The Great 2012 Catch-Up: Borderlands 2 Edition

It's been a little while since I last wrote one of these, hasn't it? I'm not sure if that's because of a lack of completed video games on my end, or because a few weeks on, I'm still not really feeling the revamped site. Don't get me wrong - it looks incredibly slick, the editorial content is still as great as it's ever been, and I'm more than happy to ride out the storm of bugs and errors that need to be ironed out before normal service can resume. Where the issue arises for me is how the new site leaves me feeling completely cut off from the actions of other users right now. The status updates and recent blog posts of followed users that were conveniently stacked up on the right side of my profile are now nowhere to be seen. In their place is a Facebook-style activity feed that's been turned off for weeks (and on my most recent check, removed from my profile altogether). My list of followed users doesn't allow me to click through to their profiles - instead, clicking their names simply refreshes the list. As someone who doesn't spend a lot of time on the Giant Bomb forums, I've gone from being closely connected to a handful of awesome users to feeling completely isolated. Hell, the chances are that most of the people who follow me won't even realise this has been written. I want to re-stress that aesthetically I'm loving the redesign, and I'm still visiting the site on an almost daily basis for editorial content. I just hope it's not going to be too much longer 'til the Top Men manage to reunite me with the small section of this community I've come to know and love like a little internet family.

Sorry to have started this blog on a bit of a downer. I guess I just needed to get all that negativity off my chest, so as to be fully prepared to start gushing with praise for the latest edition of The Great 2012 Catch-Up! For those of you who might have missed the inaugural episode of this mini-series back in January, allow me to explain. Over the course of 2012, I missed out on a number of games that I was very eager to play, but didn't manage to find the time and/or money to indulge in. Now that 2013 is here, I've vowed to do my best to catch up with all those outstanding releases from last year. In January I played through Sleeping Dogs, a game that didn't register on my radar until late last year, but that I was glad to have finally given a shot. Through the back end of February I've been playing the second game on my catch-up list, Gearbox Software's Borderlands 2. How did it fare? Read on to find out...

Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2 was on my 'games-to-get' radar the second I knew of its announcement back in August 2011. I had a lot of fun with the original, playing through the entire game in single player as the Soldier class back in early 2010. I can't honestly remember what led to me missing out on Borderlands 2 back on its initial release last September, but for whatever reason I ended up skipping out on my return to Pandora until now. At the very end of last year, Borderlands 2 was one of the five 2012 releases I ended up buying in one fell swoop, with the intention of catching up on all the great titles I'd missed over the course of the year for whatever reason. I picked the game up about halfway through February, when it became apparent that I was once again getting burned out on Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and needed to play something a little different. I chose the Assassin class in the end, wanting a slightly different experience to the one I had with the original Borderlands three years ago, and jumped back into Pandora. Two weeks later I've seen most of what Borderlands 2's first playthrough has to offer, and I'm happy to report that most of it exceeded my expectations in ways that I wasn't even expecting it to.

The Good

  • I've heard a lot of people referring to this game as 'more Borderlands', but neglecting to mention it's also 'better Borderlands'. Perhaps the most apparent improvement over the original here is in its handling of the game's story and characters. These were things that fell disappointingly flat for me in the first Borderlands, with characters who felt like little more than animated quest-givers. The sequel addresses these issues by breathing a ton of life into almost every NPC you meet, be they returning characters like Dr. Zed or Scooter, or new faces like Sir Hammerlock and the antagonist Handsome Jack. These injections of personality go a long way towards making the story feel like it actually means something to the characters here, a far cry from the "we want ALL the treasure" motive driving the first game.
  • The questing is also vastly improved. I remember the first two thirds of the original Borderlands as an over-abundance of mundane fetch-quests dominating my character's mission log. This time around most of the quests have a much more complex, multi-layered structure that, when combined with the more prominent personalities of the quest-givers, makes the prospect of fulfilling your obligations much more enticing. Even the fetch-quests are better framed this time around, making the simple act of "go here and get this" feel more enjoyable than it was in the first game.
  • I thought the loot in the original Borderlands was wildly varied, but the stuff you come across in Borderlands 2 takes it to another level. This is especially true of Shields and Grenade Mods, both of which are now governed by a ton more variables. Shields can deal Nova damage when depleted, absorb bullets and add them to your own inventory, adapt resistance to the last elemental damage type you were hit by, boost your melee or gun damage with Roid and Amp properties respectively, offer an enormous shield boost at the expense of some of your health... the list seems to go on forever. Grenade Mods are no different - they can give your grenades elemental properties, cause them to absorb health and give it back to the player, draw nearby enemies closer before exploding, or even teleport to their destination. To see the level of variety already present in the game's arsenal of procedurally-generated weaponry extend its reach to other types of loot is great, and makes building your character feel even more of a personal thing.
  • Underneath these improvements, Borderlands 2 is running on the same engine that made the original so great to play. The shooting is satisfying, the role-playing elements are deep and set the game apart from other shooters without ever feeling overwhelming, and the art style is a refreshing change from the 'striving-for-realism' norm (especially when paired with the game's wider variety of environments than its predecessor). More Borderlands it may be, but I sure as hell ain't complaining.

The Bad

  • Given the game makes so many improvements on the original, it feels like a shame that my sole major complaint is one that's carried over from the original Borderlands - that the loot can be incredibly underwhelming. It was very rare in my journey through Borderlands 2 that I actually picked up a dropped weapon that was worth using. Most of the weapons I defaulted to were quest rewards that offered noticeable benefits over whatever I could pick up in the field or buy from a vending machine. Once you become familiar with all the weapon types (and the subcategories within those types), it's not even worth experimenting with new pick-ups because you can tell at a glance they're not worth it. This relegates most of the guns you pick up on your travels to junk status. Given they're one of the game's biggest selling points, I think that's a bit of a shame.
  • My last point is less a complaint about the game, and more an idea that I couldn't seem to shake while playing through it. I would love to see the next Borderlands game (and let's face it - after that ending, there's going to be another Borderlands) implement a crafting system of some kind. There were countless occasions during my playthrough where I looked at two weapons in my inventory and thought, "I wish I could combine the properties of these two guns, that would be awesome in X situation". Being able to craft new guns, shields and mods from existing equipment would also negate the problem I've mentioned above - weapons with no immediately apparent advantage would cease to be instant junk, instead becoming potential components for creating your next Skag-slayer. I realise it's a huge ask, but if the guys at Gearbox can implement procedurally generated weaponry into these games to such great effect, I'm confident they could successfully pull off crafting too.

The Verdict

Looking at Borderlands 2 in direct comparison to its predecessor, there's one stand-out factor which makes it clear to me that the second game is superior, at least in my eyes. Through most of my time playing the first game, I found myself being driven forward solely by the prospect of bigger and better guns. With Borderlands 2 the guns were certainly a factor, but the impetus to keep going was largely derived from wanting to know what was going to happen next in the exchange between Handsome Jack and the resistance mounted by the Crimson Raiders of Sanctuary. I was looking forward to meeting another character like Ellie, or taking down another boss like Wilhelm, or storming another Hyperion security complex in an epic multi-faceted mission. Next to that analysis, all the stuff I've outlined above starts to feel merely auxiliary. Borderlands 2 was a game I cared about playing, and that is reason enough for me to lament having waited five months to finally get around to checking it out. It's brilliant, and if you're a fan of the original but haven't played it yet, I implore you to as soon as possible.

So what's next for this gamer? For the next couple of days, not a great deal if truth be told. I've pre-ordered the new Tomb Raider, and that's set to drop through my letterbox on Tuesday. As a long-time fan of the series I'm incredibly eager to get to grips with Crystal Dynamics' latest re-imagining of Lara Croft, and have no intentions of putting it off like I did with so many of 2012's most appealing games. With that prospect only a few days away now, I'm reluctant to get deeply involved in anything game-wise. It was my birthday on Thursday and I was treated to a couple of new games then - Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed by my sister Zoe, and Pro Evolution Soccer 2013 by my good friend Duncan. Given neither of those demand a huge commitment on my part, I'll probably just familiarise myself with both of those until Tuesday rolls round. For now though, all that remains is for me to say thanks very much for reading, and I hope to see you around (site redesign permitting, of course).



Currently playing - Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (X360)

Edited by BulletproofMonk

Good read. I agree with pretty much everything you said about Borderlands 2. A great example of a sequel done right. Some of the writing fell flat for me, but I think they mostly got it right with the story improvements. It's a surprisingly dark story, too. I definitely wasn't expecting the story to go the direction it did, and there are a few legitimately shocking moments.

I burned myself out on it pretty badly when I played it last year, but I think it's about time to go back and finish all the remaining quests. Like you mentioned, there's so much variety in the quests that there's still a bunch of interesting stuff left after finishing the story.

Posted by Mento

I think enough people have brought up the current lack of the erstwhile site's more gregarious facilities that the engineers must be aware of the furore by now and be working on bringing them back. It'll no doubt be further down the queue than making sure general errors are ironed out, that chat doesn't die every time someone makes a poll and that the wiki works as it ought to, but I can't imagine we'll be without that Followed Users feed for much longer.

It certainly has felt a whole lot quieter around here though, I'll give you that.

As for Borderlands 2, I enjoyed my time with it last year sufficiently that it made my GOTY list, the script notwithstanding. I'm with you in that I kind of wish there were more loot-driven games that did something more interesting with the concept, rather than continually testing the limits of the players' predilection for slightly higher numbers. Maybe tap into the appeal of CCGs and have tradeable McGuffins that only provide benefits once whole sets have been found. The trouble would be incorporating it in a way that feels germane to that world, though. Still, since we've run out of unfinished games with decade-old development cycles that Gearbox can "help" limp over the finish line (God, I hope Blizzard doesn't let them near StarCraft: Ghost), I imagine they'll be focusing all their resources on finding ways to make Borderlands 3 work better than 2 did.

Final note: Belated happy birthday!

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

Ahhhh, good stuff. A crafting system would be neat. I wouldn't be upset if they modeled it after Dead Island's great crafting system, but I think the ability to break down junk items would be a must for Borderlands 3 if they implemented such a system. It'd make the vendor trash just a bit more valuable and it'd give purpose to revisiting some of the areas that would otherwise be pointless. I really want to see the outfit system become more fleshed out - I want more than palette swaps for my shirts and pants, for example. I still don't entirely know if I'd want an entire armor system, as I think the shields and class mods are plenty for that sort of thing. But I'd certainly like to be able to change the entire look of a character rather than just a few dozen different colors and a handful of head swaps.

Other than that, I think Borderlands 3 is going to pretty much write itself after the conclusion of 2. Hopefully it allows them to get really creative with their environments and baddies.