Borderlands 2 – Review
by Mark R
An odd thing happened a few years ago when a little-known developer by the name of Gearbox Software took a sidestep during the development process of their second original IP, deciding to go down a graphic novel art style rather than the photo-realistic route that they’d been taking until that point. Suddenly, the gaming press started paying a lot more attention to the RPG/action/FPS hybrid by the name of Borderlands and, by the time it was released, forums and websites were buzzing with excitement. The sarcastic and often self-referential humour helped to quickly move the four principle characters and various NPCs into a position of reverence and, despite the abysmal let down of an ending, Borderlands quickly reached cult status with fans crying out for a sequel.
Described at the time by creative director Mike Neumann as a “no-brainer”, the possibility of a sequel was always on the cards and, three years down the line, the horde was silenced. While the early news from the Gearbox camp was that Borderlands 2 would feature an all-new set of playable characters, it became apparent very early on that we’d see the original four return as NPCs, and it is this that has helped – more than anything else – to make the follow-up much more than a cheap re-numbering for the sake of churning out more for the franchise.
Our story begins in the Hoth-like frozen plains where a lone Claptrap almost has an oil leak when he discovers that not all of the half-buried bodies are lifeless and, in true CL4P-TP fashion, his thoughts are immediately of himself and getting out of what is essentially the dumping ground of Handsome Jack – the self-appointed head of Hyperion Corporation – after he ordered that all of the CL4P-TP units be disassembled after the Claptrap Robolution. In an unexpected move, writer Anthony Burch somehow managed to turn my disdain for the high-pitched roving garbage can into empathy and pity within no fewer than five minutes into the game. With each step, I grew more sympathetic with the little rust-bucket to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to loot anything from his humble Hobbit hole, taking only the gun that was necessary for the first mission.
It is this level of writing, and the depth of characterisation explored by Burch and his team, that places Borderlands 2 streets ahead of its predecessor. Where the original had next to no story beyond “there’s a vault, and your duty is to open it and stop others from doing so”, the various ECHO recordings, mission objectives and inter-character dialogues this time around serve to not only offer a deeper insight into Brick, Lilith, Mordecai and Roland as individuals (as well as their spirited interactions) but also have the potential to bounce the player from both sides of the fence when it comes to the attitude towards Handsome Jack. They say that the best antagonist is one where you are still able to connect with the character, and this is certainly the case with Jack.
An egotistical megalomaniac of the highest order, the ex-programmer with both psychotic and pathological tendencies took over the Hyperion Corporation and embarked on a campaign of outright dictatorship, destroying anyone and anything in his path. Taking credit for opening the first vault, disposing of The Destroyer, and pretty much anything else that could place him in great favour with the denizens of Pandora, Jack has positioned a huge H-shaped moon base in Pandora’s orbit from which he can beam down various Hyperion Loaders, spy on the new vault hunters, and even use mortar fire to destroy entire cities without getting his hands dirty. All in the name of fame, and power.
With a personality somewhere between JK Rowling’s Gilderoy Lockhart, Terry Pratchett’s Vetinari and Adolf Hitler, Handsome Jack’s own story unfolds throughout the game but the basis of his campaign of terror is that the opening of the vault in the previous game disrupted the environment and forced Eridium deposits to rise to the surface, attracting the Hyperion moon base (which, if you recall was mentioned by the Guardian Angel in the previous game and was the origin of the signal which reprogrammed the hapless Claptrap into the Interplanetary Ninja Assassin after the original’s endgame) which now oversees a huge and highly-destructive mining project to help keep Jack in a steady supply of Eridium for reasons which, at the outset, are not known.
Cue our newest vault hunters, and their thirst for all things shiny as well as the chance to do something honourable makes them the perfect candidates when word gets out that a rebellion based in Sanctuary are looking for someone to help them overthrow the Hyperion dictatorship. As with the previous game, the four main characters (now five, with the release of the Mechromancer a week earlier than announced) can be enhanced with the addition of class mods, capitalising on specific traits and offering a much-needed boost to their stats. The skill trees this time around are more geared towards specific play-styles rather than offering the chance to focus on either the character’s action skills or enhance the overall gameplay.
Speaking as one who played no fewer than fifteen playthroughs with Mordecai, the choice was there where you could either focus on beefing up the Bloodwing action skill, upgrade the sniper abilities or enhance pistol skills, and with Salvador there’s far less variation on offer. While there is an option to add some pistol skills to his arsenal, the primary focus is Gunzerking, which makes its way into each of the three skill trees at one point or another. While this appeared to be restrictive at the start of the game, it never actually hindered the progress in any way and it’s only now, at level 38 as I start this review, where I’m now starting to give the left shoulder button the occasional nudge to pull in the dual-wield mode.
Even with the current level cap of fifty, it’s entirely possible to continue to build your character’s skills using the newly-incorporated Badass Ranks. Where before, when completing any of the in-game challenges resulted in XP towards your levelling, you are now awarded with points which can be spent to increase statistics for fourteen individual attributes such as gun accuracy, shield recharge rate, and recoil reduction. The amount by which you can increase these stats is negligible, however, and continues to decrease as you add to each specific attribute, from an advantage of 1.0% at the beginning down to only 0.3% as time goes on.
Upgrading your character has been further enhanced by the addition of the black market, situated in a grimy back street of Sanctuary. Run by a familiar face, albeit one which we never get to fully see, the black market uses Eridium as its currency and is your one place to go for all backpack and ammo SDUs. This brings a negative with it, as well as the obvious positive – you now don’t have to hope that any new area unlocked has vending machines with higher-capacity ammo SDUs and you don’t have to go looking for fallen Claptraps, but it also means that you can farm for Eridium and end up with a fully-unlocked backpack and high ammo capacity at a much earlier level than before.
For the loot and stat whores out there, Gearbox has introduced a much easier way to farm for new weaponry – slot machines. Rather than mapping out crate runs or performing the rinse-and-repeat save-and-quits in the quest for better gear, you now have a much quicker – and infinitely more expensive – choice of parting with your hard-earned cash in one of the several slot machines in the hope for something decent. The loot within these scales with the character levels and we’ve even experienced the ultra-rare orange weapons… if you’re willing to keep throwing cash at them.
The irony is that, as much as Gearbox has certainly listened to their community by enhancing the way in which characters progress throughout the game, they have also gone for a considerably-steeper difficulty curve than with Borderlands. Of course, the first few levels of the previous game were difficult to get through in terms of never having enough cash for the big-hitting weapons but at least the weapons you ended up with when you stepped off the bus could still take out the Fyrestone bandits relatively easily, albeit with not much in the way of ammo if you weren’t careful, but this time around you’re thrown into the deep end with some pretty brutal face-offs very early on. Battling against the likes of Knuckledragger and Boom Bewm at such an early stage of Borderlands was unheard of, and yet with Borderlands 2 we’re tasked with eliminating them before our character has grown used to the cold in the Southern Shelf.
Does this detract from the fun element of the game? Absolutely not. If anything, it changes the Borderlands franchise from one synonymous with the run-and-gun balls-to-the-wall shooter label and forces the player to take a more considered approach. With an unthinkable number of hours of Borderlands under my belt, it was the first time where I was spending more time thinking about available exits and potential recovery spots than I was “how many bullets can I plant in this guy’s skull!?” and that, coupled with the much deeper storyline, is something that I honestly didn’t expect from Borderlands 2. Even having it played it for hours on several occasions prior to release, I still wasn’t prepared for how much more rewarding the game would be.
Throughout the game, depending on where you find yourself, you’ll discover ECHO recordings dotted around the place. Some are hilarious, others poignant, and some will even leave you with more questions than answers… but each one provides an insight into the residents of Pandora whether they tell the tale of a certain Russian arms dealer trying to rip off a misguided blogger or offer a much more intimate probing into relationships between established characters. Again, this aspect was one which blindsided me and, discovering the cruel fate of one particular NPC very early on in the game, made it very quickly apparent that this was going to be so much more than the ‘comparing stats en-route to another location’ affair that the first Borderlands game had to offer.
The locations themselves are also much more involved than with the previous game. Where before there was mostly the grey palette of the Arid Badlands and Rust Commons areas; the terracotta of the Dahl Headlands, New Haven and Headstone Mine; or the snow-capped peaks of the Eridian Promontory and the Crimson Fastness, Borderlands 2 is positively bursting at the seams with life and a wide variety of locations. From the frozen wastes of the Southern Shelf through to the dark neon-lit streets of Sanctuary, or the purple-tinted Eridium Blight through to the clinical self-contained metropolis of Opportunity, the areas are teeming with places to visit and offer some spectacular vistas. For someone with an admitted F12 fetish on Steam, and a habit of recording several gigabytes of footage with FRAPS, the Gearbox environmental artists have guaranteed a full hard drive in the making. Without it though, the game wouldn’t be the same. It turns Pandora into a rich tapestry of visual nuances rather than a great game set against an occasionally-monotonous backdrop as with its predecessor.
Those of you who were heavily invested in the original will experience “moments” throughout gameplay where a fallen sign, a familiar voice, or even a back-lit skyline will provide that welcoming feeling of returning home, along with the inevitable pang of sadness at some of the changes. At one stage, entering a new location for the first time had the immediate effect of a sharp intake of breath when a particular piece of music started to play and, within seconds, something came into view, making it apparent just how much damage Handsome Jack had done in his quest for Eridium. That instance, along with many others, allowed Borderlands 2 to shine and the bitter-sweet moment will remain for some time.
These “moments” would perhaps lose some of their poignancy were it not for the effort that Gearbox have gone to in terms of the graphics. With the Xbox 360 nearing the end of its life cycle, it stands to reason that developers would be able to squeeze more power from it than before, with familiarity being the key to optimisation, and it was initially very surprising just how much more detail the Xbox 360 version had compared to the first game. It is by no means ground-breaking, is still devoid of any anti-aliasing, and is being upscaled from 720p to 1080p, but there is still considerably-more detail in the environments and characters than before.
On the PC, however, it’s an entirely different beast altogether. Standing atop the peak of the Frostburn Crevasse, I was able to look out towards Liar’s Berg and not only watch Sir Hammerlock wandering around outside “Fillion’s Ammunition & Arms”, but also watch the sunlight shimmering on the waters of Gateway Harbor, and in so much detail. Destroying enemies results in body parts and shards of shrapnel being scattered around, all of which will suddenly jump off the ground should you inadvertently (or on purpose, if you’re a bit of a graphic whore) fire a few shots into the detritus. For PC gamers, Gearbox has gone down the route of making sure that everything from the size of the HUD to the field of view is easily manipulated to suit the individual, including reasonably high levels of anisotropic filtering for those who favour a long draw distance without any dodgy textures.
In terms of audio, the main characters remain relatively silent, as with the first game, but our four original Vault Hunters reprise their roles with some great dialogue and what I’d actually consider to be stellar voice acting. A combination of the script and the delivery, the humour and poignancy are brought to the fore and beautifully executed. Both Brick and Handsome Jack were, in my opinion, the most outstanding of all vocal performances and some lines in particular were quick to pull in a hearty belly laugh; Jack with his sociopathic ways and Brick’s desire to be as badass as possible.
The soundtrack is, as you’d expect, perfectly suited for each of the areas, adapting to suit whatever is going on at the time. Some familiar tracks also appeared on more than one occasion, such as the brain-thumping main Moxxi theme as you enter the new bar in Sanctuary. It would perhaps have been a nice touch if they had Hunter Hellquist’s radio show feature a few Pandoran acts peppered throughout the broadcasts as I imagine that some of the locals would have made for some pretty bizarre offerings, but the main soundtrack did more than enough when it came to setting the scene. Shove on a decent pair of headphones and you can even hear bullets zipping past your ear or whistling through the air towards your enemies, and the faint sounds of gears as Axton’s turrets scour for new targets – very atmospheric.
As far as co-op gameplay is concerned, there isn’t much difference between Borderlands 2 and its predecessor other than a few minor enhancements such as being able to trade with other players which, if you’re like me and only play with friends anyway, is unlikely to happen as we’ll invariably just drop unwanted weapons/gear to the ground for others to pick up. It does bring an interesting dynamic though, especially when you have the option to duel for gear rather than merely trade, but I don’t imagine that many people will go out of their way to spend time doing that when it’s quicker and easier to drop loot and move on.
Overall, Borderlands 2 has far exceeded expectations and, when you consider that it was perhaps my most anticipated game of this year (along with XCOM: Enemy Unknown) that’s quite an achievement for Gearbox. When it was announced, I wanted it to be more of the same. I didn’t want it tarnished by gimmicks or have a truck-load of bullshit shoe-horned in to keep the money-men happy, and certainly didn’t want them to sell out by going in an entirely different direction to attract the Call of Duty or Battlefield hardcores.
I wanted Borderlands but with a bit more spit and polish. Instead, I got Borderlands with a lot more spit and polish, a huge personality injection, a more in-depth storyline with some immersive twists and turns… and I actually got to know a lot about the four principle characters this time around, as well as those from the first. It may not be for every Borderlands fan out there, as the difficulty curve is more steep than the last and the mostly-sparse loot drops mean that you’re not going to end up with that all-too-familiar over-powered character from early on in the game, but it does make for a more rewarding experience.Pros
- Builds upon the positives of Borderlands
- Excellent characterisation of previous heroes and new villains
- Enthralling, intriguing and entertaining storyline... and it actually HAD a storyline!
- Poignant in places, playing to the emotions well
- Beautiful new landscapes and great use of colour
- Excellent voice acting
- True Vault Hunter Mode can be as punishing as it is exhilirating
- Just... BETTER
- Difficulty curve at the start could put some more casual players off
- Getting a head or a skin instead of an awesome weapon can be something of a let-down after a grind
- Not being able to fast-travel to certain areas could get tiresome after hours of playing
- True Vault Hunter Mode can be as punishing as it is exhilirating
- Gearbox made me care about Claptrap *sobs*
Borderlands 2 is, on the whole, the natural progression for the franchise. The inclusion of the original four heroes does satiate the desire of those who would otherwise have been saddened by the thought of having to play with someone other than their much-loved character. The storyline more than makes up for the fact that there was an absence of any in the first, and the various twists and turns along the way are ultimately rewarding - to the point where some may have an affinity for our antagonist in certain areas, which only reinforces the strong characterisation.
The strong use of colour creates a much more vibrant world, and the landscapes in general have a "lived-in" feel rather than the abandoned wasteland that was experienced in the first. For those wanting to continue to play Borderlands, but on a grander scale and with a more rewarding outcome, Borderlands 2 will most likely tick all the boxes... then vomit slag all over them before letting Tiny Tina loose to finish them off.
In short... Borderlands 2 is everything that Borderlands should have been, but you weren't even aware of what it needed until playing the sequel.
Last five articles by Mark R
- The Division: A Guide to Surviving the Dark Zone Solo
- The Harsh Reality of the Virtual World
- Hard West - Review
- Best of 2015: My Gap Year: Borderlands and Fallout - The Aftermath
- Best of 2015: Great Times Ahead: Late to the GTA Party (Bearhugger70 Exploded You)