I was not a fan of the first Borderlands. That fact will be highly evident in the following review, as I attempt to explain how Gearbox has one-upped themselves in just about every imaginable way.
For starters, Borderlands 2 is able to present a world that you actually care about. It’s not just a playground or a tech-demo for a role playing shooter — it’s a world worth visiting, re-visiting, and re-re-visiting until your head explodes.
I’ll cut to the chase here: with the introduction of Anthony Burch as Lead Writer, and more capital to go towards a number of technical advancements, Borderlands 2 is a vast improvement for many reasons. For starters, every character in the game has some sort of personality or uniqueness to them. Whereas in the first game, I couldn’t even remember the names of 90% of the supporting (or main) cast, I’m recalling even the most menial of characters in Borderlands 2 as I write this review.
In fact, without spoiling anything, a number of characters from the first game return, and they’re so different, it’s almost like their backstories were retconned (in a good way). Characters that had less personality than a wooden plank are now as personable as ever, making for a much more interesting story. This time around, you’re not just left in the dark at the beginning of the game, nebulously attempting to find a hidden cache of loot (that ends up being a giant part of the female anatomy, to the dismay of pretty much everyone).
The setup of Borderlands 2 is a bit like James Cameron’s Avatar, but a lot more tongue-in-cheek. As a result of the first game, a precious metal called Eridium is now scattered about the planet, ready to be harvested and sold. Handsome Jack, sworn enemy of vault hunters everywhere, has saught out Pandora, decides to capitalize on the situation, and open another mysterious vault while he’s at it.
Speaking of Jack, he’s easily one of the best characters to grace a video game in some time. He’s kind of like a mix of Patrick Warburton and the most psychotic deranged killer you can think of — which is basically my perfect video game villain. He’s funny, he’s charming, and he’s interesting to listen to at all times. He’ll constantly taunt you over your communication device as you fall deeper into the pit of despair that he so cleverly crafted for you. Claptrap is also back, and he’s funnier than ever: he even steals the show quite a few times and is heavily featured in the first few hours of the game.
Speaking of the narrative, while it’s not the most poignant or life-changing of stories, it fits the universe and tone of the game perfectly: so much so that it blows the first game out of the water. I get what they were trying to do for the first game — Gearbox wanted to create a unique western-grindhouse sandbox IP — unfortunately, it was not memorable. Borderlands 2 changes all that — I actually care about Pandora and its characters now. I want to see if anyone makes a return in the upcoming DLC packs, or a potential Borderlands 3.
A lack of diverse settings and enemy models was one of my chief complaints with the first game. For hours on end, you’d fight skag after skag in trash-heap after trash-heap, only to occasionally find a cave with bugs in it, and fight (wait for it) more skags in a trash-heap with a moat in the middle. To be blunt, it was terribly boring. Borderlands 2 seeks to mix things up a bit, thankfully, with a solid mix of ice worlds, open plains, futuristic cities and more. Going back to my earlier point, it gives Pandora so much more personality, knowing that it’s more than just one giant dust ball. In fact, if you look at all the screenshots located in this review, every one of them takes place in a different type of locale.
The enemies are much more diversified as well. Instead of just bandits and midgets, you’re going to have a lot more nuances when it comes to the type of bandits. There are clans, factions, and many more sub-types of enemies this time around. Bestial enemies are also more prevalant than the first game: and I’m not talking about just skags, bats, and bugs. As you can see, there are a ton of enemies unique to Pandora that are worth seeking out and blowing up.
In regards to the beasts and creatures specifically, there’s even a series of sidequests dedicated to naming and discovering some of them. This is the type of stuff I want in my RPGs: lore that actually makes me want to do the sidequests just for fun, rather than a meaningless boost of XP or loot (you get that too, though!). I wish I could talk more about the sidequests, but I’ll just namedrop two to avoid spoiling them for you: in two of the bigger quests, there’s clear references to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Top Gun.
Gameplay wise, Borderlands 2 is very much like the original, but much more polished. Instead being forced to pick from a lot of four fairly uninteresting charaters, you’re able to choose from Axton, Salvador, Zer0, and Maya. They all kind of mirror the four classes of the original (support, tank, sniper/assasin, and magic), but their abilities are more nuanced this time around, and you can choose from a number of customization options from the start (not just different color clothing) to make them your own.
Characters still unfortunately only have one real skill (a support turret, gunzerking, shadow-stepping, and psychic powers), but you can customize this skill with one of three trees, just like the first game. Although the trees have been expanded upon a bit (a few drastically alter your ability into something else entirely), you’re not really going to be able to move outside of the comfort zone of your class. In essence, you’re still going to be doing things similar to your character’s predispositions.
Thankfully, there are a few nifty mechanics that make character building more fun, regardless of your skill-choice. Eridium can be collected randomly through quests, drops, and enemies to increase your backpack, bank, or ammo count for all of your weapons. This obvious introduction of Eridium makes you want to actually check every nook and cranny — not just for meaningless loot — but for a game-changing piece of currency. Another mechanic titled “Badass Challenges” are probably my personal favorite.
Throughout your travels, you’ll earn challenges for doing just about everything (killing [x] amount of an enemy type, collecting a certain amount of loot, and so on), which you can apply towards extra “Badass Rank” that will net you extra stats. These stats are applied to every character on your account, giving your main a slight edge, or your new characters a head start. Thankfully, purists have the ability to turn these powers off if they want a fresh run.
Vehicles are back, and they’re just as unfun as ever. They control almost exactly like the first game, except there is at least one new vehicle type this time around that can accomodate four players, kind of like the Lancers from General Knoxx, and unlike the two player Runner-only option from the base first game. Thankfully, most in-game sections take place on foot, and don’t require a vehicle to get around (especially since you can fast-travel from specific hub locations).
Overall, I found myself stopping to smell the roses on a number of ocassions, attempting to raise my Badass Rank just for fun. Even in the more run-of-the-mill areas or quests you might encounter during the game, these challenges help keep things interesting. The addition of a large, actually worthwhile hub-town called Sanctuary will no doubt be enticing to visit as well, given that it’s not just a generic desert heap with two buildings. There’s plenty of questing to do in Sanctuary, and shopping/refueling is super easy to do — it’s not too big, and it’s not too small — Gearbox was just right this time around.
To ease this lack of broad customization, Gearbox lets you play quite a bit with your characters — there’s a lot of content here. The main game is going to last you around thirty to fourty hours (or more, if you seek out everything), and there’s a New Game+/Raid encounter after everything is said and done.
You’re free to recreate a character of the same class, or the other three remaining classes as well, before the fifth class (The Mechromancer) hits next month, and the four planned DLC packs hit (for $10 each, or $30 in a Season Pass) by June 2013. Make no mistake — if you want tons of content, whether it’s in the base package or future DLC, you’re going to get it – and since the sidequests are more interesting this time around, you’re probably going to want to actually play most of it.
Borderlands 2 fixes nearly all of the problems I had with the first game, and then some. If you’re looking for something that trascends a first person shooter lootfest, you may want to look elsewhere, as it is still very much a by-the-numbers affair. So long as you know what you’re getting into however, you’re going to have a blast with Borderlands 2.
This review is based on a physical copy of Borderlands 2 for the Xbox 360.