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Borderlands 2 Review

by William Schwartz

Where Gearbox Software’s 2009 release of Borderlands succeeded on an idea, Borderlands 2 is all about that idea coming to complete fruition.  During a period of first person shooting popularity growth on consoles, Gearbox introduced a game built around a cooperative shooting experience, whose loot and level grinding mechanics rivaled that which you would find in an MMO or barebones single player RPG.  Building its own genre, which Gearbox cleverly dubs “shoot and loot”, Borderlands 2 doesn’t change much of what made the game so popular in the first place, but does however improve on a lot of the first game’s imperfections.

Similarly to the first installment of the franchise, Borderlands 2 once again sets players into the lush world of Pandora, albeit a better realized version of the world.  Pandora is a living breathing gameplay venue stuffed to brim with loot to discover in its nooks and crannies, monsters to battle, and scenery to gawk at.  If you played the first game, you’ll remember the lengthy and colorful cast of characters that was introduced in Borderlands and its subsequent DLC releases.  If you were hoping for a playable return from this cast, you won’t find it here.  What you will find are four new vault hunters, and brand new antagonist, as well as a significant amount of the story dedicated to the on-going saga on Pandora after the events of the first game.  Five years in the rear-view, Borderlands 2 picks up with these new vault hunters and their crusade to take down Handsome Jack, the leader of the evil Hyperion Corporation.  Gearbox doesn’t abandon what they built in the original game.  Characters big and small from the original show up often in the game’s beefier storyline, an obvious focus for Gearbox in rectifying what was a major complaint from players of the original game.  Despite being very focused on its cooperative aspects, Borderlands 2 unfolds much like a single player RPG. Though this time around its got the story to match.  Main story quests are complemented with a ton of side content to explore, in hopes of earning more loot or unlockables for your character and adding even more color to the backstory of the many characters of the game.  So whether you are looking to edge closer to taking down Handsome Jack, looking for rare drops, or just want to see all there is to see in Pandora the sheer amount of missions and side content to explore is extensive.

Borderlands 2 is a game that is about finding better weapons to more effectively deal with your enemies.  Much like many games that are built around this same reward based mechanic, Borderlands 2 constantly has you scouring your environment for these new tools of destruction, and they are plenty.  You aren’t likely to come across the same weapon twice in Borderlands 2, because there are literally hundreds of thousands of possibilities, and quite possibly more.  Broken down into gun manufacturers, weapons in Borderlands 2 each feature distinct traits from their makers as well as buffs for varying stats.  You may find similar weapons that offer different elemental damage or that are good for certain types of enemies, but they all have very distinct feels to them.  Weapons will feature different types of scopes, reload animations, and other features that make them feel unique to the next.  This however isn’t new to the Borderlands franchise.  This same style of addiction inducing gameplay was introduced in the first game.  What has been tailored for Borderlands 2 are the character customization features in this new title that go alongside it.

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The original Borderlands had a paltry offering of customization for players.  Outside of the skill tree customization options and the color of your outfit, Borderlands didn’t allow you to change too much whether aesthetically or functionally.  In Borderlands 2, this has been changed on multiple levels to add a layer of personalization to each character that you create in the game. Changing stations once again allow you to customize your color, and there are many options here. However, you can also customize your characters head, to give them a completely unique appearance. There are no paper doll mechanics at play in Borderlands 2, since the only armor you pick up on your adventure are shields.

More thoughtful this time around, Borderlands 2 gives you more freedom to build your character on a functional level. With three skill trees that focus on different play styles for each character, there are a lot of customization options under the hood when building your vault hunter to spec. If you don’t like a choice you made, or want to go a different route, you can always respec your character just as easily as changing its outfit. To go alongside the big skill tree upgrade, Gearbox has also introduced what’s called a Bad Ass Rank. By completing mini-goals in your Borderlands “career” you can earn small percentage increases to a number of vital statistics. This gives you even more ways to fine tune your character(s) and gives other goals to complete outside of quests. Wanna build the ultimate sniper or tank? You can do that and much more in Borderlands 2’s new customization options. The four new characters in the game are very similar to the original Vault Hunters, with skill sets to match. Though Gearbox only lays out a starting template for you, once you start earning skill points, its entirely up to you how you would like to shape them.

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For players of the original, there’s no doubt about this game staying true to the Borderlands formula as far as gameplay, presentation, and other features, but there have been some changes that are both big and small. An overhaul to actual gunplay make the game more enjoyable out of the gate. It’s not quite what you’ll find in a title like Call of Duty or Battlefield when it comes to gunplay, but its an obvious improvement from the original. With a more accurate gun game in tote, the game allows you to strike enemies in their critical spots easier and its more rewarding. Hobbling enemies is more important than ever, and new system allows you to target specific parts of the body with accuracy that was a frustrating challenge in the first game. If you’ve ever tried to solo the original game, you’ve probably felt the soul crushing difficulty spikes that resulted from a poorly designed check point system. You’d spawn on top of enemies and at times it became easier to just run for it. Borderlands 2 hasn’t completely rectified this spawn system, but it much less obvious, and there are far fewer instances of these frustrating spots. So, Gearbox got the shooter part down this time around. About the looting, they’ve changed that as well, if ever so slightly. Gearbox has added an instant pickup for all small items, like money or ammo that are dropped by enemies. It’s a small feature, but one that goes a long way after clocking in 40-50 hours in the single player campaign. Letting you focus on the big stuff, like weapons, shields, mods, and relics, there’s less loot fatigue in Borderlands 2, and that’s a very good thing.

There’s also a lot that hasn’t changed in Borderlands 2. Pandora is still a beautiful place, but it has been painted with more color this time around. Day and night cycles will change as you play, environmental effects have more oomph behind them, and overall, the graphics just look sharper in Borderlands 2 than the original. There’s also a good deal more variety in landscape in this title when compared to its predecessor. From arid deserts to snowy mountains, industrial complexes and underground caverns, all the way down to a final battle that looks like it was ripped straight from Fantasia, Borderlands 2 is a visual treat. It’s got the sound to go with it as well. A thumping soundtrack will ramp up when a battle ensues and taper off when an area is clear. Excellently written dialog and equally well-voiced characters add a ton of dark humor to the game. If you can’t at the very least crack a smile at some of ClapTraps antics than you should probably lighten up a bit. On the flip-side, Handsome Jack is one of the best villains created in a very long time.

Gearbox has also introduced the central hub of Sanctuary, its a city of refuge where the original Vault hunters run a central command in the fight against Handsome Jack. You’ll find Dr. Zed, Moxxi, Marcus, Scooter, and other characters that will facilitate your needs when you call on them for the appropriate items. You also find a ton of side quests here. It’s a central hub that you’ll constantly be going back to. You can store items in Roland’s Vault, so if you happen to pick up a rare item that you can’t use right away, there’s a way to hold on to it for later use without taking up valuable storage space on your person. This personal storage space has also been changed around a bit. Through a Sanctuary “Black Market” Eridium dealer, you can trade in this valuable mineral that is found throughout the course of the game, for backpack slots, weapons upgrades, and vault storage slots. These were able to purchased in the original game, the Eridium economy system that is in place in Borderlands 2 is a welcome addition and scales naturally as you progress through the game, so long as you turn in your Eridium to the dealer when you return to Sanctuary.

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Borderlands 2 is certainly more single player friendly this time around, it offers a deep and engaging experience on that front. Though the real meat of the game is found in the up-to four player cooperative play, which allows you to tackle Pandora’s toughest challenges with friends, or through matchmaking. This seemed to be very similar to the original game, running without a hitch, the cooperative servers were pretty barren during our review, but we did get to spend a good bit of time on Xbox Live with other players. Jumping into a quick match, the Borderlands 2 matchmaking service will look for the best possible game for your skill level, and then filter away from the most optimal to acceptable, or if there aren’t any games available you can start your own. We were always paired with players that were around the same skill level. You couldn’t really tell the difference between the on-line and off-line gameplay in any noticeable areas other than the additional vault hunters in the fight, and the increased difficulty level of the enemies.

Now as you can tell there was a lot to love about Borderlands 2. It’s a great game. Fun, despite its problems. The problems that we encountered could very well be user specific, and its hard to tell if other players will have the same experience when the game hits store shelves. Bugs in the most inopportune moments towards the end of the game, had me praying that I would be able to reload the game and keep my progress. It’s hard to go into too much detail without offering up spoilers, but lets just say a big boss battle got broken badly and only a complete restart fixed it. After a twenty minute battle this can be somewhat disheartening to have to do it all again, but hey, the spoils were worth it. Boss battles in general did all seem to have some sort of cheap way to beat them. Whether aligning yourself in a perfect position that would prohibit them from moving, or just not going into a area at all where they could hit you, there was definitely some AI issues in some of the biggest battles of the game. There was also a serious level gap towards the end game. The problem came up that you could be facing enemies that are 6-7 levels higher than yourself, if you don’t complete enough side quests. This can also be quite frustrating. Obviously there’s a simple remedy, and that’s to do more sidequesting. The game will force you to backtrack, you’ll hit a wall where you can’t make enough of dent to take even one enemy out on a respawn. Generally though, the gameplay seemed pretty fair unless you progress to far ahead or try to skip over things entirely. Even enemies that are four to five levels ahead of you can be taken down if you use the right weapon combinations. Despite the few problems that Borderlands 2 does have, it was still a great single player experience. Tack on the multiplayer possibilities and its easily a game you could sink a hundred hours or more into. Par for the single player course is probably around 30 levels. After that, you can head back into your game and do the quests that you may have missed. Or you can start a brand new game, with your levels and items intact, with the lure of fighting harder enemies anf the chance of earning rare loot.

Borderlands 2 is another great example of what developers should try to achieve when making a sequel. Preserving the core of the Borderlands experience while bettering the game in nearly every area, Gearbox definitely did well by their fans for this one, and are sure to gain some new ones in the process. Some thoughtful additions added to the formula make Borderlands 2 one of the best games of 2012 thus far.

"loved"
loved

Borderlands 2

  • Available On: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
  • Published By: 2K Games
  • Developed By: Gearbox Software
  • Genre: Shooter
  • US Release Date: 9/18/12
  • Reviewed On: Xbox 360
  • Quote: "The gameplay improvements made to Borderlands 2 make it a more fun cooperative experience than before. The enhanced storyline is more rewarding for the single player audience as well. The combination of the two make for an exponentially better game than Gearbox's first effort. "
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