Gearbox Software returns to Pandora with another stellar looter shooter in Borderlands 2.
- Like Borderlands, but better
- Many small UI improvements
- Fun, elaborate missions
- Hilarious writing
- Frame rate drops when there's heavy action
- Desperately needs GPS / better checkpointing
Borderlands 2 Review:
For a Borderlands fan, there will be few joys more pure in 2012 than taking those first steps back into the world of Pandora in Borderlands 2. After sinking more than 80 hours into the sequel with two different characters over the past week, I can confirm with confidence that this is the grand, loot-filled adventure you've been waiting for. Gearbox Software took everything it learned from the surprise monster hit that was the previous game and delivered a sequel that is largely the same, and in only the best ways.
Second Verse, Same As The First
Let's get the ugly statement out of the way first: Borderlands 2 is going to be followed by plenty of accusations that it's really more like Borderlands 1.5. It's not a mark against the game in my own book, speaking as someone with more than 100 hours (and still counting) invested in the previous release. That said, if you were hoping for a major evolution in this sequel, you're going to be disappointed.
Then again, that's evolution for you. It's not a quick process. Changes occur over great stretches of time in the march toward a more perfect design. That's exactly where Borderlands 2 stands. It's not so much a case of a few huge changes but rather tons and tons of small ones. Why rock the boat, after all? Borderlands 2 may play it safe, but any fan of the first game will tell you that it was nearly perfect. The sequel simply takes that framework and improves on it.
What kind of changes are we talking about? Little, nitpicky enhancements are all over the place. Dropped ammo and money is now automatically collected. Friends playing online are listed in the pause menu, allowing for even easier drop-in/drop-out play. Progress made in co-op sessions from someone else's save can be voluntarily skipped for that character in your own save. Inventory items can be compared with the press of a button. You can apply profile-wide buffs using Badass Tokens. There's freakin' onscreen minimap.
The list goes on and on. Borderlands 2 improvements are measured mostly in inches and degrees, but those small leaps forward amount to a tremendously improved experience overall. This is, top-to-bottom, a sequel for the fans. It's evolution, baby.
Bigger And Better
The evolved user experience only paints half the picture of what's so exceptional about Borderlands 2, however. There's also a more entertaining game, and a more involved one from a narrative perspective. The sometimes aimless wandering and tedious mission structures of the previous game have clearly been looked at closely and re-tooled going into this sequel.
The missions are straight up more fun. You're asked to fulfill a wider variety of tasks and, thanks to each carefully designed environment in the game's newly expanded Pandora, you'll have a blast figuring out how to get each one done. For every mission that involves following checkpoints to collect a series of voice recordings, there's half a dozen others that ask you to do everything from renaming a species of snow gorilla to solving a crime rendered as a logic puzzle.
The writing is a big part of this equation as well. The aforementioned renaming mission, for example, is essentially a "kill X beasties" grind quest. You'll have to score those kills in some unusual ways, but the entire excursion is memorable more because of the ongoing commentary you get from its quest-giver as he tries and repeatedly fails to come up with a better name.
The main story is relatively straightforward in some ways, in that there's a clear antagonist who tries to stop your efforts to bring him down in an escalating series of scenarios. Fans of the series' lore will no doubt appreciate some of the big narrative moments that occur. No spoilers, but for all its unhinged humor and general sense of chaotic fun, Borderlands 2 is not without its moments of loss and melancholy. There's a more affective story here for those who take the time to really absorb it, but much like the previous game it can also all be tuned out as background noise.
In fact, the only thing in Borderlands 2 that you really can't tune out is the ever-present promise of more and better loot to be found. It's the core focus of the game's existence as a "looter shooter," after all. Your billions-strong arsenal is even more diverse than it was in the previous outing, with an actual manufacturer's identity apparent in both the look and the feel of each weapon.
The four new characters feel fresh as well. Each one falls into a similar sort of role that the previous game's quartet did, but the newly expanded skill trees leave much more room for tailoring different builds to different styles of play. For example, the Mordecai replacement Zer0 can be developed into quite a beast with the sniper rifle, but you can also make him play a bit more like Brick with a melee focus. That sort of depth characterizes each of the new skill trees, which makes the still-present respec feature even more valuable than it was before.
There's also much more value now for those who really want to invest in multiple characters and many tens of hours of play thanks to the new Badass Tokens system. They're essentially leveled challenges that apply to your entire profile that, as you complete them, earn you tokens. Those tokens can be spent on tiny increases in a variety of categories, such as Weapon Damage, Gun Accuracy, or Elemental Effect Chance. All characters associated with your profile enjoy these small-yet-ever-growing boosts, which ups the replay value considerably.
For all that is excellent in Borderlands 2, it's not quite a perfect game. It's a significant improvement, but some old issues persist and some new ones rear up, offering new opportunities to evolve in future follow-ups.
The biggest issue that I had, by far, was with the game's checkpointing. The Pandoran locales are even more impressive in Borderlands 2 than they were before. They're large, sure, but they're also intricately designed. Some locations, for example, are only accessible by jumping a vehicle off of a not-so-obvious ramp. Or by finding a single tunnel entrance tucked away in an underground location.
The newly added on-screen minimap is a huge help on a tactical level, since you've always got an idea of where enemies are arrayed out around you. It's unfortunately not so helpful when it comes to finding your way. Checkpoints don't always appear visibly in the game world until you're essentially right on top of them, and I very often found that just getting close enough to the target was made more difficult by the unclear map.
I frequently found myself wasting time on an empty battlefield as I looked for a path leading to one objective or another, only to later discover that reaching said objective involved taking a different path in a massive loop around the entire map. The lack of any depth on the map and its companion minimap is very unhelpful here. Perhaps GPS isn't the answer, but even something as simple as clearer mission explanations would have helped in many of these cases.
Then there are some technical headaches. The worst offender that I encountered, by far, was some semi-frequent slowdown, particularly during the more chaotic encounters with one or more co-op partners by my side. That is to be expected, I suppose, but it's hopefully something that post-release patches can improve.
Same goes for a fair amount of general glitchery that I ran into. The most troublesome turned out to be critical mission items falling into the level geometry and becoming inaccessible after being dropped by a fallen enemy. The saving grace here is that if you happen to lose a mission critical item that can't be collected anywhere else, you can reset its location by leaving the zone and then returning. I haven't found a single quest that could break to the point of being unfinishable during my 80+ hours with Borderlands 2 so far.
There are other technical hiccups as well. Texture pop-in continues to be a big returning issue from the previous game. You'll commonly arrive in a new location only to have to wait several seconds or more for textures on blurred out objects and characters to fully load in. It doesn't affect the gameplay at all, but it occurs commonly enough that it ought to be mentioned.
Heading Home To Pandora
Borderlands 2 is a better game than Borderlands in every imaginable way. Scoff at anyone who calls it a v1.5 update; this is really what a sequel should be. At the most basic level, you've got the same great experience that the 2009 game offered, only with much more depth and variety. Gearbox didn't bother reinventing the wheel here because the original was so freaking good in the first place. There may be a stumble here and there, but that really doesn't matter: Borderlands 2 is very much the game that every Borderlands fan has been waiting for.
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Editor's Note: Borderlands 2 was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game; however, we also played the PS3 and PC versions, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 and PC editions of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.