Borderlands 2 Review: No Rest For The Wicked
2009's Borderlands was a game that released among a torrent of major titles and managed to be one of the most refreshing and fun experiences of that year. Gearbox's loot driven shooter was an underdog in its first iteration but Borderlands 2 comes with a lot more expectation on its shoulders. In a genre filled with games that are competing for the same modern realistic shooter space its great to see Gearbox develop a game that throws all that out the window and replace it with madness and colour. However, it was questionable if Gearbox could not just recreate the experience of the first Borderlands, but improve upon the niggling issues and annoyances that the first game had. Borderlands 2 has mixed results in these areas, but it is undeniably an interesting game to play.
The first Borderlands had what can be described at best as a bare bones story. Gearbox clearly took a greater interest in the narrative this time with a far greater amount of attention paid to dialogue and character interactions. Set 5 years after the ending of the first Borderlands, Borderlands 2 puts you in the role of one of four new vault hunters coming back to the planet of Pandora. The opening of the Vault in the first game caused the valuable substance known as eridium to spread across Pandora. This attracted the attention of the Hyperion corporation which has taken control of Pandora under the leadership of the tyrannical Handsome Jack. A hunt is on for a new Vault which Jack intends to open to unleash the power within, and after surviving an attempt on their lives the new vault hunters are launched on a quest to put an end to Jack's madness.
Borderlands 2 has the return of most of the characters from the first game. Moxxi, Scooter, Zed, the original vault hunters and of course Claptrap all make a return among others. It is strange to see the playable characters who were effectively mute avatars for the players in the original Borderlands become fully voiced quest givers and pivital actors in the story, but welcome all the same. Jack is a really strong and dark villain who does a lot of evil deeds throughout the duration of Borderlands 2, and its an interesting adventure with some twists and turns that get seriously grim at points, especially considering how light most of the atmosphere is in Borderlands 2. Unfortunately the character script and portrayal are still very slat, and Borderlands leans heavily on assuming that players care about the fate of these characters when I really found that I didn't. It is difficult to be invested in characters that were not "characters" at all in the first game and only amount to stereotypes in the sequel. It is also a bit disappointing that Borderlands tells you about events rather than showing you the events, a very poor method of storytelling.
However the game is filled with a dark and cynical sense of humour that, while having more than a few misses manages to be genuinely entertaining and finny for much of the tale. The story is pretty stupid from beginning to end, especially if you break it down, but the sheer unique character of Borderlands 2's story is very endearing and fun to experience that learned a lot from the General Knox DLC story improvements. Jack is an effective villain and gives the enemy a face that the first Borderlands sorely lacked, and the style of the whole thing is just very endearing despite being silly.
Borderlands 2 carries over the same water painting appearance of the first game. There is a plethora of colours throughout the game with a lovely and attractive art style that makes all the characters, enemies and environments looks slightly cartoonish. Its a great look that makes Borderlands 2 stand out from the crowed of shooters in a really clear and obvious manner, establishing it as a strongly independent series. The levels are vast in size with a huge amount of space to explore and traverse throughout all sections of the campaign. Unfortunately most of these areas are basically empty and feel very lifeless but they still look very impressive. Its just a shame that Gearbox have again failed to make Pandora feel like a vibrant or active place. The lack of wildlife or other natural activities really takes away from the potential of the setting, especially compared with what other games have done with large environmental areas such as The Elder Scrolls, Halo or even Turok. The first Borderlands was dominated by deserts but Borderlands 2 places a heavy emphasis on snow covered areas and landscapes. Other environments are reasonably varied though there is little that will stand out as incredible or especially noteworthy.
Playing on the 360 I found that Borderlands 2 suffered from the same incredible amount of texture pop in that the first game suffered from. It is especially annoying considering Gearbox had 3 years to develop Borderlands 2 and this same issue is as bad as ever, but it is far from a game breaker. Besides the pop in the textures are not particularly well detailed in any way. Character models are generally improved, with some smart monster designs and improved animations from the first title, but I felt that overall there was not as much enemy variety as the original Borderlands managed to contain.
Borderlands 2 also has a great soundtrack with a lot of action beats and stand out pieces that really enhance the energy and pace of the games combat and action sequences. Voice acting is generally good, with Handsome Jack and Claptrap being stand out performances that really carry Borderlands 2 throughout its duration. The weapon and environmental effects are no slouches either, with some nice weapon sounds and amusing screams from enemies as you burn/melt/electrify them.
Borderlands 2 plays in the exact same way as the first Borderlands, no more and no less. It could nearly be mistaken for an expansion pack to the first Borderlands, though Borderlands 2 is definitely a sharper and more lean game than its predecessor. The vast array of weapons allow a massive variety of destruction against the host of enemies you will face in Borderlands 2, and the enemy AI has been greatly improved. Its now much rarer to have enemies unable to attack or getting stuck in corners or on terrain, and the foes are smarter and more strategic than they were in the first game, which is a good achievement for Gearbox. Vehicle combat is also back and the controls for piloting them have been refined in a subtle but significant way that makes them far more enjoyable to delve into. Racing with bandits in a wide open area and smashing into them with your vehicle is a joy, as is taking down airborne enemies in the new buzzard vehicle which is sadly not available to the player.
The 4 character classes mirror the ones available in the first game but they are also quite divergent in terms of the abilities they can acquire. The classes really compliment each other when combined and allow a bit of strategy when used in unison. Unfortunately Borderlands 2 really needs to be played in multiplayer as the classes can be unsatisfying in single player. I played through Borderlands 2 as Zero, and I found his deception ability to be extremely underwhelming and the character rather boring to play when alone. Other classes are more exciting but Borderlands 2 is not an overly interesting game in single player at the best of times. Moments that shine in multiplayer are much less impressive when alone, from something as simple as increasing your characters level to the impressive stature of the games boss battles.
Borderlands 2 lacks the refined reactive controls of Call of Duty or the strategic nature of Halo, but it is a fun game to play and is a complete blast with friends. When you are downed by enemies you can get a kill to return to the action, and if you do die you respawn, though I do not understand why the respawn animation takes so long. If all your team are killed in a fight then the enemy will regain full health, meaning that you will want to ensure that at least one player survives long enough for the others to return to the fray. The other great feature that really helps to drive forward Borderlands 2 is the sheer joy of collecting loot. Enemies drop weapons, shields and cash as you slaughter them and its addicting to compare your existing items with the new loot drops in a way akin to Diablo 2. It was great in the first Borderlands and it remains so in Borderlands 2. Finally the enemy types will actually fight each other in a way that emphasises the savage nature of life on Pandora and its volatile wildlife.
The original Borderlands had a few technical issues, including frame rate slowdown when the action on screen became hectic, severe texture pop in and some poor draw distances. Unfortunately all these issues remain present in Borderlands 2, despite the 3 year gap between the two titles. However, Gearbox have succeeded in improving the games menu and inventory system, making them more easily accessible and simpler to read at a glance. The mission log is greatly improved and the system to control your online settings has been beautifully crafted into the game so the player can call it up at any time, including in the middle of the action. Players can also trade items directly between each other now which is something that the first Borderlands was in sore need of.
One design issue with the game is that the story is predominantly told through audio messages but messages will interrupt each other throughout the entire game. Its an infuriating problem considering how important the audio tracks are in Borderlands 2 and it takes away from one of the main focuses of Borderlands 2. The game also has an extremely slow start, taking about 4 hours to really get going and build up a decent level of momentum to it, a problem I did not experience with the original Borderlands. Beyond these problems Borderlands 2 is a a well thought out game with a lot of smart ideas rolled into its design, with some impressive integration of role playing elements into the structure of a modern FPS.
Borderlands is a great and entertaining shooter filled with colour and style that is unlike any other on the market at the moment. Gearbox have delivered a fantastic multiplayer experience with a 20 hour campaign with a new game plus option and a vast array of side quests with great loot driven questing. Unfortunately Borderlands 2 fails to meaningfully improve upon the first Borderlands in any real way. While it is certainly a more refined and crafted experience it still provides the same core experience in the same engine, fewer enemy types and what I thought was an extremely slowly paced campaign for the first 3/4 hours. It is also a poor game to play alone and the character classes are far from vastly different to their original predecessors. I found the boss fights less interesting in general than the first game and as a whole Borderlands 2 is a completely competent game and even a great one, but I cannot help but be slightly disappointed at the disjointed pacing of the campaign, how safe a sequel it is and the continuing presence of the same technical issues as the first game.
- Colourful cell shaded art style
- Strong integration of multiplayer and loot mechanics
- Improved AI behaviour and vehicle combat
- Voice messages interrupt each other
- Texture pop-in, frame rate slowdown and other technical issues return
- Safe conservative sequel
- Tiny Tina's tea party
- 8/10 - Great