Developer: Gearbox Software / Publisher: 2K Games / Played on: Xbox 360 / MSRP: 59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol]
By now you’re probably familiar with the first-person shooter/role-playing mechanics that had me hooked on the first Borderlands three years ago. Good news: that near-perfect blend remains almost entirely unaltered in Borderlands 2. More good news: Gearbox really takes advantage of the creative freedom that its universe allows, making for a hilarious experience that is way more interesting than either of these two genres have business being by themselves.
Five years after Borderlands, the smarmy and overly confident Handsome Jack has taken over the Hyperion Corporation and erected a totalitarian rule over the people of Pandora. It seems obvious, but having a singular villain to focus your hatred towards really helps focus the narrative in Borderlands 2. This, combined with the important roles that the four previously playable characters (Lilith, Mordecai, Roland, and Brick) play as NPCs is more of a reason to see this story through to the end than just about any single element in the original Borderlands.
The game’s setting–the world of Pandora–is just as dystopian and uninhabitable as any other post-apocalyptic videogame setting, but by stringing along humor through just about every aspect of it, Gearbox creates a setting that feels totally unique. This inhumane and twisted world is juxtaposed with a lighthearted and absurd cast of characters.
Take Tiny Tina, for example. She’s a hyperactive young girl, positively ADD, who hosts tea parties for inanimate objects AND also happens to be the most highly trained explosives expert on Pandora. It’s this mix of whimsical and perverted humor that defines Borderlands 2. And the now iconic mascot of the franchise, Claptrap, is so comical and tragic you’re not sure if you should laugh at him or cry. He’s at his most hilarious throughout, but he’s also at his most endearing. In my mind he has cemented himself alongside GLaDOS from Portal and Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide as one of the funniest robots in modern pop culture.
Taking side quests often reveals more about these characters and the dialogue during these missions is just as rewarding as the loot that followed once I turned them in. The nice part of all of this is that Borderlands 2’s story never feels disruptive of its gameplay, always complementary.
If you’re new to Borderlands, think of it as a typical RPG with the moment-to-moment action of a first-person shooter. The major gameplay hook is loot. The randomly generated loot system means you’ll (quite frequently) discover an eccentric range of guns, shields, and class mods for outfitting your character.
Have you ever played a game where you throw your rocket launcher like a grenade every time you reload it? Or how about a gun whose reticle gets smaller as you shoot it, not bigger? My guess on both of those is “no.” Aside from just being crazy and fun, these are interesting gameplay additions that make you think about your first-person shooting a bit differently.
The gameplay loop present in many RPGs of picking up a series of quests for a certain area then completing them, turning them in, and repeating is, if you want to be deconstructive about it, the foundation of Borderlands 2. But it’s easy to forget this when you’re absorbed with blowing up trains or jumping your car into an Eridium pipeline to sneak into a Hyperion facility. The varied and exciting quests keep the game from falling into the routine trap of many loot-based RPGs.
The biggest encounters–the boss fights and such–are often where Borderlands 2’s mechanical gameplay shortcomings rise to the surface; it’s an issue present in the first Borderlands and wasn’t really ironed out this time around. Often, your best option is to exploit the biggest enemies, finding the one place you can stand still and not get hit while occasionally taking pot shots at them. This point might not have made it into my review if I didn’t find myself in that situation as frequently as I did. It really makes what should be the most exciting parts of the game the most tedious.
The co-op experience was a defining trait of the first Borderlands and there’s very little doubt that Borderlands 2 was designed with this in mind. Despite the game’s difficulty scaling with more players, combat is usually easier to swallow when you have three partners by your side. While many of the skills of the game’s four classes aren’t as overtly suited for co-op as the first game, they are clearly designed to complement this style of play. For example, the Siren’s Phaselock is used to raise enemies above the ground thus highlighting for teammates which enemy they should be attacking.
It’s also worth mentioning how smoothly co-op works on a systems level. It’s drop-in, drop-out, meaning that anyone can come in or leave your game without interrupting your session. And if you jump into someone else’s game who is playing content that you haven’t completed yet, that progression carries over when you return to your game, and you‘re given the option to skip it.
If you thought the art style of Borderlands set it apart from its competitors you should probably see Borderlands 2. It maintains its cel-shaded aesthetic but the environmental variety here really maximizes the potential of this style. There was nothing in Borderlands like the corrosive, swamp-filled Caustic Caverns or the elegantly dystopian residences of Handsome Jack, the city of Opportunity.
The wacky world that Gearbox has built really shines in Borderlands 2. It doesn’t just work as a means to deliver funny lines of dialogue, though. Here is an established universe providing ample free rein to contrive silly gameplay mechanics that defy both first-person shooter and role-playing game conventions in way that has me convinced we’ll be seeing a lot more Borderlands in the future.