Review by The_Heap

"From a fan of the original Borderlands: Everything I Could Ask For, And a Bunch of Crap I Never Asked For."

Borderlands 2 is a complex game. Fans of the original role-playing shooter will feel right at home with the sequel, but there's a lot to cover when it comes to what it accomplishes and what it does not.

Let's start with the marketing, the improvements Gearbox advertised the game as. Borderlands 2 is a return to the planet of Pandora, the world from Borderlands 1, but from a different perspective. Gone are the dusty wastelands of the first game, replaced with tundra, grassy hills, caverns, and an urban metropolis. You still kill a lot of things, and you still find a lot of guns. Among the massive amount of advertisements and interviews, Randy Pitchford, the director of the game, promised a better story than the previous game, more class diversity, and so much more guns than the previous game that the amount between the two is "exponential". Most sequels, especially shooters, are not significant changes from their predecessors, and Borderlands 2 is no different. If you didn't like the original, I guarantee you won't like this one.

Borderlands 2 came into conception both because of the success of the first Borderlands and the failures of the first Borderlands. The game was a major success, but it was a polarizing game, losing many players to the lack of RPG elements, lazily-designed areas, and a rushed story with a terrible ending. A lot of this, according to Gearbox, had to do with the long development time and changes to the graphical style of the game. For the sequel, Gearbox set out to fix what the first game did wrong. And for the most part, they accomplished at least that much.

The premise of the game is something like this: you are a Vault Hunter, one of four(five with $$DLC$$) established characters. It's never explained just what makes them Vault Hunters seeing how none of them even knew what a Vault was before the events of the story, but a lot of NPCs kiss your ass because of this so you know you're a good one. Handsome Jack, your multi-trillionare antagonist, lures you into a trap, and you spend most of the game trying to kill him for what he did to you, whether you want to or not. Throughout your journey you learn the stories of those effected by Jack's actions and a little bit about Jack himself. It's like Lady Snowblood, but that story was actually engaging. The narrative was written by Antony Burch, who wrote a parody series of Destructoid fame. If any part of that sentence irks you, congrats, you're a human being.

It's not that the writing is "bad" per say, it just doesn't mix well with the crazy, "Wilde-ass" gunplay. Every line a character ever speaks can be summed up as either "You[the player] are awesome", or "I[the character] am quirky". They try so hard to get you to pay attention to their basic revenge story that it becomes almost tiring to listen to after a while. While playing with a friend, I actually began rambling about nothing during a specific character's dialogue so I didn't have to listen to how awkward it was. This is bad enough in itself, but it gets even more aggravating because of the new dynamic quest system they implemented. More often than not you have to listen to a quest giver wax soliloquy before they give you an item that begins the quest. During a sidequest, I had to fight through a large amount of mechs just to get to a button I needed to press. After you press the button, a character begins talking to you about your progress, and then you are queried to press the button again. This happens not once, not twice, but three times in a row. Then a joke occurs, and it's revealed that your first three button presses were nothing but a set-up for a gag. You then have to press the button two more times. After all that, you have to walk back to the quest giver to get your reward. This is not how you handle a dynamic settling, this is how you castrate any remaining interest the player has in your narrative.

Enough of the story for now. If you're playing a loot-based game, you wanna hear about the gameplay. I will enumerate the biggest changes from the first game, starting with:

1. The Beginning

The tutorial is quite frankly, terrible. After surviving a train bombing, your character is forced to follow a Claptrap (think a personality core from Portal, only much less funny) around with much of the game progressing purely based on the Claptrap's movements instead of your own. After defeating the first mini-boss and a few bandits with a crappy pistol you grab out of a cabinet and a shotgun you find in a chest (the same guns every time time by the way), you are free to explore by yourself, but only within the current map, which is maybe twice the size of the average Fallout New Vegas settlement. There are a few sidequests, all orchestrated by either Claptrap or a British caricature named Sir Hammerlock, both equally irritating to listen to. Because of the loot system (which I will get into later), it is unlikely you will find even one useable gun within this area until you defeat the boss.

The worst part about this tutorial is that it eliminates the reasoning for one of the oddest features in the game--the inability to use your classes' action skill until they are level 5. In the previous game you would reach level 5 just before you reached Nine-Toes, the first boss, no matter what you did, so you would always have the means to defeat him. In BL2 it certainly possible and even probable that you will not reach level 5 by the time you reach the first boss, so you will have to face him with nothing but your wits and two terrible guns. The terrible pacing of the tutorial could be considered tolerable if you got your action skill right off the bat, to say nothing of the fact that you only begin the process of allocating skill points at level 6. Having both a boring character and a boring area to traverse is an absolute ordeal.

Once you leave the initial area for the next, you are still not quite done. You don't reach an actual town with people to interact with until you get about an hour and a half through the game, perhaps two hours if you complete all the sidequests. The $$Pre-Order-Bonus$$ is also located inside this town, and not the initial area for some bizarre reason. An hour and a half trek through the game before you even get the bare essentials.

2. Playable Classes

Not including the $$DLC$$ character who has yet to be released at the time of this review, Borderlands 2 has four very fun, very interesting classes; indeed a considerable improvement from the blank slate characters of Borderlands 1. The four characters are Salvador the Gunzerker, Maya the Siren, Axton the Soldier and Zer0 the Assassin.

Salvador is a gun-loving multi-cultural Pandora native, and his action skill is "Gunzerk", which allows him to dual wield two guns he has equipped and gain damage resistance during. The concept here is a character that does a heck of a lot of damage while taking a lot of damage to balance it out. Dual wielding is well-handled--you cannot enter the sights or scope of either weapon you are holding, cutting off your accuracy and forcing you into the front of the battlefield. Enemies in Borderlands 2 do a lot of more damage than in enemies in BL1, so it's even more difficult to keep yourself alive in the heat of things. I feel as if the penalty for his action skill outweighs the strength of dual-wielding, since Zer0 can do similar amounts of damage without using two guns and Axton can draw aggro with his turret, but he has enough to make him worth playing--ammo regen, an auto-reloading skill, and a taunt that refills your health.

Maya is a powerful Siren: a mage who specializes in multidimensional attacks. She displays a supernatural side to the world of Borderlands, with skills that include bullet reflection and the ability to produce a cloud of acid. Her action skill is "Phaselock", a holding cell of psionic energy similar to Warp in Mass Effect. Phaselock's effects are modified by your skill set in a much more noticeable way than the action skills of Borderlands 1. Her prowess with elemental weapons meshes her psionic abilities with the guns of Borderlands 2 well, although these elements are not quite as good as they were in the first game.

Axton is a military soldier who acts as the jack of all trades carrying a powerful turret. The turret has less versatility than it did in the previous game and that can turn off certain players from the class, but it is much more powerful and a greater asset your Axton's firepower than Roland's turret ever could be. Unlike other action skills, the turret is an ally and not a self-augmentation, meaning it can die when exposed to enough damage. Axton himself is good enough on his own that it doesn't matter much, though.

Zer0 is a mysterious assassin, a stealth character dedicated to as much damage as possible to a single enemy at a time. He plays so different than the other classes that I would actually consider him to be one of the best aspects of the game itself, along with the enemy variety. His action skill is a very interesting mechanic--Deception deploys a decoy that distracts enemies while Zer0 himself is free to surprise enemies from wherever the player pleases. This is by far the most versatile action skill and lend itself to a number of play styles, ranging from pure stealth to something like the Spy from Team Fortress 2 or even a glass cannon shot-gunner like the Vanguards from Mass Effect. It adds a degree of personality to the character I don't normally see in class-based shooters. Definitely one of my favorite features of the game.

Overall, the classes seem to have a lot of love put into them, and any fan of the series should see a huge improvement from the previous game as far as character diversity goes.

3. Enemies

As I said before, the enemy variety is one of the best features in the game. If you don't mind spoilers, there's a bestiary chart that you can find easily through Google. There are probably more than 25 types of enemies and at least 3 sub-types for each enemy, not even getting into bosses. In comparison to the first game where your options are Bandits, Lance, Spiderants and Eridians, this is absolutely amazing. It's so diverse that I occasionally get happy when I see a regular bandit marauder because I'm so used to seeing something new at every corner. This means that you will constantly be switching tactics during a single wave to adapt to every enemy within it, which is a great way of keeping the otherwise uninteresting gunplay captivating.

However, as always, you can have too much of a good thing. With so many enemies there's bound to be some that just seem to have no purpose other than to annoy you--the problem with Borderlands 2's enemies is that those annoying enemies happen to be almost half of the bestiary. Rakks, Stalkers and Spiderants take an inordinate amount of time to seek out and kill for the incredibly low EXP they give. The worst of the bunch are Varkids, small locust-like insects who come in waves of up to twenty and give even less EXP than stalkers in most cases. In case you aren't already killing the lot of them due to annoyance, these enemies force themselves into your experience by evolving into tougher, smarter, and stronger versions of the same enemies that will usually chase you until you snap and fire your entire magazine into their tail. Did I mention there's over 20 waves of these things on a certain map? And they never drop any guns?

The enemy variety is a plus overall, just don't get too obsessive-compulsive and attempt to kill everything on the map. The respawn time for each wave is about 4 minutes, so prepare to invest in movement speed skills so you can just run through it all.

4. Single-Player and Co-Op

As I'm sure you've grasped by now if you've paid attention to my review, the dynamic quest system is not very good. Most of the story is told through ECHO recorders--recorders where you can usually see the name and face of the person recording information on the top right corner of your screen. Clearly, the writer was way too hung up on making sure he shoves as much dialogue as possible down our throats so we don't complain about a lack of story (like we did with the first game) to make sure that the dialogue is comprehensible. Only one ECHO recording can be played at a time and with multiple people playing at the same time, all eager to get through boring quests, all you're going to hear is the first sentence of every recording before it gets cut out. I get that the writer REALLY had a serious hard-on for Fallout lore with things like radio stations complete with obnoxious hosts and a mysterious pathogen with mutative properties, but a story told by recorder only works if the recordings themselves are actually comprehensible. The worst part is that for some reason, none of the echos are replayable, even in single player.

The game feels very disjointed and awkward when playing solo. The areas are built for exploration by four people, so you'll end up sprinting a hell of a lot just to get to a vehicle station when playing by yourself. You'll sprint across Sanctuary, you'll sprint during combat, you'll sprint during the abundant amount of fetch quests. And I mean literal fetch quests. You're literally fetching things for other people, not just killing things till they drop. Because of the loot system, which a friend of mine has dubbed the "Hungry Hungry Hippos System", the chances of finding loot when playing solo is much lower than the loot dropped in co-op. Because of the weird gun rarity system (wait, I'll get there eventually!) this means you pretty much have to play co-op if you want weapons and refuse to edit saves or go through the rigorous process of online trading.

Co-op is not without it's gameplay-based problems. For some reason, even if your entire party gets wiped by a mob, the mob won't heal--with the exception of three VERY major bosses. This completely negates any penalty of dying, since the only other penalty given by the game is the loss of useless in-game currency. After about 8 hours of gameplay, me and my friend realized it was faster and less exhausting to simply give up and accept our deaths when downed at a distance than it was to desperately try for a second wind, even when we were trying to get through waves as fast as possible. The balancing act between single player experience and co-operative experience is not very consistent.

5. Loot System, Rarity, and Gunplay

We're finally at the meat of the game. This is why people play this game. This is why some people have completed more than 10 playthroughs of the first game. Here we are, and yet...what a mess it is.

The rarity/looting system is such a confusing pile of garbage that I don't even know where to begin for people that aren't familiar with the first game. Summarized as quickly as possible, the original game worked like this: There were 9 manufacturers. Each made guns that had similiar stats in common. Certain manufacturers specialized in certain types of weapons, like revolvers or SMGs. There were effectively three kinds of guns in terms of rarity: The first were white, green, blue and purple guns, basic weapons that were given lighter colored text if they were statistically awful, and darker colored text if they were very good. The second were oranges or "legendaries", specialized weapons that were generally very good and harder to find. The third were pearlescents, DLC-only gimmick weapons that didn't have much use when it came to keeping your DPS in top form.

In Borderlands 2, there are only eight manufacturers--they removed two of them from the previous game and for some bizarre reason only replaced one of them. Gearbox did their best to diversify the manufacturers by creating gimmicks that greatly reduce the available weaponry for a certain playstyle--for example, if you want to be a one-shotting sniper, have fun finding a rifle that isn't a Jakobs. White weapons are now generated in a way that makes them look nothing at all like a green, and the same applies to the other four colors in the non-legendary rarity system. You think this would be good because it gives more visual variety in the available arsenal of guns, but that's just it--it's ONLY visual variety, just fluff. Purple guns are still always statistically better than blue and green ones of the same level, so if you want a better version of that white desert-eagle-lookalike you're going to have to settle for a tenth of the damage you could be doing with a purple. Most purples of the same suffix look almost completely identical, and there seems to be a severe decrease in size of the pool of available purples--a cheap and easy way of making rare loot rarer and forcing the player to search as long as possible to find a decent gun. Legendaries are now the new pearlescents, gimmick weapons statistically inferior to even average purple weapons of the same level.

The loot system is now much like an MMO. If you've ever played an MMO, you should immediately be reconsidering your purchase. Enemies will almost never drop the weapon they are using, and low-life enemies will very rarely drop anything at all. I'm 70 hours in and I have not seen one non-boss enemy drop anything higher rarity than a green. Not even a blue. Even red chests, the rarest possible treasure chest, will rarely give anything higher than a blue. Legendaries are now "farmable" through certain bosses, one of the dumbest decisions I think was made in the development process. Part of what made the original Borderlands great is that when creating a new character you always had a reliable pool of awesome legendary weapons that could be found easily in a chest, even when you weren't sure how you were going to spec that character or what guns you were going to use. Now legendaries are simply an afterthought, something to "raid" for after you've run out of other things to do. I didn't buy this game to play an MMORPG.

Gearbox didn't lie when they said this gun had more than twice the guns of Borderlands 1, it's just most of these new weapons happen to be garbage.

6. Endgame

And finally we wrap up this review with the biggest problem I have with this game. What happens after you wrap up your second playthrough and hit level 50? Nothing. Nothing changes. The enemies scale to 50, and that's about it. The only extra content is a pitifully easy and lazily designed extra boss who is trivialized by legendary equipment that can be found in less than an hour. Search for guns, then? Sure. Find out that the only thing that's ever going to beat your end-game equipment is a minor statistical improvement over the gun you already had. It's like if you bought a multiplayer game only to find out you're forced to play against the same person every time with nothing but minigames in-between. At least Diablo 3 had the real money auction house as a reason to keep on farming the good (or bad, in this case) farm. After you beat the game once, there is no reason to continue on unless you're really captivated by class diffferences.

As I said before, the purple weapons are the best in the game thus far, and there is very little variety between them. Even though most people chose to use the Hellfire/Double Anarchy/Pestilent Defiler/Orion loadout in the previous game, there were still plenty of options in between. Most players' endgame equipment will consist of The Bee, The Deliverance, two purple shotguns and a Sniper Rifle. Even elemental weapons don't have as much variety as they did in the previous game. With my level 50 Zer0 I can kill any boss in less than a minute and most people online have similar equipment.

My suggestion to anyone who made it to the end of this review is not to buy this game until the inevitable $$DLC$$ comes out so Gearbox can fix their mess of a game like they did with the first one, and see if the game becomes more appealing when the Game of the Year Edition comes out. Don't waste your time on a 20 hour campaign and a 30 hour rehash of the same campaign when the guns variety can't even match up to the first one. If you hated the first one, don't even give the GOTY edition the time of day.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 09/26/12

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

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