Pandora Goes Green
Borderlands was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2009. It was a game that, on many levels, should have failed. It wasn’t contemporary, or military, it didn’t have a competitive multiplayer mode, it tried to incorporate action-RPG/Diablo mechanics into a shooter and, most dangerous of all, it was “sent off to die” as Michael Pachter put it, by going up against Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Despite everything it had going against it, word of mouth and some addictive game design kept Borderlands afloat, and it became the sleeper hit of 2009. Three years later, the sequel comes with high expectations and hopes for more foliage and less desert. It meets them.
New Opportunities To Loot
With the vault opening, robot killing, general skewering antics of Borderlands behind them, the original Vault Hunters are now part of the NPC cast that has a very big problem. That problem’s name is Handsome Jack, head of the Hyperion Corporation and self-appointed hero of Pandora, killing everything on the planet that is villainous. Of course, Jack’s idea of a villain is anyone that’s not part of the Hyperion family so… you know where this is going. A new cast of Vault Hunters gets help from the old—and a few familiar, maladjusted faces—in the quest for justice, mass murder and bigger and better guns.
Moving onto the graphics, things are about what you’d expect. Gearbox took a surprising, stylized approach to the Unreal engine in the original Borderlands, and the result was one of the most unique and distinct looking games of 2009. They’ve retained that same sense of style but—as to be expected from a sequel—things have been amped up a bit. Gone is the monotony of an arid desert, replaced with glacial platforms, rolling green hills, vibrant cities and… the occasional arid desert. There are also many more NPCs, not all of them rooted in place this time, though don’t expect the day/night cycles of a Bethesda RPG with various NPCs going to bed, enjoying meals, and shopping at the market. You might be wondering, since this is a game that uses Epic’s Unreal graphics engine, whether the Usual Suspects are still at play in the visuals. They are. It’s more noticeable in local split-screen obviously, but even a full-screen single player experience is going to occasionally betray the Unreal roots, with blurry textures as the engine struggles to load the characters and environment in at proper resolution. This is a problem that has plagued many games running off the Unreal engine this generation.
The audio portion of the presentation is similar to the visual; more of the same but given a slight injection of speedball to give it more punch. There aren’t any big changes on the audio effects side, the guns still sound largely the way you remember them, and surround sound users will get obvious benefits from their set-up since this is an FPS. It’s really the dialog and the music that have the most significant enhancements. With dialog, Gearbox threw in more. A lot more. There’s chatter everywhere, and Handsome Jack—clearly inspired by Borderlands DLC villain General Knox—is a constant radio presence, taunting you with hilariously juvenile harassment. It’s a deliberately sophomoric tone that permeates the mood of Borderlands 2. None of these characters have any idea how witless and/or damaged they really are, but Gearbox, specifically writer Anthony Burch, knows and is letting you in on the joke. The music—at least in part—retains the twangy, Old West vibe of the original, but mixes it in with modern, synth compositions and other melodies for the action sequences, striking a balance between an arid Western and a typical, drug fuelled night at the club. And no, aside from some awkward attempts by Claptrap, there is no dubstep in the game.
Oppa Is Pandora Style
There are three basic elements to the Borderlands 2; shooting, looting and serious mental dysfunction. They combine to create a distinct gaming experience that is both original and—to the prudish—boorish and perhaps even offensive. The original ethos “This is Diablo with guns” is still in effect, and the broad strokes of looting still follow the original, but there have been quite a few tweaks to both the looting mechanics and even the properties of the weapons themselves. For real aficionados of Borderlands, one of the big gripes of the previous console versions were the performance of certain classes of weapons. The shotgun and the rocket launcher, which in most games are the de facto weapons of mass destruction, were hamstrung by some weird math going on in their accuracy ratings that made it possible for even point blank hits to miss on a regular basis. These have been corrected in Borderlands 2, so Gunzerkers and any other fan can breathe a sigh of relief, but the improved usefulness of the rocket launcher also means Gearbox has disabled the ability for Gunzerkers to regenerate rocket ammo, something the old Berzerker was able to do in the previous game as an “apology” of sorts for the limited usefulness of the weapon.
Looting has also been changed somewhat, with friendlier, more efficient options for multiplayer sharing. Loot is still “shared” in the sense that Borderlands 2 has ignored Diablo III’s newer mechanic of allowing everyone to get their own individual loot that no other player ever sees. Loot is still freely viewable to everyone from kills or chests, and it’s still a matter of “first come, first served” that then relies on friendship or the honour system to distribute to the rest. However, there are now specific menus that allow players to trade loot—and money—amongst each other, which prevents weapons from potentially dropping and being lost in the geometry of the environment, something that still happens in Borderlands 2 at the most unexpected of moments.
The biggest change is the introduction of new characters with tweaks to the original classes. Of the four classes, only Axton, the Commando, remains largely recognizably the same; he still levels up and kits out an auto-gun turret that gets progressively more useful and dangerous. The other characters have all received massive overhauls. The Siren no longer phase walks, but instead “phase locks” which is a crowd control move. The Assassin actually combines the phase walk stealth move of the old Siren with the melee special attack of the old Berzerker, and the sniping speciality of the old Sniper for a new, delicate but incredibly hard hitting character. The Gunzerker now foregoes any kind of melee specialization for dual-wielding weapons to incredibly deadly effect. This radically changes the play-styles of these characters for veterans, so a lot of the tried and true strategies of Borderlands will have to be re-thought or simply junked in favor of new tactics.
Skills have also gotten an overhaul, becoming even more distinct and diverse if you’re willing to spend the points. As with the first game, there’s an initial level cap of 50, so it’s impossible for players to fill out every skill in the three branches that are available to every character class. Specializing in one tree will yield game-changing “final skills” but it’s just as viable to ignore this and instead spread out to a wide variety of skills for better flexibility on the battlefield. It’s a very deep system that allows a wealth of possibility within a single character class, and players never have to worry about making a wrong decision with skill selection as the ability to “re-spec” skills at any time for a small fee carries over from the original game. There’s also a new “Bad Ass” meta-game in which a huge number of challenges are present from the get-go. Completion of these challenges allows players to boost stats, and these stat boosts are not only permanent, but carry over to any character created and played on that account.
The game is also significantly bigger in terms of sheer content. More land, more quests, more side-quests, more easter eggs, more characters, more dialog and more story. It’s a noticeably longer game than the first for those that are trying to do everything. It’s also easier to get into for multiplayer, with the LAN and “couch” co-op split-screen options tweaked for better readability, and the online options made friendlier with matchmaking to try and keep players within a few levels of each other, and recommending good fits for class combinations.
For all the great things that Borderlands 2 does, there are still a few minor—but significant—blemishes that prevent the game from being a perfect success. At the time of this writing, there’s a bug present that can wipe out Bad Ass progression and even take away bonus items like the Golden Key given as pre-order bonus. Multiplayer also suffers from some issues with local split-screen games not properly saving character progress unless you play offline—which is a shame since this time out, split-screen players CAN actually play online with others. And finally, there are irritating repetitions of cutscenes and even ECHO recordings that, despite having been collected and viewed, will still be respawn again and again at certain areas.
None of these bugs break the game, and hopefully they will be patched in due time. The important thing is, they are not enough to stop Borderlands 2 from being the best shoot n’ loot experience of 2012. As a solo game, it’s a funny, deranged, challenging experience. As a co-op game, this is an easy game of the year contender with its accomplished mechanics and surprisingly complex RPG and loot systems. This is a gamer’s game, for an audience that wants a world to lose themselves in that is far removed from our own with a comprehensive, meaty set of rules and systems to play with. It’s also psychotic, maladjusted and could use a heavy prescription of Abilify and perhaps a lecture on the dangers of in-breeding. If you’re looking for an engaging, stat-driven shooter with a New West vibe, this is probably the best $60 you’ll spend all year.