Review by BlackWizardMagus
"A Crazy, Zany Shooter/RPG, but a Disappointing Sequel to the Same."
So, Borderlands 2, the sequel to the refreshingly original Borderlands, which combined RPG leveling, a first person shooter, and a Diabo-esqu loot system, all wrapped up with a unique, cel-shaded look, not to mention the M-rated blood and language. I will attempt to give the reader two perspectives, two inter-mixed reviews, here; one for the game itself, compared to the video game world at large, and one comparing it directly to the first game, to judge it's worthiness as a sequel. The end result is a solid game that would be better if Gearbox had insisted on fixing what wasn't broken.
Let's get this out of the way; the first Borderlands had a terrible story. The idea was simple and never advanced or changed until you came face-to-face with the end boss. The DLC simply created new, equally weak excuses to shoot things. There was no real antagonist and never any emotional connection at all, and there certainly wasn't any sort of character development, or arc. Borderlands 2 set out to correct this and ultimately, well, threw a new coat of paint on and called it "good as new". You may have heard that B2 has a surprisingly good story for a shooter, and I suppose that might be true, but for an RPG, it is still bottom-of-the-barrel dregs with only a few almost-good spots. The story is "stop Handsome Jack". That's it. I'll spare you the spoilers of what you are stopping him from, but it's about as imaginative as "stop the Empire from deploying the Death Star". And the path to get there is, again, littered with fetch quests and just random bosses who happen to stand in your way. At one point, you are told to acquire a MacGuffin, and to do so, you have to pass by/through 3 separate security measures, and preparing for each one requires another long, tangentially-related quest. Compared to the first game, you are consistently on-target, where each story quest is obviously related to the main plot, but the overall imagination or writing of the plot is still very, very low. The side-quests are also just as bad as the first game; a little more style was added to them, but this too is balanced out by more frustration of how pointless these feel and the irritation of going through entire dungeons again for little reward. Also, you often can't even get quests when you should; that is, a level 30 quest can't be started until you've done a level 35 story mission, and at that point, why bother?
A quick section on setting; yes, this game does give you more variety. Not everything looks like Road Warrior. You start out on a glacier, but you see grassy areas and cityscapes and deserts, etc. The feeling is still largely lifeless and empty. More irritating is that the dungeons, instead of being shrunk down to a more manageable level, are even larger, taking forever to get through. Enemies also respawn faster, causing you to often spend 2 whole hours to do one little sidequest in an area for just no good reason. The first Halo game got ripped on for this, and it's just as valid an issue today. It's padding, in short.
The thing that really gets the praise, writing-wise, is the characters. The primary difference between B2 and it's predecessor, and most shooters, is the amount of talking. There is so much of it. Every character talks and talks and talks. They don't really say anything, of course; if you could turn off all dialogue, you'd hardly miss anything. But it IS fairly funny. Perhaps too much; that is, sometimes, it'd be nice if every single person you ever spoke to wasn't another weirdo. The first game had alot of quirky characters, but they were usually just over the line to parody, just a little too silly. In the DLC, however, Gearbox perfected making everyone a walking joke, and they imported that here. Everyone is crazy, and everyone lets you know, keeping in regular contact whenever you are doing a quest involving them and being their neurotic selves. This includes the 4 vault hunters from the first game, which is fun to see, but it gets old. And none more so than Handsome Jack himself. He never shuts up. He talks to you constantly, and also shows up regularly in ECHO recordings (soundbites scattered throughout the game, similar to Bioshock). It's refreshing and fun to deal with funny, weird individuals, which is usually only seen in games that feel "kiddy". But on the other hand, this is a long game, and the endless parade of excess grows old. And compared to the first game, it's just too heavy-handed to be as enjoyable. The best comparison might be Patricia Tannis; in the first game, she's a researcher, obsessed with finding the legendary Vault. If you collect her ECHOs, you can watch as she slowly goes insane from the obsession, the isolation, and the stress of virtually everything on Pandora trying to kill her. It's not exactly Edgar Allen Poe, but it's a great example of dark humor, especially when she clearly can tell she's losing it but can't help herself. They bring her back in B2, but now she's closer to a raving lunatic, and many of her lines sound like mad libs. It's how a child, or a hack, depicts the insane. And that's a great example comparing the writing of B1 and B2; make every single exchange a joke and fail to notice that it gets old.
This is the area where there has been the least amount of change compared to the first game, so this will be short. You still have 4 characters to choose from. The 4 characters are similar, in part, to the 4 from the first game. At level 5, you unlock each characters unique ability, and every level thereafter gives you one point to further specialize with (again, same as the first game). The system is basic, but it works, and I only wish they had sped up the process a little, because the first 10 levels are very boring when you have so little to work with. Each character still has 3 skill trees to advance, although these trees are different from the ones in the first game, and they have been expanded, making it easy to sink all your points completely into one tree and still not quite master it. Or you can spread your points among two or three trees, but keep in mind, the more powerful abilities require alot of points first be sunk into the other skills of the same tree. Fortunately, for a small fee, you can get all your points back and start over whenever you want. Compared to the first game, there is more specialization and more options, but it's pretty much the same idea, and it's good.
There are a few other small changes. You no longer gain ranks in each weapon type, so using shotguns repeatedly won't make you better with them. However, they overhauled the challenge system; no longer do you merely get XP for completely challenges, like "Kill 50 skags" or "Set 100 enemies on fire", but instead you gain Badass Ranks, which, every so often, net you a Badass Token. These tokens can be redeemed for a small, but permanent, upgrade to virtually any stat. I imagine it would be hard not to earn at least 100 of these in your first playthrough, and the best part is, the bonuses apply to every character you make with that profile (if that feels like cheating, you can always turn them off). There are also lots of aesthetic unlockables, if that's your thing.
Briefly, let me mention the enemy variety. It has definitely been improved. There's a whole class of robots that pop up constantly in the main story, a few new bandit types, and numerous new creatures. I dislike that many of the new enemies seem difficult for the sake of being difficult, in a cheap, lazy way, but then again, there's only so many places to put weakpoints. My main complaint is, if this makes sense, a lack of variety within the variety. What I mean is, I get sick of fighting the same bandits over and over. They added more bandits, but I still get tired of them. With all the different gangs in the game, you'd think they could have programmed more unique aspects to them; maybe one gang could love elemental weapons, while another gang is made up entirely of the couple of man-mountain type enemies, while a third uses attack-skags (a dog-like monster). This does happen a few, rare occasions, barely, but for the most part, whenever you see even one of a certain enemy type, you know exactly what his friends are going to be like and how to fight them.
Alright, now we have come to the meat, the draw of the game. Everything else is a side-issue to the main fun of finding thousands of different, insane weaponry to use in wholesale slaughter. In Borderlands 1, I think the final count for all possible guns was around 14.4 million combinations. Not to mention class mods, grenade mods, and shields. And this was the greatest fun of all; no longer were guns neatly ranked, like in nearly all other shooters, where the sniper was for distance and the shotgun was for up close and the pistol was for the poor souls who had no other option. No, you could have a fire-spitting pistol for up close and a scoped sub-machine gun for distance. Your mid-range weapon could be a shotgun where the individual pellets exploded on impact, and you could snipe with a high-powered revolver that shot acid. There 9 weapon brands in the first game, 1 of which made completely unique weapons, and the other 8 who each had their own special focus on accuracy or fire rate or magazine size, etc, and then, most of those weapons could also be one of four elemental types for greater variety. Well, here comes Borderlands 2, and the final gun count is...around 100 thousand. Wait, what? That's less than 1% as many options. The reason was a desire to make guns more unique, to move away from just stat changes and more more guns that do crazy stuff (shooting lightning wasn't crazy enough). A new elemental type, slag, was added, but the main alterations were to the manufacturers; two were cut, one got a new name, all of them were cut back to only making 4 types of weapons (shotguns, snipers, etc), and each of them has a unique trait. For example, all Torgue guns are high-powered, and fire slow-moving rockets that explode on impact. Dahl guns, on the other hand, all burst-fire whenever you zoom in (even without a scope). And there's no easy way to put this, but that sucks. While there are still stat variations, you will find yourself using a familiar FPS load-out; shotguns for up close, sniper rifles for distance, and two other guns (SMGs, ARs, rarely pistols) for mid-range. If you find an amazingly good SMG, you might use it in place of a shotgun, and the elemental effects might get you to switch to a gun you'd otherwise never use, but the feeling, and the fact, is that you are far more limited. And those special traits from the manufacturers? Many of them are infuriating. Who wants an SMG, or a sniper rifle, that fires in bursts? What good is a fairly high-powered, rapid-semi-automatic, scoped, mid-range weapon if the recoil is so bad that you have to stop firing after one shot if you don't want to shoot the ceiling? Why would I want to use a fully automatic gun that's only accurate after the first third of the clip has been emptied? Now, I confess that some of the endgame, legendary weapons have really cool special effects that are truly unique, but for about 98% of the weapons you find, the trend was to just take the same gun and change the gimmick. Standard FPSs sometimes feel more fun, because I only have to worry about a couple of guns and most of them are good, solid choices, and I don't have to debate if the built-in handicap is worth it. There's just less fun at sifting through 10 different shotguns if none of them are ever going to be different from an arch-typal boomstick.
As for the rest of the gear, they did a better job there. They combined grenade mod types, so you can get a grenade that bounces all around the room until it hits something, at which point is splits into 7 grenades spread over a wide area, which then detonate, spraying acid over everything, which is literally 3 different types of grenades from the first game combined. Shields (which operate like the shield in Halo) have more options now, with some absorbing ammunition and adding it to your reserves and others channelling excess energy into your gun so a single shot (at a time) is substantially powered up. Class mods, which are just general stat increases or options like health regeneration, are pretty much the same. And there is a new type of equipment, called artifacts (not to be confused with B1's elemental artifacts), that can affect all the other stats, like the stats of your vehicle, or how much damage you do with a particular company's guns, etc. So, here, they did exactly what they should have done with the guns; added more options and more variations, not remove them.
Since I don't usually care that much about music/sound/graphics, that about wraps up the review. The final score for Borderlands 2 on it's own merits is an 8/10. Despite the flaws, it is a fun game. It's different. Everything about it is the polar opposite of Modern Battleground: Resistance of Honor. It still has a ton of loot, and a ton of options, and my crazy characters with psychic powers or invisibility are still fun to play. The joking around is a refreshing change of pace, especially that the jokes aren't watered down to be kid friendly. However, as a sequel, I can't give this any more than a 6/10. It's barely above average, which means, for a sequel, that it's only slightly better than if they had literally kept every mechanic from the first game and just changed the story/quests enough to be considered "new", so it's basically like Left 4 Dead 2. The guns have been hamstrung and the clever parody feel of the first game has been turned one endless joke, which were the two best parts of the first game! Furthermore, the things that actually needed fixing, like the long dungeons and lame quests, were either ignored or made worse, telling me that Gearbox did a very poor job of figuring out what their fans liked and didn't like before they started messing around. So the final score is a 7/10; a game that I think most fans of FPSs or RPGs would like, but it requires a very forgiving nature to overlook the flaws and call it great.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 10/09/12
Game Release: Borderlands 2 (US, 09/18/12)
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