A few of years ago, the very thought of releasing a cel-shaded, first-person shooter with a RPG-leveling and looting gameplay mechanic would have caused laughter to erupt from the gaming community. Gearbox Software and 2K Games not only changed the genre with the release of the original Borderlands but proved that an original, multiplayer-driven hybrid title could survive in an industry that is afraid to gamble on new IPs.
The first thing you will notice with Borderlands 2 is that you have an actual purpose for all the looting and grinding you will be doing. While there were antagonists in the original, they weren’t memorable enough to make you keep hunting the Vault besides fortune and fame. The story focuses around an evildoer named Handsome Jack who has profited from the production of Eridium since the opening of the Vault and has taken all the credit from the original Vault Hunters. With more than future wealth on his mind, the cast of the first game band together to help the new Vault Hunters stop him and free Pandora from his tyranny. The cast of characters you have at your disposal are just as interesting as the original cast – Salvadore the Gunzerker (a dual-wielding little person), Maya the Siren (an elemental mage), Axton the Commando (who can deploy turrets and heal) and a sneaky assassin called Zer0.
One of the best features in the original was the ability to customize your character and in the present version a power-up system that is aimed to please. Each character has three distinct skill trees with multiple paths you can explore, as well as special abilities they can use occasionally to clear the area of enemies. The initial branches of each skill tree only offer marginal improvements like reload speed or damage so it will take about several hours before you start to see any real growth in your character. Character customization also allows players to alter their appearance with different skins and heads.
The cel-shaded, stylized graphics from the original are back but the amount of detail in each level is astounding. The terrain you will travel across is a lot more varied this time around. The visuals are backed by some terrific voice work and humorous dialogue. From the fan favorite, wise-cracking Claptrap to the hilarious taunts from Handsome Jack, you’re bound to chuckle more than once. The Southern rock tunes and battle themes you will hear during the midst of battle will keep your blood flowing and your feet tapping. The main stars of the series – the guns – have also received a much needed graphical makeover. We now have guns that contain sharper and colorful textures as well as a slew of new functions.
Unlike the original, Borderlands 2 offers an ample amount of main story and side objectives that display a nice amount of variation. Alongside the generic fetch and escort missions we’ve come to expect, players can tackle a slew side missions like solving a murder, clearing a camp of bandits, robbing a train, and assisting Claptrap in planning for his birthday party. Side missions like this display a sense of humor we’ve grown accustom to over the years. Missions now also have optional objectives for additional rewards and sometimes allow you to choose between different rewards given by different NPCs. The combat has also been tweaked to include the ability to crawl to cover while firing at enemies in order to earn a second chance if you’ve performed a successful kill.
Combat has a new Badass Rank, which awards players with an incremental bonus for accomplishing various challenges like killing a certain amount of a specific species or dealing damages using a particular elemental. The ranks and changes carry over to all your characters, so you won’t necessarily feel compelled to do everything possible on your first playthrough. These bonuses come in handy during combat, especially against the smarter enemy AI. This time around the enemy types are more varied and pose a bigger threat this time around. Enemies know their own weakness and will utilize the strengths of their allies to get to you. Smaller enemies will use larger, shielded enemies as cover to get to you while others will retreat in order to regain some shield health before they flank and attack you.
While all those additions are nice, there are some underlying problems. Enemies re-spawn somewhat capriciously and way too quickly. Multiple times I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t take down the boss, and every death re-spawned an entire mob of bandits around me. This lead to more death and more loss of loot. The fact that your own re-spawns take a continually-larger percentage of your overall loot and causes your hard-earned cash to quickly diminish.
At times the difficulty can be rather punishing, but that is why taking on the inhabits of Pandora with three friends becomes so important. As the original the real fun begins when all the characters are on screen at one time and you get to combine all their abilities to take out the toughest enemy. Some of the boss characters you face are so epic and difficult that you won’t stand a chance on your own. The online co-op is just as hectic as you attempt to train yourself into becoming the best Vault Hunter while learning how to become a team player as you kill off enemies while collecting scattered loot. Of course, any jealous co-op buddy who feels you are being a little bit of a “loot hog” can melee you and initiate a duel similar to the original but with a few new options. If you feel that you are better equipped and skilled you can wager a bet and initiate a trade, ante up and select “Duel” instead of “Trade.” The winner gets everything the players put on the table – the loser gets a digital wedgie (sadly, that is a lie.)
Although it is still best enjoyed with a group of friends, Borderlands 2 is everything you would expect from a sequel – packed with more missions, fun co-op, better enemies and enough weapons to keep you grinding for days. With only a minimal amount of slowdown during intense sequences there is absolutely no reason why you should not be exploring the planet of Pandora.
Editor’s Note: Borderlands 2 was reviewed using a Xbox 360 copy of the game. If further investigation reveals any substantial differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.
Release Date: September 18, 2012 • Publisher: 2K Games • Developer: Gearbox Software • Genre: Action • Multiplayer: 2-4 players online • Achievements: Moderate • Cost: $59.99 • Replay Value: High