Borderlands 2 has been out for a month, and a plethora of information has been sussed out regarding the game. We have been made privy to easter eggs, ugly glitches, character corruptions, secret bosses, as well as EXP and Badass Rank exploits. The fan base has explored ways to one-shot bosses and run through entire arena rounds with one gunzerk. Indeed, the community has made a point to figure out as much of the game as possible.
Yet, judging by character popularity, a large portion of fans have seemingly ignored something that has been staring them right in the face since the very beginning: Zer0, as the title suggests, got severely short-changed in BL2. I don’t find his popularity in the face of lackluster numbers surprising, as Roland seemed to be the most popular character in the original Borderlands at first. A large majority of players ignored the discowalking maelstrom known as Lilith for months until there was no one left to play. Only then did the general community come to the collective conclusion that the original Siren was overpowered. In fact, she was so much stronger than everyone else, it could only be addressed by being made a main plot point in Borderlands 2.
“Your name is Zer0? Hope you don’t fight like one…”
I had a chance to speak briefly with Gearbox CCO and co-founder Brian Martel about BL2. (By “speak”, I obviously mean that I spent most of the time gushing over the game.) After a few minutes of conversation, he posed the question that each player has probably asked him- or herself: “Which character do you think is the best?”
Admittedly, I was intimidated by the question. Where do I, a lowly game design student, get off sharing my opinion with one of Gearbox’s founders about their own game? Nonetheless, I answered that the question was too simple. “Which character is best can be debated based on playstyle and the situation presented. The one thing that’s clear is that no matter who the best character is, Zer0 is easily the worst.” Borderlands 2 made a point to make everyone much less of an all-in-wonder compared to how Lilith played in the first game, so it stands to reason that each character has his or her own well-defined strengths and weaknesses compared to each other.
With a combination of the Gun Lust and Rampage skill trees, Salvador does the most damage of the new cast, bar none. With five points placed into Hard to Kill, and the five level bonus from the Legendary Berzerker mod, he absorbs so much damage while gunzerking that he can quite literally tank bullets with his face while mowing down enemies. This is the class that can legitimately one-shot Terramorphous with a Tediore reload. If you’re looking for incredible damage per second, while having the best tanking ability in the game, there’s nothing better than a Gunzerker.
Next up, Maya is easily the most useful character of the cast. While she doesn’t boast as much damage as Salvador, she brings her own strengths to the table through enemy disruption, potent elemental damage, and strong party-based healing passives. Thoughtlock and Scorn pale in comparison to Ruin, however the Harmony tree provides strong party support and the Motion tree only serves to strengthen Phaselock’s utility through the use of Converge and Sub-sequence. While Salvador may never be outgunned, Maya is the Pandoran equivalent of Batman; she has tools for every situation and party configuration, so long as she has time to prepare.
Lastly, Axton’s is the poster boy for self-sufficiency in Borderlands 2. Considering how weak Roland was in the first game, it’s no wonder that Gearbox made Axton a veritable Rambo in the sequel. His skills and numbers add up in a way that is unrealistic even by Pandoran standards. Here is just a brief list of the things Axton is capable of doing within the 45 skill points he obtains.
Cut the fire rate and gun damage figures by 3% each and you can have all of those stats at once. All the while keeping the Longbow skill for ranged turret deployment, while retaining the Nuke ability for massive AOE damage every time you deploy your turret. Lastly, you increase your turret duration by 10 seconds, and it shoots 22 rockets per volley after initial deployment.
And that’s only one of the paths you could take with him. If pure destruction isn’t your thing, you can work with your turret to produce far more utilitarian results. Going down the Guerilla tree will grant your turrets slag bullets, at the very least doubling all damage enemies will take after being shot. The Survival tree will grant your turrets (and yourself) much needed durability with the Phalanx Shield. There isn’t a single situation that cannot be solved between you and your turret. The argument could be made the commando may seem amazing on paper, but it may be different in execution. It’s not; Axton’s skills play out exactly as you’d expect from their descriptions. He’s the only character in the game that I can see legitimate arguments for capping out every tree.
Which brings us to Zer0, the runt of the vault hunters. In a way, I don’t blame Gearbox for Zer0’s bland execution in Borderlands 2. He’s what happens when you take away the damage and functionality of Mordecai, and instead give a character a pale imitation of Phasewalk. Before I attempt to dissect the character for his weaknesses, I want to give Zer0 a fair shake and point out his strengths. He provides very efficient damage when in a party, that much cannot be denied. Zer0 shines against a single target, which is pretty damn nifty against bosses and raid encounters. It’s especially evident in the case of the BNK-3R fight; the Bore skill will tear your mechanical target apart in two shots if positioned properly. With the use of the Cunning skill tree, he serves to enhance his party’s damage while providing some useful killshots with a side of his Sniping tree.
“But Paul, what about his melee tree?”
No, just no. The second you engage in playthrough 2, Zer0’s Bloodshed tree becomes severely hindered due to the fact that most fleshy enemies are shielded, while the Hyperion loaders can take two or three critical hits to dismantle. Roid damage shields do help, and the Hide of Terramorphous produces a lot of close range damage, but then you’re only functional when your shield is down. Considering his most potent regeneration skill, Grim, works to regenerate shields as opposed to life, you’re left with a squishy character that is only at his greatest potential when he’s most vulnerable.
Here’s the overall problem with Zer0: He clearly doesn’t do the most damage, he isn’t the most useful, and he’s not the most self-sufficient. Compared to Salvador, Zer0’s damage doesn’t come close. He can’t even compete with Axton on the damage front, and that’s with the use of the damage bonus that comes from using Decepti0n. Sticking with the comparison to Axton, Zer0’s not self-sufficient in any way that doesn’t constitute using a sniper rifle. To call him squishy would be an understatement; the guy’s paper-thin. The best he can muster is 30% health regeneration while Decepti0n is active, assuming he keeps it up for the entire duration.
Despite the Cunning tree being Zer0’s best tree overall, Death Bl0ss0m provides little benefit that the Siren ability, Ruin, doesn’t manage to provide. It should be noted that Death Mark/Death Bl0ss0m’s damage does stack on top of slag, but using a Zer0 for Death Bl0ss0m is giving up higher damage or utility just for the debuff. To make matters worse, Ruin combined with Helios is capable of killing a large cluster of enemies, which you are more than likely to have created if you combine the Cataclysm tree with the Converge skill to pull all surrounding enemies toward your Phaselock target. Add the fact that Phaselock actively takes an enemy out of play for at the very least five seconds (as well as disrupting the attacks of any enemy pulled in by Converge) and it’s easy to see how Decepti0n doesn’t stack up in the slightest.
“Critical killing / is just painting by numbers / and I cannot count…”
Unfortunately, there’s more. Another problem with Zer0 lies in the simple fact that he is the only character that is capable of prematurely ending his active skill to absolutely no unique benefit. Sure, you gain the damage bonus to your next attack, but how is that any different than Salvador’s damage increase when he gunzerks, or the slag application that Maya gains with ruin, or giving Axton’s turrets slag bullets? Zer0 could get a pass if he were second best in a lot of categories, but he’s dead last in all but one.
Salvador can’t end his gunzerk, but he at least gains Ammo and health while it is activated. Ending Maya’s Phaselock by killing the suspended enemy can heal the party or trigger Sub-Sequence, causing the Phaselock to travel to another enemy, triggering Helios and Converge all over again. Axton can reclaim his turret to reduce the cooldown on his next deployment. Zer0 a single shot’s worth of damage and possibly some shock damage when he ends Decepti0n.
What does Zer0 provide that is inherently unique and far more beneficial than the other characters? If you say “enemy distraction and melee damage”, that was made moot when the Mechromancer was released. Gaige is a better Zer0 than Zer0 is. Death Trap provides melee and ranged damage without putting Gaige in danger, is capable of restoring shields, can have a shield of his own, and is far faster and more mobile than Zer0.
With the use of the Little Big Trouble tree, she even gains much more out of shock damage than Zer0 does, as well as applying slag to enemies by merely shooting at them with Interspersed Outburst. She can grant any elemental bonus she wants to Death Trap, whereas Zer0 can only apply elemental damage with his active skill through the use of Death Bl0ss0m (and which element gets applied is random). The few things Zer0 provided over the other cast members were all negated by the addition of the “greatest engineer alive”.
Have I mentioned that his Slayer of Terramorphous class mod grants him +4 skill points to a Gunzerker skill?
There is some hope in the future, with the addition of skill points via an increase of the level cap, but you have to consider just how much better everyone else is going to get with those very same points. Zer0 just needs to be looked over. Maybe allow his Decepti0n to stay up if only critical hits are landed, granting up to one second in duration per critical hit landed. The cunning tree could grant Zer0’s decoy a set of slag bursts upon deployment rather than a single shock damage burst when it drops. Maybe allow Zer0 to apply elemental damage to his melee attack. Give Death Bl0ss0m a chance to daze enemies for a second or two. Definitely increase Grim’s cooldown reduction to 15%. I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here.
As it stands, it’s highly unlikely that Zer0 will see any notable individual benefits in Borderlands 2, which is a shame considering how much I like him as a character otherwise. It’s possible that we’ll find something new for the beloved assassin in the Pirate’s Booty DLC pack that just launched this week. This all feels so reminiscent of the days when I argued how bad Dragoon was in FFXI (circa 2004-2008). If anyone from Gearbox is reading, I know you guys do wonders with player feedback. Consider this my hope that we see the new and improved “0ne” in Borderlands 3.