It’s been three years since we last visited the planet of Pandora. In that time, a lot has changed, though a lot is still the same. The environments may have taken a dramatic shift but your interactions with the landscape haven’t. Borderlands 2 offers the player with more Borderlands, and that’s where its appeal lies. If Borderlands isn’t your thing, then you might not want to check this one out, but those with a taste for shoot-and-loot action will be treated to a solid shooter that sticks close to the original's blueprint while improving on the formula in some interesting ways. Borderlands 2 may lack the novelty of the original game, but that doesn't stop it from being incredibly fun.
The classes are similar to last time, but with some key differences.
The gameplay set up in Borderlands 2 remains the same as before. You choose one of four classes – some being variations on the previous four, like the Berserker turned Gunzerker – then shoot your way through Pandora’s landscape, completing quests and looting a lot of guns. These elements may all be carried over from the first game but Gearbox better refines them here than in the original due to some smart changes, the most obvious being the scenery. Borderlands 1 was an attractive game, surprisingly so for a game set in a wasteland, and this boiled down to the cel-shaded look that added a cartoon flair and a mature personality. The art style has returned, and it’s come back with a whole lot of environmental variety. The dusty wasteland is still there, yet there’s a lot more. The game starts out in a snowy arctic landscape but takes you through grassy, futuristic, and acidic wastelands. There’s a lot to see, and it all looks lovely. Everything looks a lot sharper without the film grain, and you can tell Borderlands 2 was designed with this appearance in mind (unlike the original which received an eleventh-hour graphics change to cel-shading from its realistic, generic visuals). Also if you have a PC that can handle it, the game can look rather amazing on its highest specs.
The now-beautiful wasteland of Pandora is still covered with instruments of death, though, especially guns. The millions of randomly generated firearms remained the selling point of the original, and this time developer Gearbox is offering more. Of course more isn't always better, and it is not the increased amount that makes the armaments in Borderlands 2 so appealing. The first Borderlands may have provided a cornucopia of guns with many differing stats that made for addictive looting, but they all looked the same due to a much smaller number of weapon parts combined in multiple, but very similar, ways. You may have had five machine guns in your inventory all with unique stats and abilities, but they might have used the same scope, barrel, and stock, and a separate coat of paint. Admittedly, there are still a bevy of repeated gun models in Borderlands 2, but only when it makes sense. The same type of weapon built by the same manufacturer will seem nearly identical, but the increased number of element types and weapon components remove the excessive similarities. The fantastic gun design ensures each firearm looks sculpted rather than procedurally generated too, and you will see some amazing arrangements the likes of which you never saw in the original.
Pandora is a weird place...
In fact, the gun system in general is more improved. Manufacturers are now more important, incorporating their own distinct look and feel. For example, Tediore now produce disposable weaponry. This only sounds counter-intuitive. Instead of simply reloading a Tediore gun, you throw the firearm where your aiming. While waiting for it to explode like a grenade, a new copy of the same gun materializes in your hands. Of course you can only use the detonation feature as long as you have enough ammunition, but the brilliantly simple idea of disposable weaponry adds a tactical element to reloading not seen since Gears of War. These differing brands provide a greater range to the Borderlands arsenal and make for a quick and easy way to check if the gun is right for you. This coupled with the much improved gun models means that the looting is more addictive than ever. It’s not just stat hunting anymore; you can make real preferences now that there are more variables for you to consider. It may even get to the point where you hold onto a pretty rubbish gun just because it looks so cool.
The original Borderlands certainly had its share of charm and personality, but Borderlands 2 is miles ahead in its quality of writing. Borderlands 1 had some memorable characters that could be quite funny; Borderlands 2 contains a whole cast of maniacal NPCs that are completely hilarious. The writing is truly top notch and makes spending multiple hours in Pandora even more tempting. On rare occasions where the gameplay gets repetitive or boring, the jokes are there to keep you involved and keep you playing. Characters from the first game return, such as Zed, Scooter, Moxxi, and Marcus, but there are plenty of newcomers that will keep you laughing throughout. One of the most prominent figures is Handsome Jack, the main antagonist. Due in a large way to the events of the previous game, Pandora is now run by the Hyperion Corporation, and Hyperion is run by Handsome Jack. Jack is a very rich, and very evil, ruler who is trying to unlock another vault and generally ruin life for everybody on Pandora. It is your job as a new vault hunter to stop him and save the planet. It’s pretty generic stuff, but the witty writing and characters make it work. Handsome Jack acts like a GLaDOS figure, often talking to, taunting, and provoking the player via a communication device. He remains a pretty one-note character, but his one note is consistently funny. Jack’s continued presence, along with many equally juvenile characters, ensure for one undoubtedly hilarious adventure.
Wearing another face on your face guarantees handsomeness!
The improvements in writing benefit the game's quest design too. The actual objectives are usually standard RPG fare, but the reasons you have for doing them make them highly entertaining. Not every quest is a winner, however; the game contains its fair share of dull missions, but the well-thought-out quest lines provide moments more memorable than anything in the first game. Enhancements like this make solo play in Borderlands 2 more appealing and more inherently fun. On the contrary, it is very clear that Borderlands 2 was designed with cooperative play in mind, and this focus can impact the single-player experience. The game itself isn't very hard (due to the ability to easily out-level quests); it can just be a bit of a drag by yourself, with sections overstaying their welcome and certain encounters feeling a bit unfair. Of course this is combated by the ability to play up to four player co-op at any point, and though finding friends isn't always possible, you can always open up your game for strangers to drop in. It’s not as fun as looting and shooting with a buddy, but it’s usually better than playing alone.
Not everything is improved in Borderlands 2, though. For example, the driving still sucks (especially if you are using a mouse and keyboard). The vehicle physics are still a bit suspect and the handling is not as responsive as it needs to be. Luckily for you, the driving problems seem to affect everybody in Pandora. Bandit cars drive as erratically as you do, and even the flying bandit vehicles (which you sadly can’t pilot) behave in very odd ways. It is important to mention that the AI is improved over the previous game, but it’s still not amazing. Enemies try to avoid running towards you in straight lines, and some new, creative enemy types do make the game more varied than before. Yet some issues haven’t been fixed; the texture pop-in that plagued the first game is still in effect. While not quite as prevalent, it still crops up every now and then. On top of this, Borderlands 2 has more than its fair share of technical bugs. Multiple quests glitched on me to the extent that the game sent me to entirely wrong areas and refused to open doors. It was a rare occurrence but a definite annoyance.
The Wastelands have never looked so good.
Objectively, Borderlands 2 is a better game than Borderlands 1; it improves in a lot of key areas and provides an all-around better experience that could keep you and your fellow vault hunters occupied for quite some time. However, at its heart, Borderlands 2 is just more Borderlands. As a safe sequel, it’s not as novel as the original, and the adherence to an established formula means it’s not quite as special as it could be. Lucky for Gearbox, the formula still works. But as refined as Borderlands 2 is, some real change is needed if we are going to see a Borderlands 3. If you didn't enjoy the first, there’s a very strong chance you won’t like the second. But if you adored the original, you will appreciate the sequel.
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: September 18, 2012
Number of Players: 1-4 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation 3