Borderlands 2 Review

Hey guys, did you like Borderlands?!

You did? Enough to play thirty or forty more hours of it?

Okay then, go buy Borderlands 2.

Well that was a quick review. In all seriousness, I don't mean to imply that Borderlands 2 is exactly the same as its predecessor. To say that would be to rob Gearbox of the credit they deserve for improving the game where it needed a little polish. But beyond the little touch-ups and bug fixes here and there, this sequel hews surprisingly close to the original mold for something that took around three years to pump out. If you loved Borderlands before, you're still going to love it, but same goes if you didn't enjoy it so much. 

The biggest change up that's happened in those three years is the addition of two new classes, and the shaking of the old skill trees. Of the game's four classes, the Siren and the Commando are returning and the Assassin and the Gunzerker are brand new. I played a Siren in the original Borderlands, and while even returning skill trees have seen a significant amount of change and polish, I was able to jump into the shoes of the sultry Siren with complete ease. She's a real bruiser in a one-on-one battle thanks to her mind powers, and in the right co-op party she can make for a solid support character. The Commando will feel familiar to returning players as well; although his turret now lacks a healing aura, it makes up for it with a bubble shield that provides temporary protection from fire. It doesn't feel like you can manipulate the game's skill trees to make your Commando into a health-regenerating mega tank anymore, which is definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to game balance.

Borderlands 2 Screenshot

Unfortunately, that balance does not carry over to one of the game's new classes, the Gunzerker. The main ability of this class is Gunzerking, or dual wielding for those possessed of a normal vocabulary. Dual wielding has always been one of my favored abilities in shooters, so naturally this class was the first that I tried out. But here's the thing; on paper, double fisting a rocket launcher and a sniper rifle sounds totally cool. In practice, it's more than a little unwieldy. When you tap that shoulder button, you'll automatically whip out whichever two weapons you had equipped, meaning that you can end up with some really awkward combinations if you're not careful. Even when dual wielding two similar weapons, the combined powers of the guns don't even come close to equaling the Commando's Turret or the Siren's Phase Shift. If anything, you're only drawing more aggro to yourself by whipping out the guns, so although you can later add buffs such as health regen to your Gunzerking ability, it often feels like you're hurting yourself as much as helping yourself when you pop it. Those issues, along with the fact that you will put away one of your guns if you go down and thus waste your ability, make Gunzerking pretty unappealing. I found myself dying about twice as much with him as I did with the other classes.

Luckily, the second new class is a blast to play and much more flexible than the lame Gunzerker. The Assassin has the ability to cloak himself, and plays best with either a melee-based loadout or a sniper-based one. By cloaking yourself, you can play the game in much the same way you might play Mass Effect 3 with the tricky infiltrator class. It's a risky proposition to rush in and execute enemies with melee strikes, but that makes the tactic all the more satisfying. On the other hand, you can hang back and snipe baddies with ultra-powerful rifles. You won't find too many of these in the game's early hours, but once you get into the meat and potatoes of the experience you'll have a blast, especially as backup for a party of Commandos and Sirens. 

Aside from these massive changes, a series of minor tweaks make Borderlands 2 an altogether better game than its predecessor, if only by a slight margin. You'll immediately notice the sharper graphics; this game benefits from not undergoing a stylistic shift midway through its development, meaning that Gearbox could pour more time into stylistic flourishes like cloth physics and falling snow. If you're playing on a PC using one of Nvidia's PhysX cards, these little effects will look especially impressive. Aside from these little touches, the game overall just looks sharper, with characters and environments alike really popping out of the screen. I did have problems distinguishing enemies from the environments at the default brightness setting, but cranking the in-game Brightness meter aleviated that for the most part. Above fixing are the texture popping issues. This bugbear has haunted many an Unreal Engine 3-developer game, but it's more noticeable here than in many recent releases. You'll see it in the menus, when opening chests and when loading into new areas.

A few behavior bugs from the original Borderlands have been ironed out for the sequel, too. Bosses will no longer stand there and greedily eat all your bullets; instead, they'll move around the arena and fight back like they're supposed to. More enemy AI routines have been thrown into the mix, giving enemies the appearance of operating more intelligently when in fact it seems they just have a larger pool of moves to select from. You'll still get plenty of the guys who run straight at you, but you'll also see enemies roll, stumble when shot, and attack from behind cover. It's not necessarily that they're transitioning between all of these things effectively, but they're choosing one or the other with enough variation that battling the enemies doesn't start to feel old after a while like it did in the last game. 

Borderlands 2 Screenshot

That's of course helped along by the games 85 bazillion guns (I counted.) Just like in the first game, every weapon you find outside of a scripted event is completely randomized by the game on the fly. From visual flourishes to ammo types to damage and reload stats, each gun has an identity all its own. This dynamic weapons system results in some crazy cool firepower, but of course it also pumps out a whole lot of duds, and a lot of weapons that sound great on paper don't do so well in practice.

Take for example weapons that fire grenade rounds. You can find rifles, shotguns and more that fire grenades instead of regular rounds. Dealing a little splash damage with each shot sounds pretty nice, right? Well here's the thing. Unless you score a direct hit with the grenade round it doesn't explode, meaning you do no damage and you just wasted a round. And many of the grenade weapons I found did less damage upon impact than my go-to revolvers and shotguns anyway. Of course some of this depends on statistics variance, and it's neat to at least have the option of firing grenades out of a sniper rifle, but don't assume that just because a weapon sounds cool it is actually so.

It's not just the guns that get the crazy randomization treatment this time, though. You can also pick from a variety of grenades, many of which have special effects. Bouncing grenades can be lobbed straight into enemies, while splinter grenades will split up into multiple tiny explosives when thrown. Coupled with the shields, which are also largely randomized, you'll have quite the array of loot to choose from.

Borderlands 2 Axton and his turret

No matter what weapon types you go with, you'll be expelling a whole lot of ammo on your quest to rid Pandora of the tyrannical Handsome Jack. The story of Borderlands 2 is better than it was last time around, but that's all semantics. Plot matters little in either game. Even here, your main goal never really shifts or changes as you make your way through the game. You'll always be gunning for Handsome Jack, and the only plot variance you'll get is from the vast array of side missions. It's a simplistic tale of revenge for sure, but it's aided by some solid voice acting and mostly excellent comedic writing. A few of the jokes fall flat, most prominent among them just about everything that comes out of Handsome Jack's mouth. It feels like there's a lot of wasted potential in much of the antagonist's dialogue, and this hits doubly hard because he's the one you'll be hearing from the most. "Butt stallion" is a simply beautiful turn of phrase, but not in the context in which the writers have penned it. As is, I found myself thinking of new, funnier ways to turn Jack's jokes as I played through the game. 

The quest writing from many of the minor characters is simply brilliant, though. Whether you're furthering the blood-fueled agenda of a psychotic little girl at a macabre tea party or simply helping Claptrap out with the whatever the latest town hub has to offer, you'll find colorfully written dialogue delivered with lightning-quick comedic timing. It would have been easy for Gearbox to rest on Claptrap as a crutch after the love he received in the last game; instead, they take this opportunity to introduce some truly bizarre and memorable side characters, growing out an army of weirdos who will surely develop their own little followings over the next few months. 

You'll encounter these guys and gals in a series of brand new environments. The endless desert sprawl of the last game grew tiresome all too fast, and while you'll still find yourself trudging around the sands by the end of Borderlands 2, you'll also go through snowy tundras, wildlife preserves, and many indoor environments. Eventually even these new locations will get kind of boring, but the variety is still greater than that of the original game.

Still, for all the little changes, Borderlands 2 remains largely the same game we all played three years ago. The gameplay hooks are the same, and while new powers and classes have been added, the core mechancis are the same as they always have been. Like in an MMO, you'll want to sweep up every quest you come across, and you'll be trailing a vast list of  completed quests just waiting to be returned to town by the time you finish your sweep of a new area. It's annoying that you still have to return quests to the quest givers once they're completed. 

When behind the wheel of a vehicle, you'll again find everything to be eerily similar. Vehicle control was never one of the strong points of the original game, and you will find that it's similarly tough to maneuver cars precisely in Borderlands 2. They're still invaluable when traversing wide open areas or doing battle against large groups of enemies, though.

In battle, I found the balance of the game to be a little tough with just one player. This is an issue that will eventually be alleviated some by grinding all of the quests you can find, but it can be annoying to start out the game and feel underpowered, especially before you hit level five and unlock your class ability. Playing with other people smoothes out the balance some and makes all of the grind-y stuff more tolerable to boot. While Borderlands 2 is certainly an enjoyable experience in single player, co-op is where the real action is. Getting together a solid party and playing off of one another's abilities is massively rewarding when done effectively. 

There's a lot about Borderlands 2 that feels just a little too familiar. The combat model and vehicle handling are basically the same as they were before, and the story remains a wafer-thin excuse to get you out on Pandora and scooping up loot. That said, the peripheral content has been improved to an extent that makes this clearly the superior of the two games. Stylistically speaking, the game is gorgeous, and while the Gunzerker class falls flat the rest of the class shakeups are welcome improvements. So yes, Borderlands 2 is a much better game than its predecessor. It just doesn't always feel like a different game.

Score: 9/10

This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360

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