9! 24! 58! 100! 500! 1000! Critical! Is there a better visual barometer for satisfaction in videogames than damage numbers popping out of an enemy’s bullet-riddled head? The original Borderlands revelled in this instant gratification, complementing this core conceit with a ‘bazillion’ guns, tight shooting, addictive loot and a droll sense of humour. There’s little wonder why it was such a surprise hit back in 2009, and just as unsurprising that we’re back on the bombastic world of Pandora for Borderlands 2; a sequel that once again basks in the glow of numbers and bullets, hidden treasures and boner jokes.
Set five years after the events of the first game, Borderlands 2 features an entirely new cast of playable vault hunters. After the original group opened the fabled vault and dealt with what was hidden therein, an arrogant prick by the name of Handsome Jack took credit for their actions, declared himself the dictator of Pandora, and is now attempting to plunder the planet of its most valuable resources, hoping to awaken some sort of ancient alien power. You’ll team up with a resistance movement led by the original cast of vault hunters, intent on stopping him and looting the entire planet along the way.
Those same original vault hunters also now have dialogue, fleshing them out as actual characters after their previous stint as mostly silent protagonists. Borderlands 2 presumes you have some sort of reverence for the original cast despite their previous silence, but their inclusion and subsequent portrayals pay off in some interesting ways, both in regards to the narrative and the game’s humour. Most of the dialogue is fairly sharp across the board and its multitude of zany characters, new and old. The first game’s wacky sense of humour remains, with continuous pop culture references and a ludicrous amount of hidden Easter eggs, and this carries into some of the quest design and its inherent physical comedy.
The humour’s in-your-face nature can be a little much at times, especially when jokes miss or drag on for far too long, but the near constant stream of dialogue keeps Pandora feeling alive, especially in the once-lonely single player. It can be immature at times, relying on cheap gags to generate a chuckle, but there’s also a lot of humorous dialogue that will consistently muster more than a laugh or two, and the majority of its voice acting sells each character with aplomb, delivering some fantastic performances. The main story is still easy to ignore on your quest for the best loot but it’s an improvement on the first game even if your motivation is anything other than narrative based. There’s even a surprising amount of emotional weight to certain story beats, but these are always bookended by a crude joke so it never feels entirely out of place.
The most substantial improvements come in the gameplay and how you’re able to spec your character. In the first game you could pick the Soldier class, for instance, and by the end of the game you were essentially invincible if you spec’d in the right directions. Your deployable turret could not only lay waste to everything in sight but could also regenerate health and ammunition, leaving you free to stand still and eradicate an entire group of enemies with relative ease. Borderlands 2 has been reworked and is much more balanced, giving each character class a specific playstyle that comes with their action skill and making sure to never overpower them to tedium. It’s now much more difficult to simultaneously spec in every direction, adding weight to your decisions and how you want your character to play.
There are three skill paths to choose from, each one focusing on specific areas, whether it’s improving your action skill, allowing you to do higher damage with certain weapon types, increasing your maximum health and so on. The Assassin, for example, is very similar to the Hunter class from the first game, focusing on sniper rifles and improving their effectiveness. But each class plays much differently in Borderlands 2, so the Assassin’s action skill is comparable to the Siren’s previous phasewalk ability, allowing him to turn invisible for a brief amount of time where he can utilise his melee attacks; something the Berserker class focused on in the first game. Not every class is such a mismatch of previous classes as the Assassin, but it’s evidence of the different upgrade paths you can choose to spec in based on their appeal and how you want to play.
The loot you collect also factors into these decisions. Some shields will not only grant you improved defence but may also come with a particular trait that sets off small explosions once depleted. So if you’re playing as the Siren class you might want to equip this shield and match it with a character skill that improves shield recharge delay or increases your movement speed when shields are down, allowing you to use the effects of the shield’s explosions without being as vulnerable as you would otherwise be. There’s a ton of customization like this that encourages you to search out specific kinds of loot, especially when it comes to the various weapon types.
The gun manufacturers now produce particular kinds of weapons with their own distinct visual characteristics. One such manufacturer is Jakobs, who build Wild West style guns so you’ll find lots of revolvers and rifles that can fire as fast as you can pull the trigger but reload very slowly. Maliwan, on the other hand, builds weapons that deal out elemental damage, so they’re your go to guys if you want to set someone on fire.
The inclusion of distinctive gun manufacturers lends a lot of character to each weapon and Borderlands 2’s fantastic visual design – like the Bandit weapons that are cobbled together using different bits and pieces of scrap. But it also lets you know what you’re getting into. You’re able to distinguish between the types of guns you like to use and those you don’t, going beyond simple statistics. Higher damage numbers may not matter if it’s a gun you’re not comfortable using. You’ll spend plenty of time deliberating over whether you should loot and equip a weapon or not; even if its stats are higher it may not feel right for your purposes.
Whichever concoction of assorted weaponry you choose, Borderlands 2’s gunplay is tight and intuitive. Whether it’s popping the heads off bandits, melting a robot down with corrosive ammunition or hitting a Skag with the butt of your rifle, the combat remains entertaining long past your first playthrough and into new game+. This is thanks in no small part to improvements made to enemy AI. While the first Borderlands was a ton of fun to play it was all too easy to simply walk backwards and keep firing until everything was dead. Enemies would rush towards you in straight lines just waiting to be gunned down, lacking any variety in their attack patterns.
In Borderlands 2, enemies now move with more purpose and dexterity, keeping you on your toes and forcing you to adjust your aim as they dodge and roll, duck and weave. It’s not a massive enhancement in artificial intelligence, but it’s an improvement that gives the combat a more frenetic pace. Suicidal psychos will often charge you, explosives at the ready, while various projectiles are thrown in your direction. You’re constantly dashing from place to place and there’s a fantastic freedom of movement. You can sprint ad infinitum, bound from the highest peak with no fall damage and reload while at full speed. Tearing across the battlefield is effortless, snapping off accurate shots as you go; the combat encouraging different tactics and weapon selection depending on the situation and enemy type.
There’s a phenomenal agglomeration of enemies, each befitting of some sublime character design and enjoyable AI. You’ll face off against cloaked monsters, robots that can transform into makeshift tanks and a gargantuan bandit that bursts into a fit of rage, killing friend and foe alike. Each enemy requires a different tactic to beat, whether it’s utilising your action skill, equipping a weapon with a particular type of elemental damage or inciting enemy v enemy combat.
However, Borderlands 2 doesn’t always encourage elemental weapon use – other than corrosive due to the high number of robotic enemies you encounter – until new game+. Here, it introduces a bounty of new enemy types and a bigger focus on using elemental weapons to take them down. It’s disappointing the first playthrough isn’t tuned this way since it’s easy to kill the majority of enemies with most anything. And maybe it’s the luck of the loot and its randomness but effective automatic weapons were disappointingly absent.
Of course, if you want you can always trade weapons with friends or strangers to find that allusive rare rifle; another feature that has been improved since its clunky inclusion in the first game. And the same rings true with the rest of Borderlands 2’s network options. It’s now easy to quickly jump into the pause menu and make your game publicly accessible, friends only, invite only, LAN or completely offline. If someone does join your game it will scale and make enemies more difficult the more people you have, and if they complete a quest they haven’t yet done on their own save, they won’t have to repeat it when they go back. It’s elegantly done, the PC version now fully utilising Steamworks rather than the archaic Gamespy the first game was saddled with. And everyone knows Borderlands is better with friends, especially if you can get a four-person team running.
The game looks sublime on PC as well, particularly if you can run it on close to the highest settings. The cel-shaded art style never fails to shine and there’s some outstanding lighting effects that complement the level design. This is still the same Pandora as the first game but it’s been injected with a burst of colour and environmental variety. The desert wasteland still remains but now there are plains of green grass, snow swept icy caverns and a deep underground mine coated in luminous green acid. The colour pops with the art style like a comic book; Pandora’s exalted sense of place and character still remains.
Borderlands 2 successfully maintains every aspect that made the first game such a surprise hit and improves upon them in all the ways that matter. The majority of these improvements may only be incremental which gives the impression Gearbox took the safe route, avoiding major iteration, but the formula still works. Whether that formula still appeals to you is the real question. If you’ve already spent countless hours with the first game is more Borderlands something you want? If it is then Borderlands 2 is a better game than its predecessor in every way. Just only by a smidgen.