Review by HailToTheGun
"Take some time off work for this one, folks. You’re gonna lose a lot of sleep."
If there's one thing Gearbox focused on above anything else in the years following the release of the original Borderlands, it's more. More everything: more guns, more characters, more quests - more, more, more. And boy, did they ever succeed. The charming writing and art design return to give the world of Pandora and all its inhabitants a distinct feeling, and the familiar shoot-and-loot gameplay is as addictive as ever. Take some time off work for this one, folks. You're gonna lose a lot of sleep.
It's been five years since the original vault hunters discovered the mysterious Eridian Vault. Pandora is now under the control of the Hyperion Corporation, whose president an eccentric psychopath known as Handsome Jack has secured the Eridium resource that was found in the vault for himself. With rumors of an even greater vault hidden deep within Pandora's underbelly, a team of new hunters arrives just in time to disrupt Jack's search for it. Familiar faces return to help you put a stop to Handsome Jack's dominion over Pandora and relinquish the treasures buried in the ancient vault.
The game starts out with a spectacular train crash and another introduction song that, while not nearly as perfect as No Rest for the Wicked by Cage the Elephants, does the job. There's nothing particularly innovative with the four classes this time around, although a few adjustments here and there make some of them more fun than others.
Axton the Commando is more or less exactly like Roland, but his turret is far more of an offensive unit and has a few new tricks up its sleeve. Maya the Siren replaces Phasewalk for Phaselock, the ability to freeze and suspend enemies in the air. Maya is unique in that she can specialize into a full healer, or fulfill the role of a battle mage, causing massive area of effect elemental damage from afar. Her Res ability in the Harmony tree is particularly handy in cooperative games, which will allow players to instantly revive a teammate in Fight For Your Life mode by casting Phasewalk on them.
Next we have Zer0 the Assassin, whose Decepti0n ability is fundamentally the same as Lilith's Phasewalk from the first game. Zer0 creates an illusion of himself while he turns invisible for 5 seconds. Depending on your playstyle, you can choose to gain increased movement speed or damage output while Decepti0n is active. This ability shines the most with a melee Zer0s, and should you choose to specialize in the Bloodshed tree, Zer0 has the potential to be the highest single-target burst damage character in the game. However, in multiplayer, a pure melee build loses its luster with more people, as your high damage is almost directly related to scoring kills, and with more players, and with enemies having more health, the chances of performing a last hit diminish.
Finally, we have the foul-mouthed Salvador as the Gunzerker. His ability to wield any two guns simultaneously is impressive and certainly handy in a huge firefight, but compared to the uniqueness of the other classes, there's not a whole lot of creativity going on here. When active, you gain an instant burst of health, and throughout the duration, ammo slowly regenerates. Its hefty 42 second cooldown makes it more of a specialty skill rather than something like Maya's Phaselock or Zer0's Decepti0n, which have much shorter cooldowns and should be used at every opportunity, but with the right point placement, one could theoretically have unlimited Gunzerking in a shootout.
There's not much in the way of innovation in Borderlands 2, although the addition of Badass Ranks adds some spice and replayability into an already spectacular formula. Throughout the game you'll complete challenges which range from killing x number of enemies to buying or looting y number of guns. There are hundreds of different challenges to complete, and 5 levels for each challenge, with each subsequent level requiring more of that same goal. Each time you complete a challenge level you earn a set number of Badass Ranks. Your progress is measured with a bar that increases with each rank you earn, and once you reach a certain milestone, you earn a token. These tokens can be used to gain special character improvements, including increased gun damage, accuracy, recoil reduction, melee damage, and much more.
Here's where it gets nifty: your Badass Rank is profile-wide, meaning that if you start a new character, you retain that Badass Rank and all of the stat improvements you made on the other character; however, your challenges reset, so you can continue to earn more and more ranks. In theory, you could complete a single challenge on one character, which in total earns you 167 Badass Ranks, and then start a new character and complete those same challenges for another 167. This system encourages people to mess around with multiple characters, and if you're the kind of person who is indecisive about what kind of class to choose, you can dabble a bit in all four until you find one you like and still not feel like your time spent with the others was wasted.
With a ton of improvements made over its predecessor, it's a shame to see that some of the more minor issues remain. These are more or less negligible to one's overall enjoyment of the product, but they still persist as thorns in the side of an otherwise brilliant game. For starters, Echo recordings or character-voiced dialogue frequently gets interrupted if you trigger another conversation, which results in losing out on whatever information the previous person had to say. This was a frequent occurrence in the first game and it's sad to see the problem still exists. Second, this is more of a personal gripe than a fault on the part of Gearbox, but I wish you could drive with the map open. Having to stop the car or listen to a backseat driver tell you when to turn left or right isn't that much fun, but again, that's just me.
When Borderlands 2 does improve on the original, it does it with style. Small additions like a minimap to the HUD gives players so much more control when exploring and the new Slag element creates an excellent marriage to Corrosive weapons. The Slag weapons were created following the discovery of the Eridian vault, and use the resource found within Eridium to fire projectiles that cover the enemy in a debilitating substance. This causes them to take increased damage from all sources, allowing players to really mix together elemental properties with weapons or Maya's abilities to devastating effects.
The writing, too, has seen quite the Hollywood treatment. With a bigger world and a ton of additional quests, the writing had to be given a much bigger seat at the front of the stage this time, and for the most part, Gearbox pulls it off. Handsome Jack is a fantastic villain, whose condescension is matched only by his sarcasm. The voice actor does a phenomenal job at making him sound menacing, but at the same time kind of like someone you knew in high school a rich kid with a messiah complex. Not since GlaDOS has there been a villain as likeable as Handsome Jack.
The rest of the cast, however, is hit or miss. The returning vault hunters from the original are great, and their voice actors return to give them the same zany personalities they always had. But Claptrap I could tolerate him in the first game. This time? Not so much. It's not that I hate the character; it's that Gearbox has decided to turn him into the internet. He is the animated embodiment for every internet catchphrase, meme, or popular trend in the last 5 years. But he's not alone in this: Gearbox has decided to take every opportunity they can to make the game feel as meta as possible, which is fine to an extent, but the way it's done in Borderlands 2 sails right passed that line. A joke loses its humor the more you hear it, and like the running jokes found in Borderlands 2 which in their own right seem to mock their original sources, they just get old fast.
Gearbox is a renowned company with award-winning writers, so it's a shame that Borderlands 2 relies so much on pop culture references or stale internet jokes to propel most of its humor. A bit of subtlety can go a long way sometimes. With the original, it felt fresh and exciting: it was daring, in many ways like the original Duke Nukem. But as with Duke Nukem Forever, the novelty can only go so far. Borderlands 2 doesn't have poor writing: on the contrary, it's still largely fantastic. It just tends to reuse old jokes or rely on pop culture references that aren't popular anymore, like an Eddie Murphy movie released 4 years after it was originally filmed (here's looking at you, A Thousand Words).
Borderlands 2 is a success for many reasons: it refines the gameplay of the first, expands on the world, and offers even more character customization and replayability, which in its own right is a tremendous feat. Some of it feels awfully familiar, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The original had such a unique charm to it that if you tampered with that formula in any way, you were bound to anger many people. So in the end, not much has changed at all on Pandora, but that's okay. Because if it's the shoot-and-loot gameplay, the four player cooperative experience, the huge, vibrant world, or the eccentric cast of characters, Borderlands 2 is just what the mad, psychopathic, uncertified doctor ordered.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/15/12
Game Release: Borderlands 2 (US, 09/18/12)
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