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When Gearbox Software first announced the original Borderlands, I wasn’t impressed. A post-apocalyptic shooter with RPG elements? Were they just going to pretend Fallout 3 never happened? Of course, my doubts were proved wrong. Borderlands offbeat sense of humor, vibrant world and stellar cooperative gameplay were a huge hit, elevating Gearbox to elite status while creating a devoted fan base for their new IP. With plenty of exposure and anticipation for a sequel, did Gearbox deliver?
Borderlands built its legacy on its top-notch cooperative gameplay, and the sequel hasn’t lost a step. It begins with the new character classes. I like the decision to relegate the previous four protagonists to story roles. As much as I enjoyed playing as Mordecai, I never felt a connection with him as a character, nor any of the other players. That carries over to the sequel to a point. I can barely even remember my Siren’s name, and I got no sense of who they were as people. From a gameplay perspective however, they are better across the board.
Twenty hours in, I was still discovering new cooperative strategies to blast bandits apart with. The majority of my time was spent with the Siren, and her Phaselock ability was a godsend for crowd control. By locking down an enemy, it allowed the Commando’s turret to tear them apart unhindered. Zer0 the assassin can project a holograph that can allow the Gunzerker to dual-wield a couple of rocket launchers from a safe distance. The special abilities are all a blast to experiment with, and are more closely associated with the skill trees this time around.
Every character has three distinct skill trees to explore, and you’ll find more than a few measly percentile boosts there, although they exist as well. Each tree really has its own flavor, and offers unique, game-changing augmentations to your stats and Action Skill. My Siren focused on her Motion tree, which is centered on maximum survivability. By boosting my shields and applying a “confusion” effect on my Phaselock, I could usually eat enough bullets to survive while my foes killed each other. Alternatively, I could have poured my points into her Cataclysm tree and turned her into an elemental damage-dealing powerhouse. A handy respect option allows you to explore any path you wish without regret, and see for yourself the drastic differences they make on your character.
You’ll need every bit of help you can get, because Pandora has much more to see these days. I spent time in an arctic tundra, moved onto a dynamic town unlike anything in the first game and even found my way into a suspiciously 8-bit looking mineshaft filled with Creepers. I noticed references to classic games, movies, books and television almost everywhere, and found myself laughing out loud more and more as I played. This is writing on par with Portal, Uncharted and the rest of the industry’s best. The world is much more active this time around, and discovering each new location has that same Skyrim-like addictiveness.
The same level of detail has gone into the quest design. I can’t say I was ever quite blown away by any single moment, but the new dynamic quests are uniformly better than anything the first game offered. You won’t spend half your time standing in front of a bulletin board gathering quests this time, actual people populate the planet now, and most of them want you to do something for them. I recommend digging into the side-quests, because there is some truly spectacular content there. The main quest line is downright incredible, and features enough variety and spectacle, not to mention actual story, to keep you invested.
And yes, there is actual story this time around. Even better, a specific antagonist joins the fray, and he is an absolute delight to hate. Handsome Jack is his name, and his smarmy attitude and cocky manner will earn your loathing in no time. He constantly assaults your ECHO with taunts and promises to murder you, but luckily your Guardian Angel returns to assist you with bossy suggestions that you still have to listen too. At least she’s funny this time around. Both voice actors, heck all the voice actors, are excellent, but Handsome Jack really does deserve an award. He is without a doubt the bad guy of the year so far.
Like the original, the gunplay is spotless. Each weapon manufacturer has a more precise theme this time around, and every weapon type is loaded with an absurd amount of insane weapons. I grew very attached to my disposable triple-barreled Tediore shotgun, which, instead of needing reloading, it acts as a grenade you can throw. Electricity, Corrode, and Flame damage all return to add some complexity, and are much better incorporated this time around. More interesting is the new Slag element. Slagging a foe makes him less resistant to all non-slag damage, which can lead to some insane damage dealing.
The interplay between the character classes, the weapons and skills make combat a true treat. The much-expanded enemy variety demands smarter tactics this time around, and you should be prepared to be put down a few more times than your last trip through Pandora. Hey, at least you can crawl around while searching for that second wind now. The best enemies now have specific abilities that you can exploit. One bandit may have a midget strapped to his shield. While you could just sneak around and blast him from behind, why not shoot the midget free from his ropes and liberate him to fight for you. Shoot the helmet of a Goliath, and he will indiscriminately start smashing everyone, leveling up in the process and becoming tougher, which only makes him drop more XP. Dozens of new enemies and better aesthetic variety amongst them males the baddies of Borderlands even more fun to massacre.
I also like the higher emphasis on persistence between your characters. An early quest for Claptrap opens up a safe that can be accessed by any character on your profile. Found a shotgun that would be perfect for your Commando? Put it in the safe. Even better is the Badass Rank system. An absurd amount of Badass challenges, ranging from “get so many kills with SMGs” to “no-scope so many enemies with a sniper rifle” to “find so many pieces of purple loot” are available for completion. The sheer number of challenges is impressive enough, but the benefits they provide are nothing short of ingenious.
In the first Borderlands, completing these static challenges gave you an experience boost. While you still receive experience for completing these challenges, more important are the Badass tokens they provide you. By cashing in these tokens from the menu, you can apply incremental stat boosts that are applied to every character on your profile. While the boosts are small in themselves, there is no limit to how many challenges you can complete. By enhancing stats like Melee Damage, Max Shield Capacity and Gun Damage, the system removes a little bit of the frustration of starting a new character from scratch, which was one of my problems with the original.
All in all, I can’t help but be impressed with the evolution of the Borderlands franchise. Almost every complaint I had with the original has been addressed, and all the good stuff has seemingly gotten even better. While the towns are more bustling and the world is undoubtedly more interesting, there were stretches where I found a lot of, well, nothing. I would go out of my way through a long stretch of desert only to find more desert. The leveling curve also seemed a tad off. Some quests would send me back to a previous enemy where the enemies were now significantly under-leveled compared to me. However, the challenge they provided, especially in large numbers, was still tough. That wouldn’t be a problem, but the single experience point I got for killing most of them turned these quests into sprints through old areas. Honestly though, I feel like I’m nitpicking here. Borderlands 2 is awesome.
It’s hard to find a gamer I wouldn’t recommend Borderlands 2 to. The mix of shooter and RPG gameplay is unfairly addictive, and the improved writing and story elements make this much more than a brainless shooter. With a wealth of classic game references, laugh out loud humor and a antagonist who is sure to become a legend, Borderlands 2 offers more than enough extraneous incentive beyond the incredible gameplay to keep playing. If you haven’t already experienced it, I implore you to take a second trip through Pandora.