For The Trigger-Happy Pyromaniacs: Borderlands 2 Review
This game was reviewed on the PC
The original Borderlands had a fair amount of DLC after its initial release. The downloadable content added new areas, weaponry, vehicles, enemies, and usually raised the level cap. However, it never brought any serious improvements to the core game itself, outside of the Bank feature added with Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot. Borderlands 2 is a true sequel and not just another expansion, because it improves and alters nearly every single aspect of the first game. It seems Gearbox Software listened very attentively to the complaints and issues people had with the first game and set out to rectify as many of these problems as possible with this new installment.
The game’s story picks up five years after the events of the first game, and after the post-game DLC stories of The Secret Armory of General Knoxx and Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution. Don’t worry if you haven’t played through those pieces of DLC, as you get a very quick crash-course in what you have missed over the first few missions.
In those five years, the Hyperion Corporation has taken over much of Pandora, which is led by the villainous and smarmy Handsome Jack. He forms the primary antagonist for Borderlands 2, having double-crossed you as the game begins, and continuously taunting you as it progresses. Jack is a fantastic and hilarious villain – the deranged lunatic who actually sees himself as the hero of the story and wonders aloud why you continue to oppose him.
The protagonists are new this time around as well. The four heroes of the first game are now leaders of the resistance against Handsome Jack, and serve as quest-givers and allies. In their stead, a group of four new Vault Hunters have arrived. On the surface, the new characters might seem to be conceptual clones of the first four, but each has a unique twist or two that may challenge your preconceived notions of how that class is meant to be played.
Additionally, within the skill trees of each class there’s a lot of opportunity to play a variety roles, depending on how you want to specialize. A character like Maya might appear to be oriented around control or support functions, but by emphasizing her Cataclysm skill tree, it can change her into an elemental-damage machine. Within each class there are several different valid play-styles and builds to be found, allowing you to tweak your character to suit how you want to play.
However, the customization options extend beyond just game mechanics. You can now unlock a wide variety of skins and alternate head types for your characters as well as different paintjobs for your vehicles. Some options are bestowed upon you as quest rewards and others are completely random drops. These don’t have any effect on the gameplay itself, but definitely add a fun little show-off element to multiplayer, akin to Team Fortress 2’s hats.
Of course, all of that visual flair and statistical minutiae would be pointless if not for the true selling feature of the Borderlands series: Guns. Lots of guns. While the first game did deliver a dizzying array of combinations, special features, and wacky side effects on the randomly generated guns you found, the meaningful differences between them was often unclear and you may have had a hard time figuring out on statistics alone if the gun was for you.
In Borderlands 2, the gun manufacturers not only are visually distinct and instantly recognizable, but each company has its own quirks that alter the basic function of the gun itself. For instance, Hyperion weapons become more accurate as you fire them, Maliwan guns emphasize elemental effects, and Tediore’s bargain-basement weapons have the hilarious trait of being explosively discarded when emptied rather than having to reload. The properties of the various manufacturers will lead to players eventually being able to instantly recognize which gun types are for them beyond simply comparing statistics. I, for example, prefer the fast-firing, hammer-fanning Jakobs revolvers and the deep magazines of Bandit shotguns. Another player may prefer Vladof’s burst-fire pistols or Torgue’s explosive shotguns.
Rarity and quality of weaponry is displayed by a color-coding system that will be familiar not only to players of the first game, but also to MMORPG veterans. The White-Green-Blue-Purple-Orange rarity system even has its own mnemonic offered by a loading screen tip: “When Grandma Burps, Patrick Obeys”. That sort of bizarre humour is all over the game: from the quests to the dialogue, and even in the descriptions of the abilities on guns themselves.
The game encourages you to horde your best weapons, offering each character an expandable bank that you can store guns in. There’s even a Secret Stash shared by every character on your account, which Claptrap leans on the fourth wall to tell you: “Look, it’s for twinking items between your characters.” For example, when I had finally gotten to the point of outleveling the usefulness of my beloved Jakobs Fast Iron revolver, I didn’t sell it. Instead, I stashed it away as an heirloom for the future characters I will make so they can pick it up when they hit the appropriate level.
Of course, I could have always traded it away to another player and shared the wealth a bit. After all, Borderlands 2’s heart and soul is in its multiplayer. Upon loading the game up, it shows you a list of your Steam friends currently playing Borderlands 2, what level and class they are, and what quest they are doing. It gives you suggestions on what would be a good match for you in terms of your level and progress in the story, but you can really just drop in and out of any game your friends are in. If they don’t care for that sort of thing, or if you are particular about having a single-player experience, preferences can always be altered in the Options Menu. There’s no longer any finagling with GameSpy for arranging games like in the first one; an issue the game itself pokes fun at in a particularly cheeky quest.
The ease of multiplayer is probably one of the largest improvements made to Borderlands 2 in comparison to the first game. If I’m having difficulty beating a particular boss monster by myself, it’s nothing for me to just send a message over Steam to a friend of mine, asking him to briefly pop in to my game with a character of the appropriate level and give me a quick hand. A fair trade off—we split up the loot, and he vanishes to go off and do his own thing.
If you’re playing your character in someone else’s game and he’s actually farther along in the story than you are, the developers were kind enough to take those instances into consideration. When you go back to your own game and arrive at the quests you’ve already beaten with your friend, the game gives you the option of just skipping ahead of the content you’ve already done if you don’t feel like doing those missions over again.
These sorts of minor ‘quality of life’ features were missing from the first Borderlands and often created a situation where you wanted to play with your friends but they were simply too high a level or were far past the content you were involved with, creating dead-zones where it would take too long for you to catch up to them or for them to make new characters to catch up to you. Borderlands 2 lacks those dead-zones due to the aforementioned features and a much more generous distribution of experience points when there is a large disparity in levels of the characters.
Single- or multiplayer, even the missions themselves are much improved over the first game. The pacing, map design, and rewards of the missions in the original Borderlands were glaringly inconsistent and often led to large amounts of your quests being ‘greyed out’ or rendered trivial in their difficulty or rewards. In Borderlands 2, the flow of the game’s locations and quests is much more even and maintains the level of challenge and reward fairly consistently throughout the entire game. Certainly, you could opt to power-game your way into making your quests trivial by relentlessly grinding enemies, but following the game’s intended flow doesn’t really make that kind of hardened grind necessary.
It’s always nice to see a true sequel come along that does more than just offer a regurgitation of the first title. Borderlands 2 improves on its predecessor on every level, and does so with such breadth that I often found myself appreciating new features that I didn’t even realize were missing from the first game that I now find indispensable.
Borderlands 2 earns 5 out 5.
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