I’ll admit, it took a long time to write this Borderlands 2 review. Mostly, because writing it would involve me not playing Borderlands 2.
Sometimes, you just want to blast bad guys, then take their stuff. It’s a long standing tradition in video gaming known to some as ‘Shoot and Loot’. In 2009, the original Borderlands game released to outstanding reviews and took Shoot and Loot to a whole new level. I spent a lot of time exploring Pandora, the neglected, post-Corporate world that serves as the setting of the franchise, and even more time shooting the dangers creatures and scum that roamed the wastes. Everything more or less ended up neatly in Borderlands – but just looking at the popularity of the game told you that soon enough, we’d be back on Pandora again, ready to blast a swathe through the wastes once more.
That day has finally come.
At First Glance
If you’re familiar with Borderlands, you’re going to note that you’re seeing a very similar look and feel, right from the outset of the game’s opening cinematic. If you’re not familiar, it doesn’t take long. The original game’s outcome is recapped and situations updated, then it’s straight on through to a rock and roll theme song opening featuring ‘Short Change Hero’ by The Heavy and dropping you in the thick of things with Cl4P-TP (That’s Claptrap for the record).
All of the things you expect from a shooter are right there waiting for you to work with. It has the standard Ammo/Grenade quantity, health and shield readouts, a mini-map (missing from the first game) and level bar. It should all feel very familiar to those familiar with the franchise, right down to the jokes and mission styles (the first mission involves you getting Claptrap’s optic back from a monster named Knuckledragger). The game lends itself towards a run and gun mechanic and places a lot of emphasis on getting better tools to mow through tougher baddies as the game progresses. Likewise, it also features vehicular combat (mostly for running over irritable bad guys if you play like I do).
In the cursory first steps of the game, you’re basically reacquainted with all that was right about the first franchise. As well it should be.
So far, I’m seeing a LOT of good here. No matter what the Wall Street Journal says (when the hell did the WSJ start caring about video games beyond their profitability?).
As noted before, if you loved yourself some Borderlands, the sequel first and foremost is giving you more of what you got before. That sounds bad – but I refer to this as the BioShock principle after a friend looked down his nose at BioShock 2 saying ‘it’s just more of the same’. The problem with that thinking is that when the first is awesome, getting some more of it seems to be a good thing by my thinking. It’s when you start making seventy Halo sequels that it gets monotonous.
Fortunately, in this case you’re also getting more out of it. They’ve fixed some of the irritating qualities of the first game. There’s a (much needed) Mini-Map function now, with clear enemy tracking within it. They also fixed the item pickup system, allowing you to instantly acquire health boosts and ammo drops. You still have to pick up weapons, but since item management is such a key part of the game, it’s a feature, not a bug.
Along the lines of items they’ve also upped the game a little. Not only are there tons of weapons to loot, but the quality of them are greater at the outset than in its predecessor if you got the pre-order. They also did away with weapon proficiencies – so now all weapons are more useful for all characters. Likewise, it would seem they have plans to release at least four DLC packs before June of next year, including everything from new zones to new playable characters. Gaige the Mekromancer should be out sometime in October 2012, waiting for the opportunity to keep throwing raiders into meat grinders.
Then there’s the opportunity to work alongside the characters that you knew and loved (or hated) from the first franchise in a story with more depth than in the original. A big complaint about the original Borderlands was that it didn’t have much of a story to speak of. You went out and tried to find the big treasure hoard rumored to be on Pandora. And yay! You find it! Kind of. This would seem to have a lot more going for it by way of having a villain to work against and multiple characters all working against/for/with one another for various aims. You can also determine how you want certain quests to end. For instance, you can choose to give Bullymong fur to either Sir Hammerlock or give it to Claptrap so he can have a bitchin’ Mohawk, or choose to wipe out either a clan of hillbillies or the Pandoran equivalent of the IRA in a gang war (I shot the shit out of hillbillies).
But, lastly, they introduced a favorite mechanic: Badass score. In the original Borderlands, had side challenges to complete for experience points. Which was nice and everything – sometimes you’d even get an achievement unlocked for completing them. But, in this, you get something a little more useful in the form of Badass Score. When you complete a challenge, your score increases, and as a result you unlock Badass tokens. The tokens will allow you to gain slight percentage bonuses to certain things like gun damage, melee damage, shield recharge rate, shield recharge delay, etc. Over time, these tokens lead to substantial benefits,. At level 25, my Siren gets an additional 5.3% to ALL weapon damage and has a 5.8% increase chance to affect a target with an elemental effect when an elemental weapon is equipped. That’s pretty, well… pretty Badass. It gets better though. All of the Badass Token rewards transfer between your characters. And, with each character played, you can perform those challenges again and gain more tokens. Let that sink in for a second.
By the time you’ve played ALL the characters… you are super Badass.
I’m also amazed at the fact that I not only played multiplayer mode… but that I enjoyed it. Multiplayer in XBL is usually like drinking from a firehose tapped into a high-pressure septic tank. But, with Borderlands, it’s basically you and your buddies – not random twelve year-olds calling you a motherfucker (unless you have friends who are twelve year-olds who like to say motherfucker). And it’s NOT kludgy or cumbersome. This may be because my Kinect keeps me from having to worry about the stupid ass headset that XBox used to be dependent on. Also, in multiplayer the missions actually get tougher, you get better loot and you work as a team with your buddies – or you die real quick. You have to be a little smarter, tactically speaking, and focus not only on making sure your powers are working together, but that they’re precise. It’s pretty keen truth be told. Even if you have a lot of difference between levels in the party, you can revive party members and gain XP for it every time. Plus, the lowbies get a quick level up curve. A buddy of mine ran around with my Level 23 siren starting at level 13. In two hours, he was level 16.
Lastly, there is the artistic quality of the game. The original title was superb in its use of cel shading and texturing, but this blows away the original. Some, like the raving jackhole from the WSJ, deride it for the thematic elements. However, the whole game, from the ground up, is cartoonish. It fits the style and the tone of the game perfectly, and sets it apart from every other shooter I’ve ever played. Then there’s the voice acting. Taking missions from people isn’t just a game mechanic, it’s entertaining. Just go talk to Scooter, Tiny Tina or Marcus a couple times. If you don’t laugh, I dunno what to tell you, other than you need to laugh a little more.
Despite the shit ton of good up there, there are a couple of things that are a little irksome.
The game is buggy – at least on the XBox 360. Sometimes, missions will glitch and leave you with no way to complete them. A friend had issues in a mission in which he had to kill himself to get out of a mission he could not complete. I also had an occasion in which I had to reset the box after the villains of the feature refused to spawn (they seemed to be stuck in the geometry or invisible – either way, no face-shooties). This is the kind of thing that shoved the stake in Fallout: New Vegas’ heart for me, personally. Fortunately though, the instances in which this happens are rare.
Then there’s a matter of dialog. They went through a lot of effort to put more story and humor into this than the first, and that humor comes from audio dialog snippets. Unfortunately, the way the game is mixed makes sound effects a lot more prominent than dialog. So if you want to hear Scooter talk about laying pipe with some of the ladies in Sanctuary, try not to do it while some Skag is trying to rip your face off. There’s subtitles sure, but that just distracts me from shooting Needle Stalkers directly in the face.
Then there’s the turret for the Commando. Just one word: Aim. You don’t place that turret right, things are going to suck and it’s a long recharge wait.
The Sum Up
So, should you buy it? Yes.
Play that shit into the ground.