"Co-Op and Bandits and Guns! Oh My!"
Borderlands was a game that I labeled as one of the 25 best in the previous decade. I had followed its progress even before the radical visual overhaul it underwent. The blend of first person shooting with a near never-ending variation of guns, as well as a mostly flimsy story, was one that no company had ever gave any kind of serious effort towards previously. While Borderlands did have its share of faults (the aforementioned flimsy storyline with an ending that left a near permanent palm impression on my face), the addictive nature of its gun collecting, as well as the multiplayer interaction, set it apart from just about every shooter on the market.
Borderlands 2 (BL2) follows up the original in nearly every aspect, but expands on each of them. The scope has broadened. The gun variety has evolved. Character skill trees and bonus skills have been expanded. More or less, the only things that have not been expanded upon much have been the issues I had with the first game.
Shockingly enough, that’s fine with me.
What once again fails to meet expectations on my end, still manages enough effort out of it to recognize the effort, aside from the ending. Several years have passed between BL and BL2, with a new threat emerging. The leader of this new threat steals the show, thanks to the overall witty writing and perfect delivery. Handsome Jack will go down as one of the most likable, and memorable antagonists in gaming, at least in my eyes, and he helped keep my attention on the storyline which, while vastly more interesting than the last attempt, is still more or less an afterthought. The dialog as a whole is more engaging, with certain NPC’s and quests being so completely removed from the realm of conventional thinking, that the end result is a hearty chuckle, along with a lasting impression, One quest down the line required me to get three articles of clothing for a robot NPC named Mal. The hilarious dialog that ensues was unexpected, but then again, this was two hours after I initiated a quest with a bandit that simply wanted me to shoot him point blank in the face. It’s a shame that the core storyline didn’t grasp me much whatsoever, even if there were a couple of moments in which I didn’t see coming.
Once the ending is reached, as with the first game, it’s about as short, shallow and unfulfilled. The situation is dealt with, and then an open ending is presented, yet the banter is short lived. The brevity is almost surprising, as many of the characters encountered throughout the game, who appear during the ending, have more lines of dialog on the way to the final battle as opposed to the ending its self. Gearbox Software may not be the best storytellers, or the best at bringing those stories to a close, but what they lack on that end they make up tenfold everywhere else.
Just about the rest of the package has little to no complaints going on with it. The satirical dialog portions are all delivered with exceptional voice acting. Even the more serious toned portions have stepped up considerably, with next to no sketchy voice overs to be had. That same quality extends to the music and sound effects as well. Gearbox Software didn’t go all out on either one, but the weapon sound effects, explosions, miscellaneous background noises and so on, are all distinct and have a presence to them. The musical interludes throughout are nothing memorable (outside the outstanding opening theme) but all serve their purpose.
The scope of which the game world, weapons and character customization as a whole have expanded are mind boggling at times. While the game world in the original had enough girth to it, there were times in which the same hubs were visited all too often. With BL2, it almost feels as if there’s four times the real estate to travel and discover. Some areas are so expansive that even traveling in a vehicle from one point to the other feels like a real trek. It doesn’t get old, and it really never feels like a burden, as there’s always a perfectly placed area in which combat ensues. Don’t be so quick to beat the game either, as there are some areas that the main story arc doesn’t relegate your character towards, opening up even more hysteria, hilarity and more than likely an upgrade or seven.
Each area is a visual treat as well. The same cel shaded-like visuals from the original are back, with a bit more detail and imagination to them. Even the snow capped areas which the player will be fighting through for the first few hours manages to feel anything but monotonous in design and concept. There are plenty of small details here and there, and enough structural diversity in each area to keep the visual presentation fresh and impressive all around. Eridium Blight has lava flowing through certain areas, with a dark, depressing mood to it, while The Dust is a sandy, cliff filled area with trash heaps abound. Character models, both new and old, as well as enemy models, are still top notch, with the new cast of characters having a bit more of a visual flair and life to them, compared to the fab four that preceded them. The only thing going against the graphics are the slow texture loads whenever a new area is entered, or on some occasions, going a bit further into an area. Think Gears of War, or in an extreme case, The Last Remnant. They only briefly detract from the visual splendor though, and don’t really get in the way of enjoying the overall package.
Character customization feels even more important and diverse than ever before. You have your four classes (the rarely seen from my end Gunzerker, Commando, Siren and what seems to be the most played class as of right now, the Assassin) each with their own skill tree. Once again, each skill tree has three branches of development, which skews from one extreme to the other. As an Assassin, one skill tree focuses more upon melee damage and boosting its potency, while another has a heavy focus towards augmenting their prowess in sniping.
Gearbox Software added in a sort of streak reward skill purchase system as well, called Badass Ranks. Successfully complete one of a myriad of tasks will net you Badass Tokens, which can be used to purchase upgrades to existing character attributes. Want to add upon your Assassin’s melee abilities? Purchase a Melee Damage bonus booster. They are passive skills that, while minimal in gains (starts at 1% per rank, with a diminishing boost for each purchase thereafter), but it adds another method of diversifying one character from the next. The best part about this is that it’s account bound, meaning any new character created will contribute to the Badass Token fund, and share the stats that they purchased. One quick note – when a token is used, five random skills are unveiled for the player to boost. The more certain skills are boosted, the less of a chance it will appear, forcing players to boost other areas as well. It’s a brilliant system, and with the myriad of ways a token can be rewarded, players will be unlocking more and more tokens throughout their playthrough.
Visual customization is now available as well, with color schemes that can be unlocked through the Badass Ranks system, as well as dropped by random mobs, or even purchased via vending machines. While these pertain mostly to color skins in terms of outfits that can be worn, there are over a dozen head pieces that can be unlocked or found in the wild. While it may not seem like a major addition to BL2, the crazy color combinations and the dozens that are available in the end, really does add to how diverse each character can truly be, instead of the same ones with the same colors and the same talent builds chosen. Bonus points for the “Why So Serious” color scheme that I stumbled upon.
If you thought Gearbox Software went all out on their guns in the first game, BL2 takes it up a notch. I had a handgun early on that fired bullet sized missiles with an explosive potency to them, which reminded me of the scoped shotgun that fired missiles from the first release. After I completed the game once and toyed with a Gunzerker, I found an assault rifle that shot mini grenades that detonated when hitting an enemy, or rolled over when it hit the wall or ground. Not once did I come across anything like that as an Assassin. While they’re not all outlandishly devilish in conception, there’s a better sense of diversity amongst what is found. Even grenades have a sense of intimidation that hasn’t been seen before. Whether it’s a grenade that spawns nine child grenades in its wake, or a singularity powered grenade that pulls enemies in before detonating, experimentation has never been this satisfying.
The biggest draw, even for folks who are not fond of co-op gameplay (such as myself) is in fact, the co-op gameplay. Whether it’s the drop in/out system when it comes to playing with friends or searching for a game to join, BL2 gives players easy accessibility getting into games, and contains a myriad of reasons to stay in each game long into the night. I joined a good number of rooms during my playthrough, and I only had any kind of odd lag in one instance. It was very reminiscent of the quick pauses while traveling past a checkpoint, though happened randomly at a rate of twice per minute. Outside that isolated incident, each game was stable, which is vital for a game that holds its true meat and potatoes within a multiplayer battlefield. Weapons are supposed to be even better when there are more player in one game (a maximum of four) however I never really noticed much of a quality boost. Even if the quality degraded with more players instead of increased, it’s still a blast, especially when doing one of the five round arena events located around the game world (several rounds of often gripping battles against waves of enemies).
What Gearbox Software didn’t perform up to par with, could be considered a heavy blow to just about any game released, however for everything that they came up short on, they nearly aced in the most important parts to a loot centric multiplayer game. True Vault Hunter Mode (new game plus) opens afterwards, which enables players to begin a new game at a higher difficulty, with all of the weapons and skills gained previously. On top of that, new enemies appear, such as armored versions of ones previously battled. Even without the True Vault Hunter Mode, Borderlands 2 holds a replay value that soars way past the 50 hours it took me to get through the game once. It’s the best of loot centric gameplay, first person shooting, character building and multiplayer, all rolled up into one ball.