Review: Borderlands 2
By Kris Guthridge on October 1st, 2012 (12 comments)
1.) Kill Dudes
2.) Loot Guns
A simple, almost eloquent formula. And whether you were a fan of the first Borderlands or not, you can’t deny it’s success.
But how does that formula fare the second time around?
Title: Borderlands 2
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: September 18, 2012 (North America)
The story of the first Borderlands, while well served for a co-op loot-and-shooter, was decidedly thin. It went pretty much like this; popular myth holds that somewhere on the backwater-wild-west-god-forsaken-shit-hole of a planet, Pandora, is an ancient alien chamber (or Vault), packed to the brim with… whatever would be a really cool thing for an ancient alien race to bury in a giant vault. Four adventures, dubbed Vault Hunters, through much shooting and looting, quest to find the fabled chamber. Five years pass and we come to learn that there are actually multiple, possibly many Vaults buried on Pandora. So now a new quartet of different, yet oddly familiar Vault Hunters take up the hunt. Only now, they must reach their prize before millionaire and professional douche bag, Handsome Jack, gets there first.
I love a good first-person shooter. Ever since my dad brought home our first PC loaded with a copy of Wolfentein 3d, I’ve been hooked. The basic concept of point and shoot hasn’t really changed in twenty years, despite the many coats of paint that have been slathered over it. That’s not to say the genre hasn’t evolved at all, but all of that evolution has been represented largely by incremental mechanical tweaks, like limiting how many guns can be carried at one time or assigning grenades to their own dedicated button. Few successful attempts have been made to introduce concepts and mechanics from other corners of the greater video gaming cosmos to the genre. And it’s for this reason, I think, that the Borderlands series deserves special mention. The first game had done a respectable job of honing in on a balance between shooter and RPG. The sequel has taken that tenuous balance, and really allowed it to coalesce into a truly entertaining experience.
Some old school RPG fans may scoff at the notion of considering this game an RPG. Such people may find the character progression system a bit lacking and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. It’s neither vast nor terribly complicated but don’t be fooled into thinking that leveling your character is not still a compelling experience. I assure you, it is. It is important that we remind ourselves that Borderlands 2 is still a shooter, and the point of a shooter is to shoot things (Duh). As such, whatever you do in that game, whether it be looting dungeons or leveling up talent trees, it should in some way work towards that end. So no one character will ever be just a healer or just a tank, like in many more traditional, party-based RPG’s. On Pandora, like in the U.S. Marine Corps, everyone is a rifleman. Nobody is ever resting their trigger finger. Unless they’re reloading, of course. This more multifunctional approach to each character’s game play experience makes the need for long, overly precise skill trees almost unnecessary. I do wish the skill points had more of an impact early on; you don’t really feel like you have much of a character class until latter levels. Ultimately, would this game be better served by a wider selection of learnable skills? Yes. Has the decidedly simple skill structure negatively impacted my enjoyment of the game? Not really.
Skill trees aren’t the only part of the character progression system worth mentioning. Making its debut here in Borderland 2 is the "Badass" system. Instead of tracking the progress of any one particular character, though, the Badass Rank measures you as a Borderlands 2 player as a whole. That means that no matter how many different characters you create, your Badass Rank will remain consistent across all of them. As you complete challenges, you are rewarded with Badass tokens. Each token allows you to add a permanent but very small bonus to one of five skill traits randomly selected from a pool of traits. The options range from overall health, to elemental chance and effect intensity. These skill trait modifiers also remain consistent across all of your characters, so it’s good to keep them varied enough to suit all of your characters’ different particular needs. Admittedly these modifiers are not very significant, just a few percent here and there. In fact, sometimes they can feel a like just another set of numbers to make sense of in a game already inundated with more than it’s fair share of ambiguous statistics. Still, you will eventually come to understand that no matter what character you’re playing at the moment, you’re always making some kind of progress as a player.
But characters and players aside, how does the game itself progress? What do you do with all these fancy guns and flashy skills? Well, honestly, not much other than shoot people and open chests. Not unlike the ever-popular dungeon crawler. Now before we get ahead of ourselves, I will say this; if you are looking for a classic Roguelike, dungeon crawling experience, Borderlands 2 isn’t that. Dungeons are not randomly generated, or even change a single iota from play through to play through. The same monsters spawn at the same levels, in the same places, next to the same loot containers every time. So think more like raiding in World of Warcraft than dungeon crawling in Diablo. But mercifully, unlike World of Warcraft, there’s always so much new and better equipment coming at you from enough different directions, you’ll rarely ever find a reason to rerun previously beaten dungeons if you don’t want to. Unless, say, you wanted to help out a lower level pal in co-operative play.
And that’s were the real beauty of Borderlands 2 lies; Co-op mode. At any time, you can leave your game to team with other players, shoot, and, kill, and plunder, and then return to your personal game with all the loot and experience you earned in the other game. You can round up a posse of up to four total players either online, via split-screen, or both simultaneously. And this is when things can get a little over-the-top, because while the quality of loot increase depending on how many players are in the game, so does the enemy difficulty. A team of four that isn’t at least somewhat well balanced could find itself overwhelmed by the ramped-up difficulty. And with no real in-game system to keep players looting honestly, things can get a little anxious every time a new loot chest comes into view. But trivialities aside, this is why you buy a game like Borderlands 2. Not that you can’t have fun flying solo, but co-op play is absolutely the heart and soul of this game. So much so, that the lack of any real competitive multiplayer elements goes pretty much completely unnoticed, and for good reason. The last thing the world needs is another mediocre competitive multiplayer shooter.
All in all, Borderlands 2 has truly taken me by surprise. As someone who, quite honestly, held no love for the first Borderlands, I didn’t really expect there would be much for me in the sequel. I am happy to report I was wrong. But perhaps there in lies the reason why. This game is not too drastically different from its predecessor, but perhaps there has been enough small improvements made to rope in people who missed the boat the first time around. Borderlands 2 may not be the best game I’ve ever played, and probably won’t even be the best game I play this year. But it certainly has grabbed my attention in a way that a shooter hasn’t in a long time and that is certainly worth something.
(90-99%: Phenomenal - A fantastic experience that surpasses almost all expectations.)
Kris Guthridge is a long-time gaming enthusiast and avid writer from Austin,TX. When he's not gaming, he's watching movies, enjoying micro-brew beer, and trying to visualize how a perpetual motion machine would work. He came pretty close one time, but then someone distracted him from his train of thought and he lost it. Oh well. He also finds it awkward writing about himself in the third person.
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