If the enemies roaming the surface of Pandora ever decided to take out life insurance all at once, my recent journey through the planet would have destroyed its economy when the claims came in. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of digital enemies were smited by my wrath as I laid my vengeance down upon those in Borderlands 2. And yet even after an army of slain digital ghosts haunted my dreams, I found myself constantly drawn back to the game. One more mission, one more level, one more new weapon. I was — and still am — hooked.
Borderlands 2 should come with a 1-800 hotline number that gamers can call to battle the addiction that it has the potential to create. It is positively fiendish. Gearbox Software and 2K Games have created a game that is almost perfectly balanced in its gentle drip of rewards. There are many, many accolades you can earn, and they are meted out in such a way that they are just difficult enough to make you feel content in earning them, but easy enough to achieve that you receive them often. And then there is the loot. Ye gods, the loot.
If you are the type of player that is constantly backtracking in games to find chests, boxes, treasure, etc., etc., then Borderlands 2 is the game for you. It is the mother of all shoot and loot titles. There is so much loot that you won’t be able to keep up. It is a loot-spolsion.
But loot is simply the oil in the gears. You need more than that to make a successful game, and Gearbox was well aware of that. Along with being a loot aficionados’ dream,Borderlands 2 also features tight controls, a clever mix of gameplay, and one of the best written game scripts in a long while. Combine all of that together and you have one of the top contenders for game of the year.
Welcome (back) to Pandora.
Borderlands 2 is a direct sequel to the events of the original, but retires the characters of that game in favor of a new selection so new players won’t have any problems with the plot. The original characters all make appearances and play an important role, but five years have passed since the opening of the vault, and Pandora is a different place now.
Almost immediately after the vault opened at the end of the original game, the Hyperion Corporation, headed by the vile, charismatic, and consistently funny Handsome Jack, who have taken over and are searching for something known as “The Warrior.” It is your job to stop Jack and his cronies. Of course, the main story is only a portion of the overall narrative, and a small one at that.
Pandora is massive, filled with numerous areas. Each area features a different look and feel, and they all contain several sidequests that will continue to appear based on where you are in the main plot. While the main plot is well crafted, it is the sidequests that are really going to be remembered.
The dialogue is scathing and often hilarious, even more so in missions that are absurd to begin with, like delivering a love letter from the smarmy town mechanic to the oblivious object of his attentions, or luring a bandit into an insane girl’s psychotic tea party. These sidequests can range in length and difficulty. Some may be a series of individual missions working towards something like the defense of a town, while others may be as easy as talking to a few characters. One of the finest missions is roughly 5 seconds long, and it is best left spoiler-free.
Most of these quests are fairly traditional gather and/or kill missions, but Borderlands 2 hides it well and offers you a lot of variety. Even though the missions themselves may be similar in some ways, there is just enough to make them all feel unique. Two separate missions may have you collect something and kill a boss, but one of those missions may have you collect dynamite to destroy a structure in order to flush out that boss, while another may be to collect nudie magazines to leave them as a trap. In both you will still be gathering and killing, but Gearbox slants each sidequest in such a way that it constantly feels fresh, which is important in a game that should take you over 40 hours to fully complete before you even factor in the the online options.
Choose your weapon! And character, and shields, and skill points…
Of course, a game like this – a game that takes dozens of hours – needs some form of RPG elements to keep you playing. When you begin, you have the choice of four character classes: Gunzerker, Siren, Commando, or Assassin. A fifth character, the Mechromancer, will be released on October 16. There is no character customization, unfortunately, but there are several collectible outfits to try out that you find throughout the game. Each character has his/her own special ability, as well as a three tiered skill tree that you power up through points earned by leveling up. The trees are massive, so maxing them out isn’t an option. That should create enough variety within the classes that even if you see your class being played by someone else, they may have a totally different approach and play completely differently. You can also reassign points at any time, so the characters will constantly be changing.
As you seek to level up, you will also begin to earn a “Badass” rank. This rank fills up when you complete certain in-game challenges like kill a specific type of enemy, or use your melee attack to finish someone off. There are dozens of ways to earn tokens, and these tokens can then be redeemed for a slight stat boost in one of five random categories you can choose from. Earning a “+.07%” reload bonus may not seem like much, but it adds up, and having the reward for doing things you were already doing anyway is a nicely addictive way to get you to keep grinding. There is no cap to the rank, so this alone may keep people playing for a long, long time.
Along with the weapons, you also have shields, artifacts, and mods, each of which is dominated by the stats they present. These stats are variable and very few — if any — items will have identical options. Some may share a damage number but differ in reload speeds, or they may have different attributes. There is always a chance to improve your gear, and finding a rare item is properly difficult, and therefore rewarding.
As you level up, the world levels up with you. The items you find will be appropriate to your level, as will the enemies. There are stages to the enemies however, and you will sometimes find yourself far overmatched for the enemies, then you will hit a point when they are suddenly much more difficult. It keeps the combat interesting and ensures that areas don’t become too easy, and even the earliest foes can occasionally be somewhat challenging. There is a slight irregularity with this though.
Whether it was an oversight, a bug, or just a weird choice, you may find yourself at a high level, fighting off enemies that aren’t too tough but who have leveled up along with you and present something of a challenge. What doesn’t always level up is the experience you earn.
If your goal to your next level is in the thousands of experience points, killing an enemy and earning a single XP point is a waste of ammo. When they are swarming and strong enough to put you into a fight for your life, and yet you triumph and earn absolutely nothing more than a few XP, it feels like a hollow victory. You expect an increase in a game’s difficulty in order to level up, but if the enemies are much tougher, the experience should rise to match it. Taking that away takes away from the combat, but the issue is limited.
That Old, Familiar Feeling
The gameplay will be instantly familiar to those that played the original Borderlands, as well as anyone familiar with first person shooters in general. The controls are standard, but more than that, the game has a solid physics system at work that remains consistent throughout. You may often find yourself dying and respawning at a nearby cloning point, but you will have died fairly. Most enemies will feature body specific damage, so if a robot is shooting at you, you can always take its arms off to show it who’s boss. You can wound most enemies as well, but the AI is smart enough to heal its comrades. They are also aggressive enough to constantly be pushing you and not just hiding behind boxes, with a few exceptions that fit the scenarios.
The game just moves smoothly throughout. The driving physics are also well handled, but there aren’t many instances where you actually drive for any reason other than getting somewhere quickly. There are a handful of vehicular missions, but they are few and far between which is a bit of a missed opportunity. If there isn’t a DLC that expands this, I will be surprised.
In general, Borderlands 2 takes its predecessor and builds on it in almost every way, while still retaining what made the original such a hit. The distinctive cell shaded art style also returns, and it looks better than ever. The locations are detailed and well designed, and the pacing is spot on. You may end up at the same area a few times, but it never feels like you are doing too much back tracking thanks to the huge number of locations at your disposal. The loading times are also excellent.
One minor area where Borderlands 2 suffers is with the occasional glitch. Glitches and bugs are almost a given with titles of this size, but to Gearbox’s credit the glitches I came across were infrequent and never ended the game. Sometimes key targeted enemies would disappear, but running around for a while or leaving and reentering brought them back. More than once I found myself stuck in a crevice, unable to move, but these are minor issues that are worth pointing out, but don’t detract much from the whole.
Four Times the Fun
There is a rich, fun, and engrossing single-player game in Borderlands 2, one that will take you dozens of hours to complete. But if you aren’t playing this game online, you are missing out on what sets it apart from other FPS games with an RPG flair.
The online side features drop-in co-op for up to four players. There are open matches where you can join a random group, or you can see your friends’ current position and invite them or join in. When you join, the game’s difficulty increases exponentially to match. You share some things like Eridium– the in-game currency used to specifically buy upgrades – but items go to the first to grab them. You can always duel for the loot if both players are amenable. The strength of those items will also be determined by the level of the host, so if you are a high level joining someone much lower, expect to be disappointed with the loot. This is a definite downside, but a minor one.
The experience, however, is also shared, and if you want to build up your other characters so you can get a leg up before restarting the campaign, you can easily do so. If you complete a mission on someone else’s game, when you reach that mission in your own campaign you have the option to play it or pass. It seems minor, but it is another example of Gearbox thinking about the details.
Using the sometimes elusive online gaming commodity known as “teamwork,” your squad can work together brilliantly. Different weapons have different attributes, and using the correct combination of weapons can mash even tough enemies easily. Selecting a decent assortment of character classes – while thankfully not necessary – will also benefit your team. Some of the enemies are tough — very, very tough — so you’ll need all the advantages you can get.
It all comes back to the variety. With so many missions in the game, each with their own slant, there is always something to do online, either with your friends or a random pairing. Add in five character classes (soon), nearly unlimited weapons and items, and skill trees that make for serious personalization in play, and the online of Borderlands 2 can swallow your life whole if you aren’t careful.
There are a few minor issues with glitches, and the game doesn’t really do anything completely revolutionary, but what it does it does nearly perfectly. It is a complete package, and it integrates everything smoothly. Fans of the original will find the changes all for the better, while those new to the series can jump in without missing a beat. There have been some criticisms about the heavy emphasis on DLC for this game, and maybe that is a fair point, but this is already one of the most content-rich games around and well worth the price tag as is. Although the fifth character class would have been nice, you don’t have to worry about them holding anything back to force you purchase more. Buy the DLC or don’t, but the game as is doesn’t suffer from its absence.
From the crisp and witty writing to the wide variety of mission objectives, from the smooth gameplay to the packed rewards side of things, Borderlands 2 is simply one of the best games of the year.
Score: 9.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy provided by 2K Games)