Review by Xero759

"Refined gameplay makes for a great second outing"

2009's Borderlands was an unexpected run-away hit for Gearbox Software, offering a new take on the traditional first person shooter genre with relatively heavy RPG elements, such as character leveling and unique weapon looting. The sequel is looking to capitalize on the unmitigated success of the first, and does so to great effect. While not drastically changing up any of the systems from the original, Borderlands 2 manages to hone so many elements that were lacking from the first that it ends up creating a very complete and unique game experience that makes it unlike anything else you'll play this year.

The story this time around is a drastic improvement from the first. While it starts out in the same sort of mercenary looking for glory via one of Pandora's legendary vaults, Borderlands 2 quickly ramps up the stakes. Center to driving the narrative is the presence of Handsome Jack, the new vainglorious head of the Hyperion corporation. He's taken credit for the events of the last game, and is looking to open another vault for his own dastardly plans. Jack stays in contact with you throughout the game and is hilariously despicable. This is a villain who's banter you'll enjoy and by the end will want to kill. The writing for Jack extends into the rest of the games setting, with Pandora feeling like an insane sci-fi caricature of a spaghetti western.

Old favorites from the first game return for an encore, as merchants, quest-givers, even combat buddies. There's substantially more dialogue this time around, but a nice system has it so you can either be in the presence of a quest-giver, or they can give you quest details over your headset. You'll barely ever have to read quest-text as it will now be delivered mostly through dialogue, a huge improvement from the prior game. Quests themselves will now dynamically update, as well as offer multiple outcomes and rewards, all while offering a wicked sense of humor through various pop-culture references, or just general absurdity. The presence of Anthony Burch (most famous for the web series hey ash, whatcha playin?) as one of the newest writers at Gearbox comes through both in humor and plot structure, even going so far as to offer a great amount of context to the first game.

The minute-to-minute gameplay of Borderlands 2 hasn't strayed far from the original, tasking you (hopefully with friends) with taking out waves upon waves of baddies and bad-asses, all in the singular goal of becoming more powerful yourself. Advancement in making your character more of a force to be reckoned with comes in many forms; leveling up and gaining more skill points, completing challenges and earning stat-boosting tokens, and, most often, finding a shiny new piece of loot. Get more experience, get better gear, fight greater challengers, lather, rinse, repeat, all to great effect. The game should be treated as a strictly co-op affair, as pvp elements, while present, are very much an afterthought in service to a more rpg-like quest experience. It is harder this time to out-level content, as questing zones will now better scale to your level, and there can be some sections of the game that clearly aren't designed for solo-play. It's possible, but expect to have a few deaths while you figure out your strategy.

The loot itself is one of the high selling points of the game. Guns, class mods, relics, shields, even grenade mods, are all randomized in terms of statistics. Even legendary and unique weapons which will have the same basic effectiveness at first glance, may have slightly different statics and perform differently in subtle ways. Such randomized systems of gear have been made famous by Blizzard and their Diablo franchise, but the tactile feel you get from firing two different weapons help really set apart two different subjects, and can have you lean on favorite weapon types or even manufacturers. The gunsmiths of Pandora this time around distinguish themselves to a much greater degree than before, both in form and in function. Torgue weapons will always feature racing stripes on frame and fire slow-moving but hard-hitting explosive rounds, while Jakobs munitions feature a very cowboy-like exterior and will only fire as fast as you can pull the trigger.

Character progression is another area that has gotten a very loving makeover, with the four character classes present at launch feeling much more distinct from each other compared to the original Borderlands. Each class is made unique once again by action a defining action skill gained early in the game as well as three separate talent trees that modify each classes strengths. The Gunzerker fills a resident tough-guy role and is very straightforward with the power to enrage and wield 2 weapons at once. The Siren this time around focuses on crowd control with her phase lock ability to remove combatants from a fight temporarily, as well as heal and dish out lots of elemental damage. The commando shares the most with his previous incarnation and focuses on a stationary turret that can help bring extra support to the battlefield as well as soak up extra damage. Finally, Assassin focuses purely on honing his damage from either extreme range, or up close and personal with a sword.

The talent trees this time around feel much more refined and thought out and can greatly change your gameplay style. It can be as basic as Zero choosing between being a sniper or a swordsman, or a little bit more subtle like Salvador choosing to hone his Gunzerking skill or focusing on switching weapons after every successful kill. Each talent tree also now has paths for being completely viable solo, even the Siren's healing tree. The presence of so many skills that can work well in concert with other players however really emphasize once again that this is a co-op game. You can play to the end by yourself, but you'll be missing out on some of the fun offered by this zany shooter.

The amount of multiplayer options offered this time around are robust and make finding people to play with a breeze. Online matchmaking is offered to help you find people of similar level or quest progression. You can also search for particular open games if your looking to repeat a certain story mission or adventure, or you can just leave your current gameplay session open for others to drop in and out at their leisure. Split-screen is still offered on consoles, and now comes with the option to play online while sitting with a buddy. Even system-link is supported if you've got the extra consoles and TVs.

Borderlands 2 cel-shaded visuals and comic-book aesthetics instantly make it stand out admits the seas of grey-brown modern shooters that continually flood the market. The art style is even more vibrant than it's predecessor as it will take you to wholly new environments not seen before, from rolling highlands, frigid glaciers, even a nice and shiny cityscape. Textures have a wonderful amount of detail in the landscapes and characters, and seeing a thick lining drawn across a horizon map helps to pull off a very crunchy graphic-novel vibe.

The game does suffer a few areas on the other hand due to it's unique visual stylings. Enemies can be hard to find sometimes and can get lost in some of the more complex set pieces. Texture pop-in is also a rampant issue no matter what version of the game your running. Open a chest and you'll have to wait a second for that block to load into a properly detailed ammo box. There are even some cut-scenes that rush close-up perspectives of untextured character models, giving a front row seat to a eerie low-res model the likes that haven't been seen since Halo 2 started experimenting with Bump mapping. Still, the pop-in's end up coming off more as a minor annoyance in a well-polished game rather than a deal-breaker.

Borderlands 2 feels like a breath of fresh air this year despite being more of a refinement of a formula, rather than an innovation. Part of this may be due to the fact that there isn't another game that so heavily focuses on RPG elements and cooperative play in a first person shooter package. Even so much to Gearbox's CEO, Randy Pitchford, who is himself is surprised that the formula for this type of gameplay experience hasn't really been replicated anywhere else in the gaming industry. Simply put, Borderlands 2 offers a unique gameplay experience that has only been offered by it's predecessor. If you were looking for more FPS-looting goodness, this is your fix. If your new to the franchise, the game does a good job of inviting newbies familiar to the FPS genre, and now is as good a time as any to try a game you'll be hard-set to find anything else like this year.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 09/24/12

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

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