The recipe for the success of 2009’s Borderlands was pretty simple in retrospect. Take the mechanics of the ever-popular genre of first-person shooters and blend them together with the scope, leveling, and loot of a massive online RPG that speaks to the inner obsessive-compulsive hoarder in all of us, throw in four-player co-op, and serve. These elements are intrinsic to the experience, and have therefore remained untouched in Borderlands 2, though they’ve certainly been refined. Somehow, Gearbox has managed to cram in even more guns, more midgets, and more opportunities to loot Pandora dry in Borderlands 2.
After the conclusion of the first game, the Hyperion corporation has filled the power vacuum on Pandora and a man named Handsome Jack has seized control. The original four vault hunters are waging a losing battle against Jack and Sanctuary is their base of operations to plan resistance. Meanwhile, Jack is on the search for yet another vault capable of unleashing unimaginable destruction on the planet while four new vault hunters traverse Pandora’s inhospitable terrain to overthrow him.
Handsome Jack is in constant contact with the players with his biting, passive-aggressive remarks and isn’t shy about putting obstacles in their way. He epitomizes the overconfident, douchebag villain who constantly underestimates the heroes time after time seen in so many videogames. Gamers are either going to love his boorish personality or wish to strangle the life out of him, the latter seeming to serve as Borderlands 2‘s main motivation.
This time around, everything on Pandora feels much more fleshed-out than in the first. Pandora is shown to be a richly-diverse planet with tundra, cities, caverns, and, yes, dusty badlands just like the first game. It’s a planet teeming with life instead of a mostly barren wasteland, from dangerous animals to psychotic bandits and citizens of Sanctuary, you’re bound to run into something or someone to keep you busy.
As before, the quirky characters of Pandora serve as job dispensaries, offering a bounty of side and story missions. They’re still not terribly complex, usually involving the killing and/or gathering of something. There are the occasional exceptions that play up Borderlands 2‘s more humorous tone, such as one where the only objective is to literally shoot someone in the face or another that serves as nothing more than a big reference to Top Gun. The interface does a slightly better job of juggling all the objectives and quests throughout the game, but it would’ve been nice to have an option that selects multiple missions rather than tackling one, selecting another, and moving on from there.
The four character classes return and the game provides less leeway than the first did when it comes to distributing skill points. It’s not a good idea to thinly spread them across the various skill trees, but rather to intensely focus on one area at a time, though these points can be reassigned for a small fee. Should your class be devoted entirely to bigger damage, or serve more as the team’s medic? Do you want enemies to feel the sting of various elemental effects, profusely bleeding multi-colored numbers or do you want to focus on melee? How about being a deadlier sniper? These questions will determine what your character’s expertise will be in.
One of the changes is that guns no longer have a proficiency level to them. Every character is equal, so there’s no reason the Gunzerker can’t be as good a sniper as the Assassin. Each class is defined by their special abilities rather than their level of proficiency with any given weapon. Assassins specialize in melee and stealthy sneak attacks, Sirens immobilize enemies in forcefields (great for taking out huge threats for a short period), Commandos use their turret for support and defense, while Gunzerkers go hog-wild with a gun in each hand. They’re all quite balanced and there’s bound to be a skill tree for every type of strategy out there, so there’s really no reason not to give them all a try.
Enemies have also received an upgrade in terms of intelligence and overall gameplay design. In Borderlands, they had a bad habit of mindlessly running into fire with little deviation from that pattern. Success in battle hinged on having a good gun handy and running backwards or circle-strafing. Unlike their suicidal predecessors, enemies in Borderlands 2 display a wide array of techniques to save their skin, or at the very least to stave off death at the hands of the players a little while longer. They’ll duck behind cover, use shields (with midgets strapped to them), strafe, and do evasive rolls if they have to.
Some will level-up if left unchecked, adding a twist to any combat scenario. The huge Goliaths are slow, dumb bullet-sponges until their heads get knocked off and they turn into raging hulks. Players can either take them out quickly or let them tear up other enemies, making them tougher in the process. Or harmless bugs that can mutate into gigantic nuisances if given the opportunity. The sheer variety of the monsters and madmen of Pandora easily dwarfs the original, although given Handsome Jack’s penchant for putting so many robots in the way, things can sometimes get a little predictable.
The real attraction of Borderlands 2 are the weapons that can be traded with other players at the press of a button, bought through vending machines, or most likely looted from chests and bad guys. Every gun is designed by a variety of different manufacturers, each with their own unique philosophy on what makes a great weapon. Jakobs specializes in powerful wooden weapons while Maliwan serves as a sleek, sci-fi counterpoint with an emphasis on elemental attributes. The militaristic Dahl weapons are known for their burst-fire capabilities while Torgue is more interested in explosive weaponry with a checkered design.
Guns are completely randomized, so there’s no telling whether you’ll get a Jakobs long-barreled revolver or one with a corrosive element, a blade, and a scope. A gun with a high damage rating isn’t the only factor that ultimately determines a gun’s worth. Of course players still have to go through mountains of junk items that serve little purpose outside of selling for spare cash. One of the welcomed new features is the ability to favorite items or label them as junk. Marking them as junk allows for players to sell them all wholesale to vendors, but if a rare item is sold by accident it can always be bought back for the same price.
While it’s possible to play alone and still get some impressive swag, the optimal Borderlands 2 experience is to have a full four-person party online. More players makes enemies more difficult, and the harder they are the better loot they drop. It also helps to have them around to revive fallen comrades, although this time that’s less of a problem now that they can move around when downed, and to take on a complimentary role to the playstyles of the other players. Getting a multiplayer game going is painless and can be done on-the-fly at any time. It’s easy to move from playing alone, to splitscreen, to online depending on what works best.
Borderlands 2 is a sequel that aims to give players more of what they loved in the original and to smooth out the things that didn’t go over quite so well the first time. If any criticism can be leveled at Borderlands 2, it’s that it isn’t going to convince anyone that didn’t like the first game to give it a try. Nor does it set out to completely rework the Borderlands formula, which in this case keeps in place all the things that worked well and jettisoned that which didn’t. It’s a lengthy adventure full of personality, an endless plethora of weapons, and addictive co-op gameplay. Fans of the first game would be foolish to pass up another chance to visit Pandora and plunder the incalculable treasures therein.