve accomplished, even if it’s not something you necessarily focus on while playing. It’s surprisingly well balanced.
The graphics and sound are mostly unchanged, which is fine. The cel-shaded anime style works as well now as it did then. Technically it’s pretty good, although texture pop-in almost always occurs after every load screen, and those can still be a bit long as well. My only complaint about the sound work is that NPCs have an unfortunate habit of trying to talk to you whilst you’re in the middle of a firefight. It’s hard to hear a diatribe, or better yet, useful tidbits when you’re getting shot to hell! And even if you can’t hear what’s being said, it’s impossible to read the tiny subtitles when under fire. There were a couple of points where I honestly felt like I’d missed something important, if not just to the mission at hand, but rather the overarching narrative as a whole. But that minor complaint aside, the soundwork and voice acting are stellar, injecting a healthy dose of well-timed humor consistently throughout.
Despite the added variety virtually across the board, I still found Borderlands 2 repetitive, and dare I say, boring, in some parts. Doing side missions through previous areas against weak enemies simply feels like a slog in some instances. Or maybe it’s just the fact that there is so much to do! Even with vastly improved variety in side missions styles (something else that was a common complaint about the original), Borderlands 2 is a surprisingly long game. However, the overall experience is exponentially more involved because of how things flow. In fact, pacing was probably the biggest crutch that held the first Borderlands back for me. Because the sequel has a more focused narrative, I always felt like I was moving forward.
In the end, I have to say that Borderlands 2 serves as a wonderful example of how to make a sequel work. It took the good from the first game, then streamlined the menus, added variety to enemies, mission types, and weapons, and a more cohesive and flowing narrative that was actually interesting. But most importantly, Borderlands 2 is more fun than the original, as good as it was. Running and gunning through Pandora is a blast yet again, and as before, it’s more fun with friends at your side. I can’t wait to see what they trot out for Borderlands 3
Reviewed By: Simon Waldron
Publisher: 2K Games
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Borderlands 2 purchased by the reviewer.