Review by iAmTheTot

"Return to the Borderlands: Guns, Guts, and Glory"

Pandora: a “border world” home to bandits, liars, murderers, psychopaths, entrepreneurs, vicious monsters of all sizes, but most importantly home to vault hunters. In Borderlands 2 we're given the role of one of four playable gun-toting mercenaries, assassins, mystical sirens, or steroid-junkies that all share one thing in common: their love for challenge. Each one has been brought to Pandora by different circumstances, but they were all drawn by the promise of an alien vault full to the brim of who-knows-what. The mystique, the danger, the hunt... it was enough for our heroes.

Sound familiar? I am talking about Borderlands 2, though you may have confused this synopsis with the original installment. Indeed there are many similarities at face value, but Borderlands 2 lives up to its name as a proper sequel, making the original Borderlands look nothing short of a beta test. The review will try to be as friendly as possible to both returning players and players who have never touched the series. The review is broken up into segments with concise summaries immediately following each.

Graphics
A returning vault hunter will not be surprised to see Borderlands' art style but anyone unfamiliar to the series may be put off by the series' not-quite-cel-shading graphic-novel-esque flavour. Don't let its “cartoony” appearance fool you, the game's graphics are quite advanced and after some initial rendering you're fairly unlikely to see any kind of pop-up or texture failure for the rest of the game. The game doesn't need to look realistic to shove your stocking full of wild explosions or vibrant landscapes.

As soon as you begin the game you are greeted with a much improved interactive opening screen that immediately displays the title's updated diverse scenery. Returning vault hunters will be pleased to know there are different (and more) models of just about everything from guns to grenades. Perhaps most notably in this department is that even the playable characters have customizable outfits and heads/hairstyles, to an extent (being a loot-driven game, most of them need to be found or unlocked). Equipped shields, class mods, and grenade types now appear on your person aesthetically – perhaps an otherwise moot point if not for the added capability to view and rotate around your character while exploring your menus. No longer shall you lie awake at night wondering how other players see your character!

Pandora has changed since the original title; no longer are the landscapes bland and tiresome. From desert to tundra, even with a volcano thrown in, the environments are much more varied and vibrant. You may even find yourself stopping to look at the scenery this time around.

Veterans from the original Borderlands may be aware of a rather plaguing frame rate issue that arose when too much was happening on screen at once. Safe to assume of any game, really, but with the kind of chaos that Borderlands encourages and even induces it could at times lead the game to a near stand-still. The problem is less noticeable this time around, but could still present itself under particularly hectic circumstances. For the bulk of the game though, you needn't worry about this.

A semi-updated user interface makes navigating the menus and particularly inventories not just easier, but at first it's even more enjoyable. The HUD displayed while playing the majority of the game will look entirely familiar to a returning player, but the menu screen has been pretty wildly altered to give it that “sequel feel.” Probably most notably is the added function to be able to rotate freely around your character while you're in your menu. Disappointing to some (including myself), the HUD remains mostly unalterable – you cannot change its transparency, colour, or the like though you are allowed to fiddle with its position on your screen, a function which is largely useless unless you're specifically correcting an error with your screen adjustment.
Summary: 9/10
Pros:
-Improved, rich user interface
-More customizing, more gun/etc. models
-Diverse locales to progress through

Cons:
-Hectic activity can significantly reduce frame rate momentarily

Sound
Sound can sometimes really be unappreciated. Background music, sound effects, and voice work can really make or break a game. Background music can subtly set the atmosphere for an entire boss fight, sound effects can be the difference between forgetting that you're just playing a game or not, and voice work can lead to real attachment to simple game characters.

The background music in Borderlands 2 does its job pretty wonderfully. When you're nonchalantly roaming the “borderlands” you'll hardly even notice it until the action kicks up and so does the music. It appropriately sets the mood for every setting and really emphasizes the desperation of some boss fights. Not very long after pressing New Game will you be greeted with a song you may or may not have heard before, but afterward will be demanding to know the title of the catchy and entirely appropriate tune.

Gearbox has offered a wide assortment of guns to use throughout your play, and they all have solid sound effects depending on the way they may fire. From explosions to character shouts, the game's collection of sound bites are all high quality – which is good news as you'll be hearing swarms of them, mostly at the same time, during the chaotic play.

Borderlands 2 has significantly more voice work from an even broader cast of characters that you may be hearing after accepting a quest, completing an objective, or even if it's just radio chatter. The quality is all top-notch, but a majour drawback is that there are so many lines of dialogue (many of which is hidden triggers) that it is very easy to miss some of it, or have one conversation cut in half by the beginning of another. While a character is speaking you to, you can safely leave his or hers vicinity with the knowledge that they'll continue speaking to you over your ECHO communication device, but this feature is mostly moot when you end up leaving to go do some shopping or walk by another NPC that interrupts the crucial discussion that was happening.

If you're willing to be a little careful about it, stop and listen to every line of dialogue. It's much more expansive than the original Borderlands and can deliver some plot points, update you on a status of a mission, or just deliver some laughs. Nearly every line of dialogue is a gem and worth listening to.
Summary: 9/10
Pros:
-Subtle but masterful background music appropriately reflects the pace of action
-Explosions, bullets, and everything in between satisfyingly match the chaos you're sure to incite
-Voice work is solid and expansive, and is how the majority of the plot is conveyed

Cons:
-Dialogue may often be cut out by another NPC, causing you to miss anything from a joke to a plot point
-Dialogue, even crucially important dialogue, for the most part, cannot be reheard

Plot
Plot was not an overly critical part of the first game, and was pretty superficial at best. Gearbox responded to many fan requests and this time around the plot plays a (somewhat) more integral role. There are times when the game tries to play a little bit more like an RPG, with more scripted scenes with NPC interaction but trying to stick closer to its action roots, Borderlands 2 doesn't like to tie the player down in one place too often – watching these interactions is almost always optional, anyway, as their conversation will continue over ECHO even with you decide to leave the immediate area. During many story missions non-playable characters will actively interact with and help the player.

Borderlands was pretty much a “point A to point B” trip in terms of story, with very few critical plot points. The player practically just accepted mission after mission until it was over. In this installment Gearbox introduces a central antagonist: Handsome Jack, a nefarious sadist with a Napoleon complex. The mysterious (but outwardly dastardly) CEO of the Hyperion corporation has come to Pandora seeking to rule over it, promising paradise but delivering tyranny. Seeking a rumoured second vault on Pandora, Jack has searched far and wide for skilled vault hunters to find the vault for him.

Enter the player, hired on by the Hyperion Corporation and specifically Handsome Jack to search out the vault. But it's quickly made apparent that's not at all what he wants with you, and your journey is quickly thrown into disarray. Unlike the first title, subtle twists like this are scattered throughout the main story line, meant to catch you when you least expect them and drive you on your quest to stop Jack.

The plot still plays backseat to the gunplay and looting fans from the first Borderlands have grown so fond of, but it's much more apparent. The increased emphasis on plot this outing by Gearbox gives the player a clearer sense of purpose other than just trying to find the next rare gun.

Gearbox didn't want Borderlands to be a game that took itself too seriously. This tradition is very much continued in its sequel as much of the dialogue, mission objectives, and set pieces are aimed to make the player laugh and enjoy their playing experience as much as possible. The plot of Borderlands 2 and the plight of every man and woman on Pandora could easily be a grim, depressing overtone if not for the frequent comic relief tossed at the players.
Summary: 8/10
Pros:
-Much improved emphasis on plot gives players meaning
-Surprises keep the player guessing until the very end
-Wider cast of voiced non-playable characters contribute to the plot
-Humour tries to keep the tone of the game lighthearted*

Cons:
-Lack of backstory may leave new players in the dust for a few hours
-Some story is only learned
by collecting unprompted optional items
-Humour tries to keep the tone of the game lighthearted*

*Pro or con depending on if you find the humour actually funny, or just distracting. There are a lot of conflicting opinions about this, and you're just going to have to decide for yourself.

Gameplay
When Gearbox made Borderlands, they took “RPG” and “FPS” and smashed them together over and over again until the resulting product was an addictive combination of hectic guns-blazing action with level-based randomly generated loot and skill trees. Fans of shooters enjoyed the over-the-top action, fans of RPGs enjoyed the free-roam world and skill trees, and practically everyone enjoyed the cooperative play. Gearbox took whatever (surely) patented “fun formula” they have and cranked it up to eleven, spitting out Borderlands 2 with an even higher addictive quality.

At its core, Borderlands 2 remains essentially unchanged from its predecessor. You accept missions, side missions and discover new areas as the plot progresses, kill leveled enemies to gain experience, spend your skill points in three skill trees for each character, tackle objectives, open chests and hope for bigger and better loot. Guns, grenades, shields, and just about everything else in the game is leveled (higher level meaning better gear) and randomly generated based on its level and rarity (more rare items will have better stats than a more common item of the same level). The bulk of the game entails you using your skills and guns to take down enemies, level up, find better equipment, and repeat this process until the end of the game and/or until you are the maximum level. If this concept does not sound appealing to you, Borderlands 2 may not be right for you.

The appeal of randomly generated equipment is that at any moment you may kill an enemy or open a chest and see a piece of equipment that is relatively worthless to you, about the same as the stuff you already have, quite a bit better than anything you have, or truly unbelievable in comparison to the equipment you have. Never quite knowing exactly what you're going to have at your disposal could lead to many ways of playing the same game over and over again, being forced to employ different tactics.

But are there really that many possibilities? Well... yes, there really are. Besides your guns (of which there are automatic rifles, sub machine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles, pistols, and rocket launchers), there are grenade types, shield types, class mods, and relics. Each one of these items may have one or more different effect or stat from each other and each stat may be better or worse than each other. For example, one moment you may find a grenade that, when thrown, teleports to its target and then explodes for damage while releasing multiple other, smaller grenades that also explode. The next moment you may find a grenade that at face value seems like it may do less damage, but it homes in on a target when thrown, deals continuous fire damage to enemies, and then saps some of that damage and replenishes your health – all in one grenade! You may experience similar conundrums when trying to decide which guns to use, which shields to keep, and what class mods to equip. Preparation may very well amount to a decent chunk of your play time.

For returning vault hunters familiar with the concept of randomly generated loot, rest assured that there are many more shield types, class mod effects, grenade types, and gun effects this time around, leading to even more possible loot – and some of these effects may even be mixed such as the Homing Fiery Transfusion grenade example listed above.

The four playable characters (with a fifth being released as DLC in mid-October) are fairly reflective on the original four vault hunters: you have a soldier, siren, assassin, and “gunzerker.” In the first Borderlands individual characters were often encouraged to specialize in certain gun types via passive bonuses available from their skill trees, while this time around the classes are overall encouraged to be jacks of all trades with guns. Very few skills specifically effect just one gun type, and the classes specializations usually come in elsewhere (such as the gunzerker being adept at taking a lot of bullets to the face and living to tell the tale, or the siren being proficient at controlling a crowd or excelling with elemental weapons). With a current level cap of fifty, you'll find yourself with no more than forty five skill points to spend on trees that have well over one hundred twenty possible points to invest, though for a fee you are allowed to reallocate your skill points if you are not pleased with how a certain skill is performing for you.

Borderlands 2 is not as straight forward as a simple shooter; aim for the head, sure, but what if your opponent doesn't have a head? Further displaying its role as a hybrid genre, Borderlands 2 forces you to engage a wide variety of foes such as anything from a mere humanoid, to a four-armed snow ape, to a creepy-crawly that can burrow in and out of the ground, to a quick aggressor that can turn visible or invisible at will. Truly, a returning Borderlands player will be glad to know that while some familiar enemy types are returning, they do so with a wide company of new diverse reinforcements.

Many of the side missions (and there are quite a few) are unique from each other and could range from short easy-as-pie missions to long missions that are part of a chain of side missions. Gearbox did a good job of keeping them interesting though, as even though many of them include running around it's usually just running from objective to objective, which may include protecting a flag as it's raised or shooting an NPC specifically in the face or hunting a fearsome boss.

A popular feature from one of the DLCs from Borderlands was a bank to store some of your equipment that you're not using, but don't want to get rid of. This concept carried over to Borderlands 2, along with cross-character storage. These features are not made immediately available to you, but are unlocked with the natural progression of the story. This comes at the cost of an overall smaller inventory than the original Borderlands, however, a fact that may upset many returning vault hunters.

Currency on Pandora comes in two forms: money, and “eridium.” The money itself is gained by killing enemies, completing quests, or selling unwanted equipment and may be used to purchase new equipment or feed your gambling addiction with a newly added slot machine mechanic. The eridium, earned mostly through the same means but much more rare, is used on the black market to purchase upgrades that increase your inventory slots, or the maximum amount of ammo you can hold at once.

And we haven't even come to the cooperative gameplay yet. Borderlands may be thoroughly enjoyed as a single player game, but playing with a friend has never been easier. At any given point you can check you main menu to see who on your Xbox Live friends list is playing, what they're doing, and either join their game or send them an invite. And with a plethora of network options at your disposal you can play Borderlands 2 publicly, with Xbox Live friends, by invite only, or split-screen locally. Furthermore, new to Borderlands 2, if you and a local friend both have Xbox Live Gold memberships, you may take your split-screen action online for a unique blend of couch coop and online play.

The cooperative play is purely drop-in, drop-out. At any point you may join a game (if you have the permission to), and at any point you may leave it. You're not just joining the host's game, either – your games truly become one, and if you're in the same portion of the plot you will be able to partake in the same quests and everyone will reap the rewards as well as progress the plot. In this respect, it's unfortunately easy for someone to come into your game and mess with it in ways you may not want if you're playing publicly visible (easily changed on the fly at any point in the main menu), particularly if you're trying to listen to some dialogue and another player does something to trigger another piece of dialogue. So even though you're sharing the game world try to remember that you joined their game. If someone has joined you and is doing something unsavory, it's easy to eject them from the game via the main menu and they could do the same to you.
Summary: 10/10
Pros:
-All equipment is randomly generated based on level, resulting in higher possibilities
-Larger variety of equipment than predecessor
-Four playable characters can excel with all weapon types while still remaining entirely unique from each other
-Larger variety of enemies than predecessor
-Side missions mix up their objectives to keep it fresh
-Bank and cross-character storage
-Drop-in/drop-out coop made even easier
-Take couch coop online

Cons:
-Returning players may get bored with the essentially unchanged core formula
-Returning players may be disheartened by the smaller inventory size

Length/Replay Value
How much bang are you getting for your buck? In today's stressful economy, I like to equate gameplay hours to dollars spent. But Borderlands 2 may be a mixed bag for a wide assortment of players. If you don't like the concept of constantly trying to better your equipment, or playing through the same game multiple times in different ways, then Borderlands 2 may have a minimal length for you. If you play through the story without even doing all the side missions, you may net around twenty hours of play before you're done with the game. Bought new at sixty dollars, you'd be getting a third of an hour for each dollar spent.

However, if you enjoy the aforementioned, the length and replay value grows exponentially at a scary rate. Gearbox
encourages multiple playthroughs in many ways. After initially completing the story, you will be able to replay the story with the same character at a harder difficulty (higher risk, higher reward). There are four characters (with a fifth as DLC as of mid-October) that are sufficiently unique from each other that they can provide entirely different gameplay experiences. Gearbox has also promised at least four majour DLC expansions for Borderlands 2 (akin to the rather successful expansions from Borderlands); even further adding to the life and replay value. All things considered, if this is your cup of tea, you could be splitting pennies per hour of gameplay – a bargain that's hard to argue with.
Summary: 10/10
Pros:
-Multiple character playthroughs and reaching maximum level can net you hundreds of hours
-Multiple DLC expansions incoming

Cons:
-One play will net around 20 hours

In conclusion, players must remember that Borderlands 2 does not try to be a shooter, or an RPG. It is a hybrid genre that embraces both equally, providing both wild over-the-top action and RPG elements such as leveled gear, skill trees, and character classes. The game can be fully enjoyed alone, with a friend using couch co-op, or online with up to four other players in cooperative play publicly or with friends. The concept of randomly generated equipment can be so hit-or-miss with some players that if you're even feeling a little unsure about it you may want to borrow the game or rent it for a quick personal experience. If you're familiar with the idea or have played the original installment and did not like it, this game is not for you. If you're familiar with the idea or have played the original installment and enjoyed it, I recommend buying this game.
Total Score: 9.2/10


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 10/04/12

Game Release: Borderlands 2 (US, 09/18/12)


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