Review: Borderlands 2

Borderlands2

As the opening to the original Borderlands goes, there ain’t no rest for the wicked.  Looking at the sheer scope of Borderlands 2, it is obvious that Gearbox put countless hours into crafting a bigger, badder, and wickeder sequel to one of this console generation’s most popular titles.  But did they succeed at fixing problems from the original without losing the shoot-and-loot magic that made the Borderlands experience so memorable?  For the most part I would say that yes, Borderlands 2 recaptures the magic of the first game, addresses some issues from the past, and dishes out a fully vibrant new setting. But that doesn’t mean it is without crucial flaws, same as before.

The original Borderlands scratched an itch that I didn’t realize I had.  Combining fast gun fights with lots of loot, role-play leveling mechanics and optional co-op (online and split screen), Borderlands became one of my go-to games for a long time.  Four unique classes offered plenty of replay in addition to a higher difficulty second playthrough, married with the slightly skewed dark humor, Borderlands kept me coming back for more, especially when there was a drought on the new game release calendar.  Even with a disappointing ending, the style of play, art design and loot–lots and lots of loot–kept me drawn in.

Borderlands 2 takes place five years after the end of the first game, and offers gamers four new classes (although three of them are fairly similar) in their return to the world of Pandora to hunt for a new vault.  This time around the game offers one bad guy to focus on through the entirety of the story, with plenty of smaller (but by no means easy) mini-bosses to deal with.  Handsome Jack is as charming as he is evil.  One optional mission that illustrates this so perfectly appears late in the game.  After almost destroying Jack’s reputation and his image, Jack asks the vault hunters to check on his dear grandmother; he is afraid that she may be in danger. Heading to the run-down shack she lives in, I was greeted by several waves of heavily armored thugs, and after dispatching them I made my way into Jack’s grandmother’s home.  Upon entering Jack chimes in via the comlink and thanks me for killing all of the bad guys he sent to kill his grandmother: “Now I don’t have to pay them,” he says.  This is the type of twisted humor that helps to easily put Jack in the bad guy corner.

Also returning are Scooter, Zed, Moxxie, Marcus and Claptrap to offer quests which move the story along and advance character progression.  The returning cast also introduces unique new characters who offer more optional missions as well as a few story based ones.  Most memorable are Tiny Tina and Sir Hammerlock.  Tiny Tina is a 14-year-old explosives expert who also happens to be a hilarious chatterbox sociopath, all because Handsome Jack killed her parents.  Sir Hammerlock is a bit of a walking cliche as the staunch proper English gentleman hunter, who just happens to have barely survived a thresher attack.  Sir Hammerlock offers plenty of quests which help to bring out the nature and creatures of Pandora as well as provide plenty of exposition on events that have happened since the last game.

All of the characters actually provide quests that tell stories enriching the main plot of the current events as well as offer a robust back story to the vault hunters from the first game.  And that is one thing that I’m at odds with.  I played through Borderlands with Mordecai and Lillith, for the most part on my own. Because I played without the benefit of co-op, I formed my own story and character personalities. During the first game there was basically no “personal” story to derive from the game.  Now with Borderlands 2 there are plenty of moments in which Lillith, Roland, Brick and Mordecai interact.  I’m not complaining that the story and their interactions aren’t well done; however, because of how I played the first game, these interactions feel like a retcon that breaks my entire previous experience.  There is a slight romance between Lillith and Roland, but in my version if there would have been a romance it would be between Mordecai and Lillith.  Mordecai’s personality comes off almost as I would imagine, but at the same time playing for so many hours solo in the first game, hearing Mordecai speak to the others and offer up quests just feels off to me.

Borderlands 2 feels and plays just like the first game, with some minor tweaks.  Pick up a quest, travel to wherever the quest is, find additional quests in that area, shoot some stuff, collect butt-loads of loot, complete quest, turn in quest–the basic formula remains the same.  While this method is certainly viable, the amount of downtime spent on traveling back and forth can quickly become a chore.  Part of the reason for this is due to the fact that only one quest can be tracked on screen at a time.  In the PC version there is a setting to shrink down how much of the HUD is visible, so why can’t I track more than one quest at the same time if I have the option to make the overall HUD smaller (which in theory would allow me to have room to track two or three quests at once)?  Switching between tracked quests isn’t difficult to do, but given the amount of on-screen space that’s available, having two or three wouldn’t break immersion or block the view during a gun fight. 

There is nothing worse than clearing out an area to complete a quest and then traveling to a fast travel point (which aren’t generously located throughout each section of the world) to turn in the quest only to find that a new quest is available in the same location. Then you have to travel back to the freshly cleared area, only to find everything has respawned and a whole new slaughter has to take place.  While this is part of the expected charm of Borderlands in general (that enemies respawn shortly after an area has been cleared), what is frustrating is the need to travel over sometimes large stretches of a map with nothing to shoot at, to reach a fast travel spot, and then need to return and have to spend another 20-40 minutes clearing out an area I just spent 20-40 minutes clearing.

Diablo III got the fast travel right when it comes to being able to travel back to a base camp at virtually any time.  Guild Wars 2 goes one step further by just having completed quests be automatically turned in, and when new quests become available they just appear in your quest log without having to fast travel to a particular quest giver.  I would love to see a mix of the D3 and GW2 quest setup and travel system in future DLC packs for Borderlands 2, but my guess is that would almost too radically change how the game plays and folks would then complain that the game would be completed too quickly.

Here’s the thing though: Borderlands 2 has a megacrapton of content.  At first I intended on trying to complete any and all side missions as they were introduced.  I got about two thirds of the way through the game playing in that manner and realized that I was simply not having nearly as much fun because I kept having to go back to the same spots over and over again for the optional quests.  So, at a particularly devastating plot point (I refuse to give specifics because the main story is actually quite fascinating) I made up my mind to just focus on the story missions.  That’s one improvement Borderlands 2 offers, by clearly showing when a quest is a story mission versus being an optional side mission.

Unfortunately, playing solo I quickly discovered that the later story missions are squarely designed with co-op in mind.  Whenever a new area is discovered, enemies will spawn based on the relative level of the character you are playing.  Enter a new area at level 30 and all the enemies will be at least level 30 or higher.  Return to an area that you first explored at level 8, and everything is a one-hit kill as the enemy levels remain the same.  If you explore an area for the first time and everything spawns at a higher level than you are comfortable going at solo, then by all means do the optional quests to level up, gain more skill points and potentially find better weapons.  But by the time I decided to focus on just the story missions, the encounters became so crazily unbalanced against solo play that I felt forced to grind through optional quests simply to be able to level up once or twice and not feel so completely overwhelmed by the grossly overpowered and outnumbering enemies that come out to play during the closing stretch.

The game was fun…until suddenly it sorta wasn’t. I felt like in order to play the game the way I wanted to play, I had to play through all of the extra missions that just didn’t interest me by the end.  The main story sucked me in and really made me want to see just how it was going to be resolved, but because I had to complete way too many side missions in order to level up and not feel over matched and useless, I lost all momentum with the pacing set by the story.

I’m disappointed that I feel this way about the game.  Solo play alone should not impact my overall view of the game.  I played several hours of early sections of the game with some friends and had a blast.  Unfortunately, the game feels off balance in the way it seems to focus solely on group play and not enough on offering an even playing field for the solo gamer.  To that point, I also don’t understand why the PC version does not come with a local split screen option.  Both the PS3 and 360 versions offer that, but currently the only way to play a “split screen” version on the PC requires a whole bunch of hoops to jump through, as explained here and here.  The extra effort seems worth it if you have the desire to play locally (especially given that split screen actually means two full monitors functioning independently), but if the functionality comes right out of the box for console users, why not offer that to PC gamers also?

The audio mix on this game is a bit odd at times as well.  Quests are typically given or updated via a character talking to you from a video chat in the upper right corner.  Often I found myself gunning through a swarm of enemies, only to somehow trigger the completion of a quest (or at least one step in a quest) which would then bring the quest giver on screen to discuss what they wanted me to do next.  Unfortunately that audio chatter is often played during the middle of a gun fight which is mixed at the same volume level as the battle cries, explosions and gunfire.  Even with subtitles turned on I often found myself not being able to understand just what was being asked of me because the audio between the quest giver and the immediate gun battle bled together in an un-listenable jumble. There isn’t a journal to read a recap of that particular conversation either.  Sometimes selecting a different quest and then switching back would repeat part of the conversation, but the audio bleed also occurred during conversations that didn’t necessarily offer a quest to switch away and then back to. If the audio trigger from a quest could have been played while the rest of the on-screen shenanigans were muted or dimmed, that would have solved this problem.  Hopefully something like this can be patched, but I’m not holding my breath.

One of the smart additions to Borderlands 2 that somewhat makes up for the problems I’ve mentioned is the new Badass Points system.  Each character you play can earn points for doing various meta-style objectives, like shoot 100,000 rounds of ammunition or get 25 headshots with a particular weapon.  These Badass Points then apply modifiers to any and all characters that you play.  The modifiers increase health, shield capacity, weapon damage, chance for elemental damage as well as reduce the time shields take to refill or guns take to reload.  Another upgrade is the ability to store guns, shields or class modifiers in a bank that can then be accessed by other characters.

One other exceptional component to the game I want to draw attention to is the amazing soundtrack by Jesper Kyd, Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan.  An interesting mixture of rock, country twang, desolation and humor, the music adds a wonderful layer to the world, enhances gunfights, and builds atmosphere in each new location.  At times during the original Borderlands I found Kyd’s soundtrack to be a bit too desolate and depressing.  This time around the composers have struck the perfect balance of stark alien sensibilities with rockabilly grunge that fits the world of Pandora to a tee.

The original Borderlands hit the sweet spot for many fans of shooters and RPGs, combining both styles in a fast paced co-op focused experience.  Borderlands 2 is basically the same thing, except with a new coat of paint, a stiffer difficulty, and an even stronger emphasis on team play. The game truly shines in co-op, but when playing solo the sharp, jagged edges of improperly balanced late-game encounters are revealed. Borderlands 2 can be as infuriating as it is fun, but overall is a great yet flawed game that offers a vast amount of content and a massive game world you are sure to lose yourself in for tens if not hundreds of hours.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Huge game with tons of replay
+ Co-op joining is painless and enjoyable
+ Dark, twisted humor throughout
+ Unique weapons and loot keep you hooked
+ Pandora is more than just a desolate desert
+ Badass points are a great motivation for replay
+ Gorgeous graphics, especially on PC at high resolution
+ Awesome soundtrack

Cons:
- Tedious quest turn-in structure needs serious streamlining
- Fast travel can only be done from key spots on the map
- Later game enemy encounters tend to be unbalanced for solo play
- No “out of the box” split screen PC functionality
- Audio mixing during key moments (quest updates and character conversations) is poorly handled

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PS3 and Xbox 360
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: 9/18/2012
Genre: FPS/RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.