While our very own owner and creator was in Emo-Kev land this week, I took the chance to travel down to Pandora. Borderlands was a surprise hit from Gearbox in 2009. It sucked you in and bled you dry. I lost countless hours looting with my friends, leveling up and obsessing over an intense amount of weapons the game had to offer. Now, three years later, Borderlands 2 invites you to revisit it’s colorful world. Is the return trip worth the price of admission, or is it yet another sequel that falls short?
Back on Pandora, you play as one of the “vault-hunters.” A man (a very annoying man at that) known as Handsome Jack has taken over Hyperion Corporation and Pandora as the Supreme Dictator. He has taken all of the credit for finding the Vault (see Borderlands) and aims to kill everyone looking for the Vault. As one of the four possible classes you fall int Jack’s trap and he leaves you for dead in the middle of the Pandora tundra. Found by Claptrap (a very annoying little bot) you will then be tasked with finding and killing Jack (and doing a lot of quests along the way).
The story in Borderlands 2 is full of humor and satire. To say the game hardly takes itself seriously would be an understatement. It doesn’t limit itself to the dialogue either. Missions are full of subtle inside jokes and references that will make you burst out laughing. Quirky dialogue helps you along very well. If you’re like me, you’ll enjoy listening not only to the quest parts but to the constant banter between NPCs and yourself. While it is pretty straight forward, the plot gets the job done, bringing in a number of extremely well developed characters, each with his/her own personality. The title really benefits from strong and consistent writing. There is one drawback, and that is that there is sometimes too much exposition. You will often trip over audio logs or dialogue triggers interrupting each other, sometimes cutting out an important piece of information.
The sound in Borderlands 2 is supreme. With a “gazillion” (don’t look at me, it’s Gearbox’s description) guns it is a challenge to make as many of them sound as unique as possible, but it works. Every type of weapon has it’s own distinct audio to come with it. The music often diffuses the atmosphere and works to amplify the already goofy feel the series set for itself. Voice work is terrific. It helps that the cast had a great script to work with. It feels that the crew really got into their performances on the mic and all interaction sounds organic and genuine.
The distinct cell shaded visual style is back. Borderlands 2 looks and performs consistently better than its predecessor. The environments are more varied than in the original game. As a result you feel like you’ve experienced more of Pandora than ever before. Each distinct location is thoughtfully realized, and while repetition does creep in during cave and vault sections, it isn’t particularly noticeable. The character detail is superb. From enemies to allies everyone moves and acts real.
What I am impressed with the most is the extensive amount of weapon customization. While it is hard to design a gazillion new looks, you have to give Gearbox for trying. Different weapons will carry the distinct features of their manufactures. Often, various adjustments and modifiers will alter the way your gun looks as well. The customization does not stop at weapons though as you can thoroughly customize your character with unlock-able skills and colors. Same goes for grenades. There is a lot of care behind this product and it shows.
The gameplay is still trying to blend together to different genres, and succeeds rather well (which those who played the first game already new). At the core of the experience are the very solid FPS mechanics. Each character is different, depending on the class. The gunzerker gets to dual-wield any weapon in the game, siren gets a phaselock ability, commando deploys a turret and the assassin sends out a decoy while turning invisible himself. Each class plays differently as you lean on your special ability. In addition, there are three different skill trees with each class, allowing for a decent amount of customization.
Playing the game is all about loot and leveling up. With lots of guns to find and upgrade you will find yourself searching enemy bodies, barrels, caves and boxes for that next great thing. Luckily, the game gives you plenty of opportunities to do so throughout the course. You can always chose to speed through the main-quest, but chances are you will get stuck at some parts. The main quest encourages you to take on as many side-missions as possible in order to level up, otherwise you’re going to have a bad time. Side-missions are often almost as interesting as the main quest, if not more, so there isn’t much argument against this approach.
The most fun you will have in Borderlands 2 is during co-op. While playing on your own is satisfying, it is no substitute for the mayhem four friends can cause on a looting adventure. If your levels don’t match up, the game will still let you play with your buddies, providing the option to skip the finished sections when you come across them back in single-player. Be careful not to jump in over your head though, as you can quickly find yourself carrying a team, or instead being a constant hindrance and a med-pack vacuum.
Borderlands 2 could benefit from a better balance system between offline and co-op. As mentioned above, unless you’re on the same skill level, there will be a vast gap between your experiences. Loot syncs to the host level so higher level players may often find it pointless to join up with “newbies,” while the lower level vault hunters can find it fruitless to be in the high level game as they can’t use the gear. If you want to stick just to single player the enemies in some area get excruciatingly tough and uforgiving, almost begging you to join up. On the other hand, some areas will be a cake walk. The game is also extremely varied in which areas it chooses to level up enemies along side you and in which it doesn’t.
There are a few more nagging issues, such as a muddle way point system, especially in larger areas. Sure, the mini-map helps a bit, but it doesn’t do enough. You do get access to a fast travel terminal fairly early on, but they are few and far between on Pandora. So much so that I barely see the point of having them at all.
Verdict: Borderlands 2 will take up a lot of your time, and I mean A LOT. It clocks in roughly at 40 hours (that is if you want to really dedicate yourself to all the side quests, which you will). Sure, there are a few issues and the game could have benefited from a better balance between single and multi-player integration. None of those however can take away from how much fun there is to be had on Pandora. There is something extremely addictive to the Gearbox formula that will keep you coming back for more again and again. If you’re into a cool visual style and love to have a laugh while shooting things in the head, this is definitely the game for you.