Review: Borderlands 2
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There ain't no rest for the wicked...
When Gearbox Software released Borderlands in 2009 they could never have anticipated the cult success it’d achieve. Fans loved the FPS/RPG hybrid which allowed up to four players to shoot and loot their way through lands of Pandora. They clamoured for news of a sequel, which was finally revealed in August 2011, almost three years after Borderlands’ release. Throughout development, we were told by Gearbox and publisher 2K Games that Borderlands 2 would be bigger and better than its predecessor. Does it live up to the colossal expectations? It certainly does, for the most part.
The basic formula of Borderlands is very similar to its predecessor; it’s an FPS with heavy RPG elements, focused on looting, shooting with an almost infinite number of guns while your character can be customised in a wide variety of ways. As with the original, there are four classes to choose from – Commando, Siren, Assassin and Gunzerker – each of whom have very distinct personalities and abilities. Each has three sub-class areas you can develop skills in with experience earned by completing missions and killing enemies. This allows you to customise the class to suit your own style. Add to that you can customise the looks of your character, along with fact they have a lot of dialogue, and these new Vault Hunters have more personality than their predecessors did.
Borderlands 2 may be based around new characters, but the stars of the original feature heavily, and are much more fleshed out with key roles in a narrative that’s much improved over its predecessor. There’s a proper antagonist this time, Handsome Jack, and a cast of supporting characters – featuring both old and new faces – which all help Pandora feel much more alive this time around. It’s all infused with humour that makes Borderlands 2 one of the funniest games of recent times. Sure, many of the missions these guys will offer you only serve as an excuse to go from point A to point B while shooting and looting, but that’s ultimately the essence of Borderlands 2.
Not subtle, but effective.
The enemies of Borderlands have been expanded and improved upon, so not only are there now far more types of thing for you to shoot at. Not only do you need to alter tactics for taking on stronger ‘badass’ enemies – which still drop better loot than regular foes – but you’ll need to fight your way around the protecting shields of Nomads, make sure Rat Bandits don’t make off with your loot, while a variety of robots, beasts and bugs will all attempt to kill you in creative ways.
While the enemies of the original would suicidally run at you, Borderlands 2 sees them act much more intelligently thanks to improved AI; they’ll now use cover, attempt flanking manoeuvres and will even retreat if necessary. This can make enemies that are your level rather tough to go up against, while those a couple of levels above you can very easily kick your arse. You’ll often find yourself reduced to zero health in battles, but that doesn’t necessarily result in your death; you can fight for survival as you bleed out. If you kill an enemy in this time, you’re immediately back on your feet and straight into the fray. Of course, if you’re playing with others using the drop-in/drop-out co-op system, they can revive you before you bleed out, and it’s just one example of how playing with others makes the experience much more enjoyable.
Borderlands 2 provides plenty of fun for a single-player, but playing with others is where it’s best. Enemies are powered at different levels depending on the number of people in a team, meaning no matter how many are playing, there’s still a challenge and it’s not too easy. There’s also the benefit of better loot for bringing down these stronger enemies, so it’s very much worth playing as a team. Of course, this presents the problem of who gets the loot, but it’s up to human nature to decide upon the outcome of that. But with four players working together, the missions – particularly the ones of the main story – can feel pretty damn epic.
However, four player co-op isn’t without its problems. If you have the misfortune of playing with uncooperative players, you’re going to have a bad time. While playing with a game set to public, allowing anyone to jump in, I first found myself pleased when someone joined my mission, only to be annoyed a minute later when instead of helping me with my area specific objective, they’d run off to a different section of Pandora which stopped my mission in its tracks and took me with them. This happened more than once, with plenty of players. Essentially, it only takes one player to initiate travel, even if three others don’t want to. The number of times players joining my game decided to do their own thing was highly frustrating. With Borderlands 2 having such an emphasis on co-op, you’d think that Gearbox would’ve implemented some sort of system that kept players on track with the hosts’ mission, or at least required group consensus before travel was initiated. Often, this random behaviour by other players, and lack a system which took this into account, led me going back to playing offline.
There are other minor issues with design that also appear to have been overlooked. For instance, you can’t track more than one mission on your map at once. This is disappointing given that it’s likely you’ll have picked up a number of side-missions to go alongside those of the main story. Further to this, large swathes of the side-quests, while clever when it comes to the narrative around them, are actually rather straight forward, repetitive fetch quests. Given Borderlands 2’s RPG influences, this isn’t really surprising, but there are only so many times going to area X to collect Y number of item Z can provide entertainment. The enjoyable shooting goes someway to making up for this, especially if you’re gunning along in a party of four who are actually working together, but for all of the cleverness Borderlands 2 demonstrates elsewhere, the side-missions can feel disappointing.
"It's like I'm taking crazy pills!"
The repetitive nature of side-missions does at least allow you the option of truly appreciating the design of Borderlands 2. Its cel-shaded comic-book style still distinguishes it from the sea of generic brown shooters, more so now than the original did in 2009 thanks to a wider variety of environments to explore. While Borderlands was mostly a dustbowl, Gearbox’s artists have showcased an ability to create a world featuring everything from deserts to tundra, to brightly lit caverns, to indoor science facilities, from green grasslands to the urban settlement of Sanctuary with all its wacky, distinctive-looking and personality filled characters. It all helps give Borderlands 2 a distinct feel.
The shooting and looting of the original was very successful, a formula which surprisingly hadn’t previously been tapped that gained a huge cult following. The sequel has only improved on that, with more customisation, more guns, a better narrative and barring side-missions, more interesting missions. It might be let down by a handful of design issues when it comes to menu and online play, but Borderlands 2 provides players with a fantastic experience. It’s a silly romp that knows what it’s supposed to be - a video game that’ll provide you with dozens upon dozens hours of fun.
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