Borderlands 2 Review
I didn’t really like Borderlands. It was too empty, the majority of those gazillion guns seemed useless, the story felt nonexistent in some places, and the role-playing elements weren’t quite fleshed-out enough. But now there’s Borderlands 2 and it’s like developer Gearbox Software invaded my thoughts, made a checklist of all the upgrades and additions I wanted, and added all of ‘em to this sequel. Thanks a lot, guys. You just totally screwed me for the next month…I can’t stop playing.
I can’t be sure if we’re looking at a significant visual upgrade when compared to the original offering, and that’s because I don’t have the first title in my collection. But although I couldn’t directly compare and contrast, I know for a fact I like this new visual presentation better, and that’s primarily due to the variety. As I said above, Borderlands just felt too empty and too repetitive in terms of environment. Just…yawn. Seriously. But right out of the gate in the sequel, I’m in the snow and ice. And that’s hardly where it ends. Combine this newfound landscape diversity with a solid and super cool cel-shaded style, and you’ve got something special.
The sound category flourishes thanks to great – and awfully amusing – voice acting, a good soundtrack that could be more prevalent, and a set of effects that makes every encounter sizzle. The balance is excellent, too, as all three audio elements blend well together; one never dominates the other, which leads to a cohesive, engaging package. Claptrap got a tad annoying but other than that, the wide array of voice talent, fitting tracks, and hard-hitting effects make the game a joy to play. I thought the engine noises of the vehicles were a little weird but maybe that’s just me. Overall, the graphics and sound help to cement Borderlands 2 as a top-tier production.
For the record, this game is a direct sequel. You will assume the role of one of four Vault Hunters who have arrived on Pandora in search of treasure-laden vaults. But the Hyperion Corporation controls things now, and boss man Handsome Jack has no love for those Vault Hunters. It’ll be your job to take him down and save the planet and its oppressed peoples, which sounds like a pretty clichéd and even ho-hum storyline. To some extent, it is. But it’s well paced, well written, well acted, and even surprisingly dramatic in some spots. Not memorable but still entertaining.
However, all this being said, you really don’t need to have played the first title to appreciate the second. It’s a separate plot with different classes and characters, and a fresh, beautifully designed world that – while still just a touch bland for my liking – is much more lively and robust than the landscape in the original. In the first hour of play, you’ll have acquired multiple side quests and at least a dozen guns, faced a half-dozen different enemies, and met at least two or three significant characters. I don’t recall things starting as quickly in the first, do you?
Above all, though, there is one word. It’s a short word, a simple word, one that can be applied to a great many video games but somehow means much more here: Loot. Now, before I start to crow about the huge amount of awesome goodies to be found in this game, I will say perhaps my only significant complaint (outside of a minor vehicle issue) involves the fact that I seem to spend absurd amounts of time sifting through my acquired loot. …but then again, I almost always like doing it. That’s the key. It’s just so addictive, gathering in the stuff and checking it out.
The best part is that although the first game focused heavily on loot as well, the sequel throws more at you. There’s more depth, the skill trees are larger and seem to offer more in the way of unique, distinct skills. While the basic skill of each class (Deception for my character, the Assassin Zer0, dual-wield anything for the Gunzerker, etc.) remains the same, you have perfect freedom to experiment with your fighter’s growth. It’s also not hard to reassign your earned points, so you can figure out the very best setup that is tailor-made to your play style.
Then there’s the Badass Ranking system that gives you special tokens upon completing specific tasks. These tasks involve both combat and exploration, so this encourages you to experience the full scope of the game. You’ll definitely want to grab as many tokens as possible, as they serve to up your stats; you can increase reload time, the amount of damage you inflict, etc. So not only do you get to assign (and reassign) skill points to your skill trees (which, by the way, consist of three separate divisions), you can also spend your hard-earned tokens however you see fit. With the loot, it’s like a micromanager’s dream!
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the game is the aforesaid balancing and pacing mixed with an endless fun factor. Because the enemies aren’t comatose – they’ll dodge, find cover, and even flank – and because you’re constantly assessing your equipment and abilities, each encounter is interesting in numerous ways. I can’t recall playing a shooter that I paid such close attention to. And when I say that, I’m not saying the game is overly challenging, nor am I saying that the gameplay itself requires a lot of focus. What I mean is that I always want to learn more and gather more; I want to make my character better at every single step. You just feel so heavily invested in your advancement.
I suppose that it can get tedious sorting through all those guns and on the surface, the number of stats attached to those guns, along with your character’s myriad of skills, may seem daunting. But most avid gamers will grasp everything quickly enough. The game isn’t designed to be complicated; it’s designed to be deep, and that is a major distinction. The other flaw involves the vehicles, just because you don’t seem to use them enough and the physics don’t feel quite right. They offer a break from the constant shooting but…eh, they don’t really do much for me.
Last but definitely not least is the multiplayer. I confess that the biggest reason I prefer the sequel is because it made the single-player campaign feel worthwhile in every way. At the same time, there’s no doubt that playing with others is not only encouraged, it’s highly recommended. You can go splitscreen with a buddy sitting next to you, or you can play with up to three friends in online co-op, which provides you with one of the best multiplayer experiences of the generation. The only downside is the shared loot, which I say needs to be fixed, but I guess some people like it. They'd have to be a buncha communists, though. ;)
I doubt you’ll have more co-op fun with any other game available. I’m not a fan of multiplayer but this might be the one game I keep playing with friends. Yeah, there’s a level cap of 50 and the game sadly has to come to an end (but not until after 30-35 hours of play), but each of the four classes are just so intriguing and unique that you’ll want to try ‘em all. And what better way to experiment than with the aid of allies in the battlefield? Besides, you get to see what other classes look like; you can weigh the pros and cons just by observing, and I find that very helpful.
Borderlands 2 is basically everything I wanted the first game to be. The multiplayer is a huge draw, of course (some of the very best co-op ever), but now I feel fully invested in the campaign. There’s still not a ton to see all the time, the vehicles are underused, and the story, despite those little surprises, is pretty mundane. But the exploration, the almost flawless combat, the wide-ranging areas, the decent intelligence of your foes, the fantastic design and style, the depth in character growth and development; it’s all absolutely irresistible. This is some crazy bang for your buck and you won’t regret a second of it.
Game of the Year? I’d say yes, so far. Unless you think Journey still has a claim...and it just might.
The Good: Great design and style. Excellent and often hilarious voice performances. Large environments begging to be explored. Plenty of RPG-like depth. Control is crisp and combat is always fun. Loot-gathering never seems to get old. Distinct, diverse character classes. Multiplayer is totally addictive.
The Bad: Still a touch stark. Story is predictable. A missed opportunity with the vehicles.
The Ugly: “Why should I share my loot with you, you coward?!”
9/18/2012 Ben Dutka