Borderlands 2 ReviewJoe Shaffer
If I feel a pang of melancholy upon completing a game, it's usually because the characters were rich enough or the story was compelling enough that I didn't want to say goodbye. You would think this wouldn't happen with the first Borderlands, since it didn't tell much of a story and featured enjoyable caricatures in place of deep characters. Yet there I was, watching the end credits roll while grief reared its ugly little head. I blame the game's irreverent humor, fantastic gunplay, and opulent quests, all of which I fell so madly in love with that I was glad not to have constant narrative interrupt my diabolical sessions of incinerating bandits and splattering wildlife with my enormous rig. With four solid expansion packs succeeding the title, it seemed like the joyful slaughter would never cease.
But cease it did. No more stalking the lands of Pandora with my trusty tripod turret and vitriolic revolver that I'd nicknamed "Face Eraser." No more twisting my nipples with glee as I found more powerful weaponry. No more hysterical laughter at the comedic gems belched out by resident redneck Scooter.
At least, no more until September 2012.
I will admit that I was worried about Borderlands 2 before it hit shelves. Not to downplay my trust in Gearbox, but some developers have totally screwed the pooch when it comes to sequels, or delivered half-hearted projects that do nothing to sate the appetites of faithful fans. Still, I was worried that I'd heighten my expectations and effectively set myself up for disappointment. I'd watch that fragile house of cards that was my awkward love for a young video game franchise collapse, and I would forget not only the series itself, but my excellent experiences with the first game.
It turns out that I worried for nothing, though, because Borderlands 2 delivers on every front by maintaining all of the best core concepts of the original and lightly expanding on those that needed it. In other words, the game is an FPS/RPG powerhouse.
Fire it up and you will stalk the grounds of Pandora once again, beefing up one of four character classes as you gun down marauding bands of psychopaths and thieves, corporate soldiers and man-eating beasts. Once again, you will while away hours accumulating and spending skill points to customize your warrior, strengthen class-specific abilities like invisibility and turret-summoning, and amass an impressive collection of guns, shields and accessories.
Providing added brutality to the violence are various elements instilled into many weapons, each one devastating to a weapon's unfortunate victim. Busting a corrosive cap into a bandit's ass, for instance, will coat him with a layer of flesh-eating acid that constantly drains his shield and HP. From there, you can watch in sick delight and even nail him with a few more bullets while he bust into an agonizing death dance. Once his HP hits zero he doesn't just collapse, but dissolves into a caustic green liquid, his layers of flesh stripped away polygon by polygon. If acid isn't your thing, you can always burn, electrocute, "skag," or explode your opponents too.
This is all familiar territory, though. What's important about this game is that it expands on said territory, and does so without mucking up.
Borderlands 2 sure is polished. I first noticed that as I soaked in the improved cel-shaded visuals, complete with smooth animation and oozing with style. Every bloody shootout and vast expanse of the game's impressive array of locales holds the same visual charm as panels from a violent comic book. Its visuals reinforce its satiric narrative, reminding us not to take the experience too seriously.
That's right, Borderlands 2 is not a moving human drama with complex psychological themes and lifelike characters. We're talking about a game where a man decides to rename one of the enemies from Bullymongs to "Bonerfarts." The franchise's trademark crude sense of humor sneaks its way into every mission, even side quests, ensuring that you don't engage in many lifeless fetch quests. Because of this, every objective and quest drips with personality. You won't sigh after hours of collecting one-hundred brains for lack of any pizazz. Characters will chime in mid-quest without interrupting the action, spew a few funny lines and sometimes change up the objectives. Through this, we can see that Gearbox has put actual thought into the campaign and cares deeply about your enjoyment of it.
Borderlands 2's improvements are not merely superficial, though. There are several new features that add to the game's addictiveness. For instance, there's Badass Rank, which is a bit like experience. By completing various challenges like offing a certain number of various enemy types or dishing out critical damage with certain weapons, your Badass Rank increases. Reaching certain milestones nets you tokens which you can exchange for stat increases. Becoming a bigger Badass means dealing more damage, sporting a stronger shield, or standing a better chance of afflicting your victims with elemental ailments. This adds to the game's customization and allows you to craft a character more precisely to your tastes.
You will need those stat increases, too. Where the original was a tad easy, this installment doesn't hesitate to stomp the ever-loving crap out of you. It can be so challenging at times that it's incredibly frustrating, especially around the start. As expected, you don't enter the game with godly weaponry that allows you to own every opponent with a single button press. You kick off the quest with a veritable peashooter, taking on scores of gun-toting goons with improved AI. Your adversaries do not hold still and act as bullet repositories, but will execute evasive side rolls, tricky strafes, and even leap over you to avoid your spray of bullets.
Not only are they tougher to put on ice, but tend to tear you apart with deadlier efficiency than in the original. Allow them to drop your HP to zero and you'll enter Fight For Your Life mode, in which you enact the final seconds of your life. Should you manage to drop a target while in this mode, you'll be grated a "Second Wind," which allows you to continue fighting with a fraction of your HP and shield. However, it's not as easy as it sounds. The improved AI usually kicks in around this point, as many human foes tend to slink off into the background and hide behind obstructions, preventing you from attaining Second Wind.
Many were the f-bombs I dropped in preliminary chapters, but hell if I didn't enjoy the vicious roughing up I received. You have to remember that I'm a child of the '80s, and that I bathed in the ruthless fires of games like Ninja Gaiden, Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, and Castlevania. Despite my frustration and my willingness to list it as a flaw, I still enjoyed the whoopin'. "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" I would belt out between curses. It all paid off in the end, anyway, once I nabbed some awesome guns that balanced out the stiff challenge.
I can tell you that my experience with Borderlands 2 is not unlike my playthrough of the first. I spent hours again, blasting the same suckas, collecting mountains of loot, and building up a mean commando. I enjoyed every minute of it, from collecting body parts for Dr. Zed to going toe-to-toe with the mighty Wilhelm. I loved establishing and defending flags in the Sawtooth Cauldron and bringing down the titanic boss BNK-3R. Every marauder I blew to pieces, every robotic menace I scrapped, every explosive, incendiary or electric gunshot I plugged into the frames of my would-be killers left me with that warm, fuzzy feeling I don't often get from modern games. I do believe it's complete satisfaction. Whatever it is, it's made damn sure that Borderlands 3, should one exist, will find its way into my living room. There, the sick and demented thrills will doubtlessly commence anew, likely with fresh features and more improvements. If not, though, and the next game is exactly like this one, I won't be the least bit disappointed.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.