Review: Borderlands 2
When we first requested Borderlands 2 for review, the response we got was that it’d be best for us to get two to four copies of the game to really understand what Gearbox Software was aiming for. After playing through the game, it makes sense. The original Borderlands offered better loot as a benefit of playing in a group, but a properly played Lilith laid waste to everything in a way that made grouping seem unnecessary in a tactical context.
Gearbox Software manages to take the good from the first game, while making necessary adjustments to drive in the fact that what we have with Borderlands 2 is a fulfilling co-op experience. Sure, you can play through the game solo and still appreciate the amazing writing and gameplay, but what you miss out on is the carefully crafted system that creates a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts. This game rewards you for intelligent, team-oriented thinking. If you think you’re going to be able to jump into a co-op game and run off by yourself in a new area, expect to get got. A lot.
The writing in Borderlands has always managed to toe the line between insanity and self-awareness in an entertaining fashion, and the sequel is no different. Aside from featuring an incredible sense of humor, the narrative, sidequests, and gameplay all touch upon the fact that the original game’s Siren, Lilith, was extremely overpowered. If you fell in love with playing Lilith in the first game, Borderlands 2 is aimed directly at bringing you back to Eart–er, Pandora. Each character features three trees that are modest in comparison to the original siren, but are still more than enough to get the job done.
Salvador, the Gunzerker, features the heaviest raw DPS in the game, but lacks team support that doesn’t come in the form of killing enemies. In my first playthrough as Salvador, I used a mix of his Gun Lust and Brawn trees. A blue Hulking Titan mod granted me +3 levels in the aptly titled “Hard to Kill” skill and a +2 in “I’m the Juggernaut!” (can you believe that the Juggernaut reference is seven years old?), while fleshing out the Gun Lust tree gave me access to the Auto-Loader skill.
It’s very interesting to see how people‘s play styles and personalities are reflected in the classes and specialization they choose in a game such as Borderlands, or any game with rich character diversity, for that matter. When playing a multiplayer game, I always go for the highest self-controlled DPS, so Salvador’s Auto-Loader skill screamed “strongest ability in the game” to me.
With Auto-Loader in effect, any time the Gunzerker kills an enemy, all guns except for the one he currently has out are automatically reloaded. Reload speed has been slowed down noticeably compared to the first game, so being able to forgo the entire process and instead use the much quicker weapon swap function increases Salvador’s damage significantly. The ability also grants a fire rate and critical hit bonus if you utilize the “Locked and Loaded” and “Quick Draw” abilities, respectively.
Where Salvador shines in damage, the new siren, Maya, gloriously luminates in utility. Each tree in Borderlands 2 seems to have a situational or contextual advantage over the others, so players that are used to the Siren’s elemental damage will want to get the “Flicker” ability to 5 and explore the other trees until they’ve leveled up a bit more. I say this because Maya’s “Harmony” skill tree is overwhelmingly useful at mid-levels.
Featuring abilities that make your entire team’s health regeneration jump considerably, the Harmony skill tree provides you and your friends a survivability that is unmatched. With a collective 8 levels in Salvador’s “Hard to Kill”skill, supported by Maya’s “Restoration” and “Elated” skills, I rarely ran into an enemy that had the ability to dent my health bar unless my team mate and I deliberately picked on enemies well above our level. In the case I did manage to bite off more than I could chew, Maya’s “Res” skill would pick me up from halfway across the map.
Speaking of overpowered enemies, the quest progression in Borderlands 2 heavily takes sidequests into account. About an hour into the game, you’ll realize that the extra 1-4 levels that sidequests provide you are the difference between the next storyline mission being slightly challenging and a goddamn nightmare. In a sense, the sidequests almost feel mandatory unless you want to spend a third of your time in fight for your life mode. It’s very likely that the reason my team went with tank builds is that we abandoned completing sidequests in the interest of getting the review done on time.
Our decision to deviate from a 100% completion likely couldn’t have happened at a worse juncture. The advertising of Borderlands 2 flat-out states that the game’s antagonist, Handsome Jack, is engaging in an all-out war against the vault hunters of Pandora, and the kid gloves came off in the storyline quest right at the midpoint of the game. Enemies became significantly smarter, stronger, and more mobile. The waves of enemies, their strength, and their level progression caused us to have to backtrack and level a little to continue with the main campaign.
Easily one of the best villains I have experienced in a video game, Handsome Jack is bent on nothing less than complete global saturation at the hands of his Hyperion Group. He is unapologetically arrogant, often contacting you directly to either threaten you, belittle you, or remind you of just how ridiculously rich he really is. If he had his way, Jack would have you believe that he is a walking personification of every old spice commercial in recent memory.
The first game featured an interesting story for sure, but Borderlands 2 is dead set on making the first’s story look like a third-grade writing competition submission. I will not spoil the main storyline, but the effort that went into BL2’s narrative fully fleshes out the game as a fulfilling experience.
Luckily, what the game gains in narrative presentation does not cause it to lose its personality. Borderlands 2 features many more references that made the first game so entertaining. Whether it’s luring a “splinter group” of four ninjas out of the sewers with Moxxi’s pizza, or hearing Claptrap utter the phrase “Sparkling Wigglers”, Borderlands 2 continues the original’s trend of kicking you right where you enjoy it most. Memes and media references will fire at you faster than Salvador holding two assault rifles. One psycho even made a point to clarify that he is the one who knocks.
This game is a constant barrage of fun, wrapped in a thoughtful shooter that will test your twitch skills as well as your team-oriented thinking. There are very few games that inherently cause you to contemplate the implication of every stat point while still featuring deeply engaging, active gameplay. Borderlands 2 does not disappoint, it’s very easy to see why friends of mine who had never took an interest in shooters managed to get hooked by Gearbox’s flagship series.
Borderlands 2 manages to improve upon pretty much everything from the first, that much is true. The problem is that when you’ve created a game with so much polish, the unnecessary changes or the detrimental ones scream out at you almost immediately.
The game has added a lengthy respawn animation that you are not invulnerable during. Near the end of the game, sporadic checkpoint placement and waves of badass enemies caused my friend and I to respawn in “fight for your life” mode at least once each. I’m glad that we decided to err on the side of health regeneration and support, or we would have been caught in a death loop that would have caused me to put my controller through the TV. To grind in how infuriating the situation can be, the New-U station managed to spout something about spawncampers right as we were met with a barrage of bullets and missiles.
The later areas of the game have checkpoints at questionable places. I get that Gearbox probably didn’t want people to facetank their way through the end of the game, but also doesn’t help when you don’t have a way to get out of bullet hell. I’d suggest having one player in your game specifically play harmony Maya at the end of the game to just circumvent this scenario. Looking back on it, we lucked out severely just due to random circumstance.
Borderlands 2 has gotten rid of the compass that used to sit above your health bar, meaning that you have to keep your eye on a mini-map on the top right to keep track of quest objectives and waypoints. The mini-map is helpful for sure, but I don’t really know why the compass had to go in exchange for it. This may also seem like a really specific gripe, but playing with vertical orientation on the Xbox causes notifications to obscure the first player’s mini-map. Both of these have caused me run into the business end of a badass’s shotgun on more than one occasion.
Vertical orientation has one more problem worth noting, the inability to scroll when opening the menu. Horizontal orientation lets you scroll up and down to see various parts of menus, but vertical just causes the menus to tilt in a way that still obscures the stats that you want to see on various pieces of equipment.
Lastly, there’s a problem with texture loading that happens at random points. Sometimes the game can’t seem to catch up with itself, resulting in random NPCs and cutscenes to not fully render for a good 5-10 seconds. This is the least egregious of the game’s flaws though.
I touched upon Handsome Jack’s characterization earlier, but it is worth noting just how much BL2 commits to making their characters stand out. Claptrap was humorous in the first game for sure, but your robotic companion has stepped it up considerably. The little guy has gone from entertaining to outright hilarious, contending with GLaDOS for the most entertaining character to come out of a first person shooter.
Ellie is pretty damn awesome as well. Scooter’s sister is out there grindin’ on her own, making a name for herself by turning Bandits into scrap. Tannis is crazier than ever, going so far as to insult bacon. There are some things you can’t take back, lady. For a game full of references, BL2 still manages to pack in a bazillion unique and memorable moments all its own.
One thing worth noting is that Handsome Jack works better as an indulgent villain rather than a bitter one. I mean sure, he wants every bandit on Pandora dead and fried to a crisp, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t have fun doing it. There’s an understandable turn that his character takes, but it’s one that costs us the best personality in the game in the third act.
Borderlands 2 is easily the most replay value you’re going to get out of a game that isn’t an MMO. Part of me wonders if Gearbox is going to pull the trigger on the next one and hook the online experience directly to our veins. The co-op is better than ever, the writing is glorious, and it’s all backed by a soundtrack that encapsulates just what an epic adventure you’re partaking in (even the 96.5% more wub wub felt appropriate). The respawn issue does need to be fixed immediately, and it would be nice to get my compass back, but those are minimal issues when you take into account just how amazing the game is overall. The site only lets me give games scores based on a .5 scale, but Borderlands 2 really deserves a 9.675~. I really did joy puke my face off. Thanks for the warning, Gearbox.