Borderlands 2 Review
While refined in almost every way, does Borderlands 2 do enough to differentiate itself from its predecessor?
There's no doubt about it, in a direct comparison Borderlands 2 is a flat out better game than its predecessor. The gunplay is a little tighter, the story and characters are better developed, the levels and enemies more varied, and the skill trees and loot systems are more expansive. However, if you are like me and overdosed on the fun, unique, but somewhat hollow and repetitive original, does the sequel bring enough to the table to warrant a full price purchase? While there is no easy answer to this question, I found that while the loot heavy formula wasn't quite as compulsively addicting in its second dose, the great writing, level design, enemy variety and the crazy weapons did eventually win me over.
Improved enemy and level variety are some of the best parts of Borderlands 2
It is clear that when developing the sequel Gearbox analyzed the major complaints about the original and focused on dealing with them. The biggest problem with the first game was that the world, while visually stylish, felt devoid of any real life apart from crazed bandits and wildlife, with NPC's basically acting as sign boards for quests. The story fell flat as well, with one rambling villain replacing another every so often in a vague quest for some kind of super-vault. The story, writing and characters are therefore where the biggest improvements have been made. There is much more dialogue this time around, and it is consistently well written and often incredibly humorous.
The story is also much improved, with the diabolically hilarious Handsome Jack making himself known as the primary antagonist from the get go. You as a vault hunter join up with a group of other vault hunters alongside some colourful residents of Pandora who are being directed by some of the characters from the first game. While their names and appearances may be familiar, the personalities of the likes of Roland and Lilith have seen significant makeovers, which is probably a good thing given their cardboard like personalities in Borderlands 1. This group is based out of the town of Sanctuary, and from here you are guided by a mysterious AI in an effort to bring the tyrannical Handsome Jack to his end. It will take you a good 20-30 hours for a single run-through of the campaign, more if you are thorough with side quests. The new game+ option, as well as multiple characters and builds, give lots of incentive to go through the game multiple times; content shortage is not an issue this game suffers.
Some familiar faces return with rather unfamiliar personalities
Once you peel away this more elaborate context, the game design is essentially unchanged from Borderlands 1. You talk to NPC's in towns to get quests, walk/drive/fast travel to the quest location, kill some dudes, find some loot, level up, then turn in the quest and pick up a harder one with tougher enemies, better loot and bigger experience rewards. While many of the quests in Borderlands 1 would have felt at home in a MMO, for the most part they are a bit more interesting in the sequel. Even quests that at a glance seem grindy, such as one where you need to kill a certain number of monsters, become more interesting with requirements for killing the monsters in certain ways, such catching three of them on fire at the same time while they are still alive. Other side quests will take you to interesting areas not even seen during the story missions, and often feel just as well put together as the exciting story levels.
Another complaint levelled against the original borderlands was that the levels and enemies lacked variety. It is clear that Gearbox has made an effort to improve on this by introducing new environments and bad guys. While the variety of environment types has been improved, the different levels still feel somewhat indistinct. A snowy wasteland isn't much different in practice from a dusty one. There is some improvement in level variety in the form of more urban levels, but in practice it is the new enemy variety that makes exploration interesting.
The first game saw you murdering your way through huge numbers of bandits and a few select monster types that had one obvious weakness. The sequel greatly improves on this by introducing all kinds of different enemies that try and kill you in assorted ways. The insect-like Varkids, for instance, will morph into stronger versions if you don't kill then right away; if you shoot the mask off a Goliath it will go into a rampage killing both friend and foe as it gets stronger and more terrifying, and threshers will dive underground and pop up in unexpected places, lashing out with their limbs. These are only a few of the new enemies introduced in Borderlands 2, and they serve to greatly improve the gameplay since they require you to focus on one specific enemy, or even one specific area of one enemy.
You will receive side-quests from a variety of colorful characters
While the original game touted itself as an FPS/RPG, apart from the obvious leveling and looting it leaned heavily onto the shooter side of the scale. The sequel is much the same in this regard, even though the skill trees have been expanded. You once again choose between one of four characters who each has a unique ability. While the abilities are different from the characters of the first game, with the exception of the turret-deploying Axton, they aren't much more interesting. The siren character can now phase-shift enemies, leaving them totally vulnerable to bullets, while the assassin can create a hologram of himself and turn invisible while flanking around behind foes. In practice these abilities aren't terribly useful until you reach much higher levels, and once again the skill trees are a slow grind of mostly passive upgrades such as improvements to health or gun damage. Good aim and lucky loot drops will reveal greater advantages than a well-balanced character build.
So once again it is up to the gunplay and the guns to make Borderlands 2 worth playing. Like the original, these two elements are easily the game's biggest strength. It won't take long before you start finding some crazy weapons, and they only get bigger, better and more interesting as you progress through the game. Gearbox has taken the randomly-generated gun system to whole new levels here, adding a new elemental type and variables that make it all the more exciting when you see a weapon fly off the corpse of a hard-vanquished foe. The weapon manufacturers are also more distinct, with each company's weapons having distinct advantages and disadvantages. Jacobs weapons, for instance, won't do elemental damage, but they do good base damage, have high accuracy, and can fire as fast as you can click. Tediore weapons are thrown at enemies like grenades instead of reloaded. Each manufacturer has distinct attributes for their weapons, and you will probably find a favourite during your travels.
Borderlands 2 keeps the wacky visual style while upping the technical prowess
If guns aren't enough, you will also search for class-mods, which will improve your character or team's stats in some way, grenade mods, which will change how your grenades behave, shields, and vault-hunter relics which serve basically the same function as class-mods. When all of these weapons, mods, abilities and enemies are taken into consideration, Borderlands 2 has some of the best shooter combat around. The gunplay is very tight, with weapons sounding great and having just the right amount of recoil. While enemy AI isn't particularly bright, many different enemies behave in different ways, meaning you will often have to deal with baddies attacking you from a distance as well as coming in close at the same time. Shootouts are frantic and incredibly fun, which is fortunate considering that shootouts are basically what the entire game consists of.
The original Borderlands was built around co-op, and the same is true of the sequel. Sadly the advantages of playing co-op are relatively few and no different from the first game. You can revive fallen team-mates, certain class-mods will buff the entire team, and one class eventually gains the ability to heal teammates by shooting them. Loot is shared between all players, so if you have a greedy teammate you might find yourself stuck with second-rate loot. Having said that, co-op is definitely the way to go, especially if you get a team together of people you know and trust. Enemies increase in number and become much tougher when playing with friends, you get more experience points, and better loot becomes more common. It is best to play with people who are of a similar level to you to avoid crazy difficulties, but if you get a good game together with a few friends Borderlands 2 is simply a ton of fun.
Playing with friends, while difficult, is still the best way to have a good time
There is one significant obstacle that might prevent you from playing with your friends however. Like the original Borderlands on PC, the sequel suffers from a wacky match-making system and connection issues. Even though it uses the relatively reliable Steam matchmaking system, myself and many others have experienced seemingly random issues when trying to connect to different people. I was able to connect to some people on my friends list instantly, but other people I was not able to connect to despite significant tinkering with network and router options. Me and friends were eventually able to connect by using a third-party program to create a VPN, but it is still frustrating that connecting to friends isn't always as easy as it should be.
Apart from these spotty connection issues the PC version of Borderlands 2 is superb. It has one of the most comprehensive options menus of any game in recent years, including options for FoV and frame-rate caps. The game is fairly well optimized; I was able to run it well on my laptop with relatively modest hardware by turning the settings down a bit, and the game still looked good. Visually Borderlands 2 is similar to the first game, boasting the same unique art style, although enhancements to lighting and particle effects ultimately make it look better. If you have hardware that supports it, the game even supports Nvidia PhysX, which comes into play with cloth, liquids, and debris from using certain weapons on certain enemies. Turning this setting up does entail a big performance hit; even my powerful PC with a GTX 670 saw frame-rate drops from time to time with the Physx setting turned to high. Turn this setting down though and it isn't a difficult game to run.
Fans of Claptrap won't be disappointed
The audio in Borderlands 2 is also strong across the board. Weapons sounds are a bit sharper than in the first game, with shotguns and rocket launchers sounding powerful, and snipers firing with a suitable crack. The soundtrack is also much more varied and interesting this time around, with western twangs being combined with electronic beats as the action heats up. The real highlight of the audio however is the voice acting, which is top notch across the board. Voice actors deliver the hilarious dialogue with enthusiasm and great timing, often creating extra humour through expert delivery. Even the screaming of a Psycho as he charges at you is worth listening to.
In the end, Borderlands 2 is so much fun that it's easy to forget it doesn't do much different from its predecessor. Role-playing mechanics are still under developed, meaning the game will still appeal more to shooter fans than RPG fans. Gameplay variety is still quite limited, and repetition still rears its head in a few side-quests, but overall it is easy to overlook these issues when taking the package as a whole. Borderlands 2 improves on the original in some key areas, making it easy to recommend to those who enjoyed the first game, or anyone who likes the idea of a loot-heavy FPS-RPG.