Game Review: Borderlands 2

Jonathan Szafran delivers his verdict on the hugely-hyped sequel to Gearbox’s hit sandbox shooter, out now for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox360.

Very few franchises making their debut this console generation have mustered the same magnitude of impact as Borderlands. From the get-go, Gearbox Software’s manic FPS take on Diablo’s loot-hoovering RPG addictiveness hit the ground running, selling millions of copies and garnering copious praise from critics.

So how could Gearbox top such a major success? In essence, by creating a sequel that is not only bigger in scale – but also probably one of the funniest games to hit store shelves in years. So, if you’re looking forward to returning to the planet of Pandora and kicking more Skag ass, then Borderlands 2 is most definitely for you.

All the way up to its release the trailers were raucously in-yer-face: screaming out details of bazillions more guns accompanied by the sweet sounds of dubstep. This was all preparation for what the final game delivers, and that is an ENORMOUS amount of loot. From crazy guns to chaotic ammo types, from colourful character skins to bombastic grenade mods: there is always something shiny and better right around the corner to discover. The excitement you will feel finding a niftier weapon just moments after picking up an already-tasty gun is incredibly intoxicating for any loot hound out there. In the midst of a firefight or intense boss battle, every new weapon you find becomes all that more rewarding in delivering that final blow to an enemy.

For most of Borderlands 2 you are going to be looking down a gun sight, and you better make sure you have the loadout you need because the enemies have not only have been given a major A.I boost, but are also incredibly hard to kill. Certain areas of the world of Pandora have large clusters of foes and you need to have the right guns for the mission before you run in guns blazing. For instance, rocket launchers are fun to use but ammo refills for them are scarce – and running out of bullets just as you’re surrounded by 20 bandits isn’t going to end well. Death comes frequently for those who do not plan effectively in Borderlands 2.

Much like the action-RPGs it takes its cues from, there are new ways to customize your character – including the ability to re-skin your avatar and give them a unique look. It is a little lacking in its options however, as there are only a small amount of combinations that can be made. Changing the color of your character’s clothes and adding tattoos to them does not offer any change to their overall stats, which is slightly disappointing.

When it comes to class customization though, Borderlands 2 offers a major step-up from its predecessor. Like the first game, each of the four classes of playable characters has one unique ability – but unlike the original there are a lot more options to play around with.

The Assassin is always going to cloak and surprise the enemy from behind, the Siren will stun an enemy using her Phase Lock skill, the Soldier will always drop his turret and the Gunzerker has his rage ability. But assigning skills is important in Borderlands 2 and you will need to do this not only in order to survive alone in Pandora – but especially with your friends in co-op.  Grouping together to survive waves of enemies is needed because the A.I is made more difficult when other join your struggle. So you may end up using a Soldier’s turret to take out the smaller, weaker enemies while an Assassin makes a strategic move from behind, for example. Make sure you are playing with friends you can rely on though, because loot is now shared and if they find some new amazing gun or upgrade before you do then you are out of luck. Playing with others shouldn’t be a race to see who can grab everything the quickest, and it is disappointing that there is not a better way to share the loot.

A more frustrating problem is that class-specific skills are not upgradable by themselves. For instance, the Assassin has the choice of spending skill points on taking out enemies from afar with sniping abilities, or up-close with melee damage upgrades, but for some reason you can only cloak for five damn seconds. While playing co-op you may notice a friend’s soldier dropping his turret, only see it being destroyed by enemy fire moments later. It is disappointing that you cannot upgrade your cloak or give the soldier’s turret better shielding. Also lacking is the variety in the skill-tree abilities, as they appear to be just an upgrade to the amount of ammo you can carry or the amount of melee damage you can deal out. In the first game when you finally upgraded your Siren class all the way you felt like a real badass, but in Borderlands 2 the Assassin class gets nowhere near that level of awesomeness.

Still, the new Badass Ranking system greatly expands on the character customization, with a host of in-game challenges that will track everything from headshots with specific weapons  to crushing enemies beneath the tires of your Catch-A-Ride vehicle. After you finish each challenge you will receive a token which you then can use to boost things like your reload speed, recoil reduction and weapon damage. Each bonus is relatively small at first, but after you complete the more-than-100 different challenges you will really see it start to payoff. The new ranking system is just another way to reward Borderlands 2 players, and it provides real incentive to play the game differently.

In terms of plot, Borderlands 2 takes things to a whole new level. Set sometime shortly after the first game ended, you play as one of four new Vault Hunters who have come to a Pandora looking for…well…Vaults. However, since the end of the last game the Hyperion Corporation has taken over the planet, led by evil yet charming villain Handsome Jack. Through a series of unfortunate events, you end up putting your search for vaults aside and embarking on a quest to stop Handsome Jack and save Pandora from destruction.

The story is more fleshed out than the original, and boasts endearing characters that feel decidedly real and will genuinely make you care about them. There are actually times where the narrative tugs at your heartstrings – which is amazing considering that the general tone of the game is so overwhelmingly silly. Everything you do along the way has its purpose, and this is something the first game never had.

However, though the main plot is excellent, it is the side quests that have the best writing – offering up some of the finest jokes ever seen in a game. If you played any of the original game’s excellent DLC then you will be excited to know that the same humor runs rampant throughout the whole 30+ hours of game time. The quests themselves may be the usual fetch or kill tasks, but the writing, presentation and voice acting really makes them shine. There’s even a side quest that has a Top Gun theme to it, where the quest-giver speaks to you using only quotes from the famous film, and where the things he asks of you are all related to the cheesy classic.

Moving from one quest to another is a more fluid experience too, and sorting them in the pause menu is made much easier – as is marking useless weapons and mods that you want to sell, which is a nice touch by the developers. The entire interface is more user-friendly and intuitive this time around. Sadly though, very little has been done to change the vehicle component of the series. These are very under-utilized and are rarely used for anything other than getting you from one destination to another. It would have been nice to see more missions that took advantage of them, but they do at least provide some downtime from the run-and-gun gameplay.

With 30+ hours of gameplay for each class of character, Borderlands 2 offers plenty of reasons for multiple playthroughs – and after you finish the campaign you also unlock Vault Hunter Mode. This is essentially a New Game+ in which you get to keep your level and all of your loot, but the enemies are much harder. More downloadable content is coming soon too, and if these add-ons are anything like what Gearbox produced before then players will no doubt be playing Borderlands 2 for a long time to come.

I didn’t come across too many bugs during my playthrough, and everything moves fluidly at 30 frames a second, but there were some ugly textures while I was being loaded from one area to another. Overall, the visuals in Borderlands 2 look slightly better than the first game, but it is the grander sense of scale that will blow you away. Everything is bigger in this game – and that is definitely seen in the environments. Towering mountains litter the landscape, and areas vary from snow to sand to corrosive swamps, offering a lot more variety than the original.

Enemy damage is still an amazing sight, and it’s a great feeling blowing up a flammable container and setting nearby foes on fire. Their screams and general dialogue is very tongue-in-cheek, and when Handsome Jack chimes in your ear from time-to-time everything he says is golden – likely making you laugh out loud.

Borderlands 2 takes what made the original great and improves on it in almost every way – especially with its narrative and humor. More class skills and visual customization would have been nice, as well as more variety in the vehicle missions, but you will laugh your ass off while shooting and looting your way though this fantastic game.

FMV Rating: ****


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