humanity's Borderlands 2 (Xbox 360) review

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Didn't like the original - Loved the sequel.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote “there are no second acts in American lives.” While Borderlands 2 doesn’t have much in common with the Great Gatsby they do share the singular link of offering second chances. If you weren’t swayed by the original and are unsure what to make of this bombastic sequel then I urge you to take a chance. Fitzgerald went on to become one of America's greatest writers of the 20th century, and who knows, Borderlands 2 just might become one of your favorite games of 2012.

Pandora is no longer just sand and bones
Pandora is no longer just sand and bones

While the story is still not exactly the strongest selling point of the Borderlands series there is a noticable leaps and bounds improvement in the sequel. Unlike the original both characters and world are brimming with life. After the events of the first game Pandora has changed and evolved into a beautiful tapestry of varied environments that Borderlands simply lacked. While the arid deserts are still present the player will have ample opportunity to visit frozen caverns, lakes of magma, and wilderness preserves with lush vegetation and flowing rivers. The set pieces for some of these areas are truly breathtaking and the signature cell shaded art style makes these images pop with vibrant colors and crisp outlines.

The simple premise is that you were on your way to Pandora and Handsome Jack, the leader of the Hyperion corporation decides to have you killed on the way there in a dastardly double cross. The ball gets rolling right out of the gate with the intro cinematic where you’re introduced to the four new vault hunters ready to take on the hazards of Pandora . Axton the new turret commando, Maya the siren, Salvador the dual wielding gunzerker and the mysterious ninja assassin Zer0. Gearbox has gone ahead and taken their original four characters and shuffled their abilities while retaining their original archetypes. Zer0 plays familiar to Mordecai as the new sniper of the group, but his unique ability to create a hologram decoy and render himself invisible to enemies is much like the phasewalk ability of Lilith from the original title. Likewise Axton has his own turret but it’s Salvador that has the ability to regenerate ammo now through his special ability of gunzerking which boils down to dual wielding weapons while increasing his defense. Each character has three distinct skill trees which offer different ways of playing the game. As Zer0 you can spec out in melee oriented close range combat that increase your sw0rd attacks and bestow plenty of bonuses for getting up close and personal - or you can choose to go down the sniper path which increases criticals and favors ranged gameplay. At the end of the day you can mix and match but be aware that you will only be able to fully max one skill tree by the time you have finished your first playthrough at around level 30 so decide wisely if you wish to become a jack of all trades or a master of one.

Most situations are still resolved with a healthy dose of bullets
Most situations are still resolved with a healthy dose of bullets

The gameplay has remained largely unchanged. After a short exposition via the polarizing Claptrap steward bot you are thrown in a smaller tutorial-esque area that has a handful of quests to familiarize you with the game should you be new to the series. While I understand the concept behind this segregated beginner zone it does tend to hold the player back from the much more interesting and varied central landmass that you’ll spend the remainder of the game in. Once you’re up to speed on how to equip a shield and distribute your skill points the game fully opens up and you’re ready to begin your quest of taking down the infamous Handsome Jack. Taking on the role for Fyrestone as the starter town you will now visit Sanctuary, the base of the resistance and home of the original vault hunters from the first game. This central hub features all your old time favorites such as Marcus the gunrunner, the buxom Moxxi or the somewhat less than ethical doctor Zed. Throughout the course of the game you will get optional quests from each of these characters as well as many bulletin boards spread throughout the gameworld.

Apart from that it’s a straightforward affair of going towards your waypoint and murdering anything along your way while opening up every green button box along the way. The enemies this time around have received an AI overhaul and no longer run at you in a straight line. At times this can be almost a nuisance as almost all enemies shimmy left and right, and generally dance around as they try to surround you from all sides. Along with these new evasive maneuvers a lot of the human enemies will exhibit actual feedback from getting shot. These much welcome animations actually contribute to the gameplay as shooting a Nomad in the legs will make them stumble or fall and at times you can get swarmed quite easily while trying to get to a shiny new chest. The almost drug addict mentality towards looting chests is still as strong as ever. A smart move by Gearbox was eliminating specific class requirements for weapons. All the vault hunters can wield every type of weapon. Just because you picked Zer0 doesn’t mean you’re stuck with sniper rifles for the rest of the game. While some characters do have skills that better correlate with certain weapon types you are free to experiment and find your favorite setup. Weapons now come in not only several varieties of rarity but also different elemental type. You have corrosive damage that destroys armor and eats away at health, classical fire damage, electrical damage for taking out shields as well as slag effects which coat your enemies in a purple goo that lowers their defenses and makes them take more damage.

You can customize your character with tons of skins
You can customize your character with tons of skins

A clever new addition to the old formula is the new badass rank system. There is a lengthy list of challenges to complete such as killing an X number of baddies that earns you badass points and raises your rank. Each time you rank up you have the choice to redeem your badass token for a small stat boost such as a 0.5% increase to reload speed. The choices are randomized each time you go to redeem so as to prevent maxing out a single category too quickly, but what is most interesting is that these benefits are present throughout all your characters. The new gunzerker you made will have the same bonuses as your siren at level 40. Better yet, as you level up new characters their challenges start out fresh so it’s easier to keep gaining points. There are tons of challenges for literally doing anything throughout your playthrough so these accrue at a healthy rate and are a fun side distraction to the main game.

Graphically the game has stayed true to it’s roots while creating diverse new environments for the player to murder their way through. You visit different zones that each have their unique color palettes and enemies. No more Skaags for half the game, as they’re replaced by much more imposing and interesting foes. Along with the environments your character will also see some variety. You can unlock various skins and head models for your vault hunter and switch them out at no extra cost in your home base of Sanctuary. While the heads unlock entirely new models the body skins are simple paint jobs that don’t add any new external decoration to your base character. Even so the ability to customize your vault hunter this way is a welcome addition especially for online play where despite meeting up with three other sirens you can all feel like distinctly unique individuals.

Get some friends and have a blast.
Get some friends and have a blast.

Not everything is smooth sailing in the world of Pandora. Even though were late in the console cycle and the sequel is coming out five years after the original, the guys at Gearbox didn’t optimize the Unreal engine a whole lot. There is some nasty texture pop-in on the console version of the game even when installed to the harddrive. While normally this sort of stuff is not noticeable as it only happens in the beginning of load zones, in Borderlands it is constant. Since loot is randomly generated all boxes will be a blurry mess each and every time you open them. It’s a wonder why the guys at Gearbox weren’t able to solve or even minimize this issue as it’s constantly in your face and sometimes detracts from what otherwise is a beautiful game. Voice acting can be very hit or miss along with most dialog in the game. This is largely dependant on the player preference but jokes can range from subtle nuance to blatant in your face internet or toilet humor which can get cringe worthy at times. Once again your mileage will vary - some detest Claptrap with all their heart while others find him perfectly acceptable. The main writer of the game is Anthony Burch responsible for the Hey Ash Whatcha Playin’ series seen on GameTrailers. If you’ve seen any of the show then you know what to expect. The map can still be pretty disorienting at times and riding around in the vehicles that utilize Halo-esque controls can take a while to get used to. It’s a bit disappointing that there are only two vehicles to choose from but in all fairness you don’t spend too much time in them anyway. Overall the entire game forces the player to do a lot of backtracking and while a quick travel system is present a more robust solution like what we’ve seen in games like Skyrim would be a welcome addition. Being able to just warp back to Sanctuary when your quest is finished would be a Godsend as opposed to the current somewhat clunky alternative of having to backtrack through sometimes up to three zones before you hit a quick travel station. The plot while lightyears ahead of anything that could even be called a plot in the original is still mostly an excuse to keep you killing and opening more boxes. The developer tried to infuse some genuine emotions into the story and while commendable most of these scenarios feel pretty flat.

That said, most of those issues fall squarely in the nit picking category. Despite all the hype and critical acclaim I simply could not get into the original Borderlands. I felt the game was incredibly boring despite loving the setting and presentation. Consider me a believer. It’s hard to say what exactly makes Borderlands 2 so different than the original that makes it a lot more fun to play. Perhaps the fact that I didn’t play the first game extensively is one of the reasons why this second iteration drew me in so much. If you spent 200 hours on Borderlands 1 then be warned that the sequel does not mix up the formula all that much. But if you have a craving for some more chest popping action or like me are thinking of giving this series a second chance, then I highly recommend it. With 4 person coop and a New Game Plus mode that drops even better loot and has new harder enemies theres easily hundreds of hours of vault hunting in store. Even for the more casual vault hunters out there that will only play through the campaign once, theres a ton of missions and upwards of 30+ hours of gameplay. If not anything else, it’s definitely one of a kind experience you won’t get anywhere else.

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