Back in 2009, Gearbox Software’s original Borderlands was a surprise hit. Branded as a ‘role-playing shooter,’ it blended traditional shooter gameplay with RPG elements, in the form of quests, item inventory… and loot. Oh, so much loot. After four DLC packs for the original title and much waiting, we finally have the game’s sequel, Borderlands 2 in hand. Let me just say, the wait was worth every second.
Here’s the story so far – with SPOILERS, if you are coming into the franchise fresh. In Borderlands, you played as one of four Vault Hunters on the planet Pandora, heading off into the wilds of the planet in search of the fabled Vault, said to be filled to the brim with treasure. You fight your way through bandits, monsters, armies and whatever else Pandora can throw at you, only to find the Vault wasn’t so much full of treasure as tentacle death-monster. Coming into Borderlands 2 five years later, it turns out the opening of the Vault triggered the introduction of a priceless and rare mineral called Eridium to the planet, which everyone wants to get their hands on. The enigmatic Handsome Jack of the Hyperion Corporation has come to town to claim as much of it as he can, and hunt down ANOTHER Vault, said to be hidden deep within the planet. And to make it clear, Handsome Jack’s not a great guy. The original four Vault Hunters have been engaged in a bitter war against him, trying to protect Pandora from complete takeover.
The storyline of Borderlands 2 is definitely deeper and more well-rounded than its predecessor, with some twists and turns you honestly won’t see coming. The world of Pandora has been expanded on and given more backstory and variety, without sacrificing any of the delicious low-brow humour that made the first game great. This is thanks in large part to the game’s story being written by new Gearbox addition Anthony Burch, who some may know as the Anthony of web series “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?”, which maintains a similar oddball style of humour to the games (Fun fact: His sister Ash also voices the character of Tiny Tina, one of my favourite NPCs). Not only has the story been deepened, it’s also received a makeover as far as delivery goes. Instead of almost all story being told in mission text boxes or radio messages, the game makes a concerted effort to have both cutscenes and in-game dialogues to help flesh each mission and event out. One of the best mechanics here is that if you wander off from an in-game cutscene it will seamlessly transition to radio chat so you don’t miss anything. This is a blessing, as every dialogue is jam-packed with truly funny lines that you’d be losing a big part of the game experience if you missed them. And the pop culture references, they’re everywhere! From themed weapons and character skins, to jokes and dialogue references, environmental stuff.. So much to see. Yes, there’s even an ‘arrow in the knee’ joke in there, so keep an eye out.
Gameplay-wise, Borderlands 2 is a case of ‘the same, but more’. Your four choices of new player characters are each a sort of evolution of the first game’s four options. Axton the Commando is Roland 2.0 with his 360-degree deployable turret, Maya the Siren’s new Phaselock ability lets you isolate an enemy to cause massive damage not unlike Lillith’s Phasewalk did, Zer0 the Assassin is a step up from Mordecai as the sniper-styled character, and Salvador the Gunzerker is a new heavy-hitter to fill the shoes of Brick, who was more melee-oriented.Each of these characters feel different in a way that they’re familiar but still fresh, and you won’t feel that you’re playing as one of the first game’s characters with a different coat of paint.
You’ll still be running around in first-person mode shooting at things, upgrading your way through your character’s skill trees and racking up experience points, but these mechanics have all been expanded on. You’ll have to budget out your skill points as only one of the three proffered final-tier abilities can be obtained, but you can ‘re-roll’ at any time and reassign all your points – this seems to be more affordable than it was in the first game, too. The importance of elemental weapons has really taken centre-stage this time around too – in the first game it was more useful for a bit of flavour, but here in Borderlands 2 you will be seriously disadvantaging yourself if you don’t play to their strengths. Fire weapons will melt fleshy characters, corrosive weapons make short work of armoured or robotic enemies, shocking weapons make a meal of shields, and explosive weapons are good for bypassing some enemies’ resistances. A new addition is the Slag element, which will weaken an enemy to all kinds of damage besides Slag – very handy for taking down bosses and ‘Badass’ enemies. Each of these elements can be found both in weapon and scattered-barrels form, meaning the stock standard exploding barrels play a much more useful role here.
In addition to your skill trees, your characters can earn ‘Badass Tokens’ for completing various challenges in-game. These can range from killing x number of a particular enemy, to racking up headshots, to letting an enemy power up to its strongest form before taking it down. Once earned, Badass Tokens can be redeemed for a large selection of stat boosts – maximum health, gun damage, shield recharge, elemental effect chance… the list goes on. These boosts are cumulative and each rank taken out improves the stat by a small increment, but here’s the kicker: they’re shared across all your characters. Say you manage to rack up a +20% reload speed in your play-through as Axton? Well, when you start a brand-new game playing through as Zer0, he’ll have that same boost from the beginning. If he improves that boost to +35% in his game, it translates back to Axton too. These Badass Tokens are said to be infinite, meaning you could potentially increase your stats forever.
This isn’t the only element of cross-playthrough gameplay either. Early in the game you’ll be given access to a storage locker that can share items between characters, allowing you to transfer weapons and class mods to your other characters. This is handy as I’d often find in Borderlands 1 that I’d find a powerful mod for another character type and have no choice but to sell it.
On the topic of multiple characters, multiplayer in Borderlands 2 is as good as ever. Allowing both local splitscreen and online co-op, you can drop in and out of your friends’ games as you like to help them out or power-level them if you’re ahead of them (or to hoard all the loot they find). I played online co-op with our very own Dave and it was a pretty smooth ride, despite the level gap between us. [EDIT: Although he did have some concerns that completing later missions with me would mean he’d have to repeat them when he reached that point in his game, Dave let me know this morning he was presented an option to skip missions he had completed in another game session!] One new addition that many gamers will be happy to see is the ability to have your 2-player splitscreen game ALSO do online co-op, up to the maximum four players. This kind of functionality seems like a no-brainer, but is often conspicuously absent in modern games.
Gunwise, Borderlands 2 has taken a step in the direction of variety. Where weapons in the first title tended to look samey, each of the weapon brands now have a distinct look and feel to set them apart. Jakobs guns have an old-timey flavour and can often shoot as fast as you can pull the trigger, whilst Tediore weapons are often very flashy and futuristic, and when reloaded are thrown and explode like a grenade. The variety of the weapons beyond this is impressive, with the range of possible combinations seemingly endless. I’ve had pistols that shoot flame-grenade bullets, sniper rifles that shoot three bullets at once, the ever-present shotgun-with-a-sniper-scope, a bouncing Slag-grenade mod, and many more. You’ll once again find yourself hunting down every weapons chest for something new and exciting, then holding on to that one cool gun way beyond its point of usefulness anyway.
Graphically, the game has retained its trademark cel-shaded style, but the quality has been dialled up. Environments are much more detailed and varied, compared to the brown-a-palooza of the original. You’ll go from icy wastelands to the tundra, massive freighters and border towns, all working together to expand the world of Pandora. PC players get the good treatment here too, as we’ve been told that any computer that could run Borderlands 1 should still be able to run Borderlands 2, thanks to the scaleable graphics. Even then there’s nifty PC-exclusive NVIDIA PhysX effects which do nothing but make the game even MORE attractive. I’m left a little jealous as I stuck to my PS3 for this title. Likewise, the sound design is strong without interfering with gameplay, and is uniquely built for each area.
All in all, Borderlands 2 is the best kind of sequel; it’s the same as its originator, but with more stuff. The game is huge, the guns are (as the trailers said) bazilliondier, and you will indeed joy-puke your guts out as you explore all the humour and areas on offer. Even if you haven’t played the original I’d say pick it up, because this game has got it all going on. Not every shooter has to take itself so seriously, and this one definitely doesn’t. And hey! Hit me up for some multiplayer, so I can show you how truly awful I am at aiming a rocket launcher.