The studio behind 2009’s stylish first-person shooter, the addictive and clever Borderlands, deserves credit for putting out a co-op game with massive cajones. Gearbox Software created one of our favorite titles of this generation, it fed the dirty habits of loot whores, and its subsequent add-on content reminded us that downloadable content can be good, really good. The gameplay was tight, especially in co-op; the artistic style was impressive; and the sheer amount of loot was daunting. Really, the only major qualm from fans was the attached, cookie-cutter story and some minor technical issues. So with three years under its belt, did Gearbox simply throw a better story on the skeleton of Borderlands, or did the team reinvent the wheel and give us a completely new game in the sequel? While the answer lies somewhere in between, we’re happy to report that Borderlands 2 doesn’t only surpass the original, it’s one of the most memorable experiences in recent gaming history and something we’re sure many others will enjoy as we shift to a brand new set of consoles.
If you follow us here at PSU, you have no doubt read our numerous previews, features, and news on Borderlands 2. You know about the new cast of playable characters, the fact there’s an actual story, the improved user-interface, and how Gearbox hasn’t let up in the loot department. But here’s what you may not know: It all works together in a harmonious blend, once again feeding the cravings of loot junkies, offering exhilarating co-op, and delivering a narrative that drives players through 30+ hours of gameplay.
You will once again return to the alien planet of Pandora, which still looks like it collided with a United States’ western flick. Borderlands 2 takes place a few years after the events from the first game, and once again sees bounty hunters on a search for a vault. While similar to the original Borderlands, there’s a much clearer antagonist in Handsome Jack, who is more than a simple menace. Handsome Jack essentially runs Pandora, and the citizens aren’t too happy about that. You’ll lace-up as one of the four Vault Hunters as you quest to eliminate Handsome Jack at the request of a renegade group.
This narrative has been told before, and in many cases, other games have told it better. But, Borderlands 2 still offers a story that drives its players from mission to mission, and it’s interesting enough to make you want to know what happens next. Where Borderlands 2 knows how to set itself apart, however, is in the quirky character and hilarious dialogue department. You will come across folks from the original title, including the old playable characters and key Non-Player Characters. You’ll befriend a crazed 13-year-old girl with a nose for explosives, and a very, very large woman with a knack for the auto industry. The voice acting is simply perfect, whether it’s the main cast, supporting NPCs, or even enemies yelling: "Just leave me alone!" But it’s not just comedy; Borderlands 2 has a squishy part, too. At times the game feels sentimental, but that’s quickly ripped away as Claptrap asks you to help setup his birthday party, or Handsome Jack offers suggestions to name his new pony. Borderlands 2 smartly blends comedy throughout the narrative and gives hints of its heart throughout.
You are free to get lost in the quirky characters or storyline, but you have absolutely no choice other than slaughtering hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies. Whether you roll over skags (yup, there are still skags everywhere) in your vehicle, knife bandits in the back, or lob grenades at bosses, one way or another, you are going to kill a lot of baddies. While Borderlands 2 offers a ton of killing options, you’ll spend most of your time behind a gun, pulling off rounds at aggressive foes. The gun mechanics are extremely solid–guns have unique qualities, you can feel their weight, and you are rewarded for both personal skill and picking the right weapon for the job.
There are plenty of options when it comes to weapons. In fact, Borderlands 2 can overwhelm those new to loot addiction. We recommend letting your guard down and accepting your fate–if you play Borderlands 2, your brain will fixate on the idea of finding better and better weapons, even as you ride the train to work, eat dinner, and listen to your wife/husband talk about their day. Who cares! You just found a shiny new SMG that deals bonus corrosive damage; it’s perfect for those robots you struggled to kill with your fire pistol last night. Levels are filled to the brim with loot, mostly weapons. But it’s a random system and you won’t always find what you need. This only adds to that addiction of opening every crate and chest. Loot drops from enemies, too. One of the most heart-pounding, anticipation-inducing aspects of Borderlands 2 is watching those green and purple drops fly off fallen enemies.
Gearbox put even more emphasis in its weaponry. While it’s all random, the specific weapon manufacturers have distinct styles. This means guns are almost grouped together by who created them in addition to whether they are shotguns, pistols, or SMGs, for example. Along with loot that modifies your character, shield, and grenades, the loot system makes Borderlands 2 play like an old-school role-playing game.
This RPG-emphasis expands beyond loot. You are given quests that guide you through the narrative, a ridiculous amount of side missions, and a deep character upgrade system. You can choose the gunzerker Salvador, Axton the commando, Zer0 the assassin, and Maya the siren. While all characters can use any weapon in the game, they have unique skills that give them certain advantages on the battlefield. For example, Zer0 creates a brief decoy of himself, which allows him to turn invisible. I used this to either escape to cover or find a vantage point to snipe my enemies. But it works just as well to sneak up behind baddies and unleash your deadly melee attack. Meanwhile, Maya can suspend enemies in midair, allowing your teammates to unleash their fury on the levitating baddie.
All of the unique abilities can be upgraded through skill points, which are earned when you level up. Each character has three trees for spending their points, and each offers even deeper customization. Playing as Zer0, I decided to make him melee heavy, investing points into his sword and hit points. But, I could respec and instead make him a deadly sniper. This opens the door to a ton of possibilities for the indecisive gamer.
Playing through Borderlands 2 with friends is a blast. The difficulty is increased to compensate for the extra firepower, but you also have a ton of new options when playing with friends–and, it’s important to play with friends as looting is a free-for-all. Send your gunzerker in to draw attention while your sniper hangs back and picks off enemies. Or, have your siren levitate that giant baddie while the commando drops a turret, giving the team some cover to blow away at that mid-air enemy.
If those baddies are too hard for you, and you will be challenged, you can develop your character (in fact, all the characters on your account) through badass rankings. These are simple challenges that provide points to spend on random upgrades, like increasing weapon damage. If Borderlands 2 ever feels difficult, take a step back and grind a bit for better weapons or new badass rankings. That should level the otherwise one-against-a-million playing field.
Exploring Pandora is a breeze, thanks to ground transportation and the ability to teleport. But that ground transportation is a bit, well, dull. Driving mechanics are once again just fair and the few missions tied to driving your buggy can get annoying. However, once you get the hang of it, driving shouldn’t be much of a problem and will simply serve as your primary mode of getting from point A to B.
Pandora looks so much better in Borderlands 2. The graphics still have that almost cartoonish quality, but it’s the world design that received the most impressive makeover. You’ll return to familiar places, large deserts, sprawling frozen tundra, the small rebel city of Sanctuary, an acidic wasteland, and something of an industrial complex. These varied environments help keep things fresh in what turns out to be a long narrative. The solid soundtrack rounds out the impressive presentation. It’s nice that Gearbox didn’t just focus on gameplay, but instead offered a complete package.
In fact, there is a ton of content under the hood. Outside the main quest, the side missions are simply a blast, often better than the story ones. Most quests evolve as you go, meaning if you have to go kill someone, after you do that the quest giver wants you to collect a sample, or help name local wildlife, or do something else crazy. These quests are far more than a diversion. They offer even more comic relief to the otherwise funny main story.
Borderlands 2 is an excellent game, without a doubt. However, there are no perfect games, and for Borderlands 2, the main issues revolve around graphic–mostly texture–problems and some occasional bugs. None of these are game breaking at all, but it’s a bit annoying to see those vending machines blurred as you load a new level. In addition, it’s even more frustrating to see enemies running against walls. The latter happens far less than the former, and again, none of these issues take away from the overall joy that comes from playing Borderlands 2.
There are minor updates to the original that helps complete this package. You now have a minimap, which happened to be one of my personal favorite additions, along with auto loot for dropped money, health boosts, and ammo. The user interface got an overhaul, too, and while it doesn’t fundamentally change anything, it simply adds to that clean-coat perfection.
There is still so much to experience in Borderlands 2, including those badass bosses, but the best recommendation I can give is to simply tell you to play this game, play it now, as soon as you can. If you pick it up, you’ll be rewarded with a ton of replay value. Your character gets 50 levels–for now–and you can, of course, play the whole game again as a different character. Or you can wait for the forthcoming DLC. There is simply so much to see and do here, even gambling in the local pub, that you should probably plan your excuses for calling out of work or school this week.
Borderlands 2 is by far a giant leap ahead compared to its predecessor, but it’s also one of the greatest games to finish off this generation of consoles. You’ll get lost under enormous piles of loot, a good-enough story that’s surpassed by side missions, and an absolutely hilarious cast of characters. This all comes together in a giant package of joy. Spend the next few weeks or months playing this game with friends and you’ll likely wonder how you were able to live without it in your life. Borderlands 2 is a fantastic first-person shooter game with RPG tendencies, and for once, you should believe every bit of the hype surrounding this title. Now go hunt Pandora.