The original Borderlands came out of left field in 2009. Gamers that thought, “Border-what?” in the Spring were putting Borderlands on their “game of the year” lists by Winter. It turns out, there’s a need for adrenaline-pumping first person shooting combined with the “loot-fest” popularized by Action RPG games like Diablo.
I had a “warts and all” appreciation for Borderlands. At release, the online play on PC was completely broken, and the interface was clearly not intended for use with a mouse and keyboard. A terrible ending to a barebones story didn’t help matters either. Fortunately, Gearbox acknowledges many of these concerns head-on in the sequel.
Borderlands 2 keeps the core gameplay of “shoot dudes, take loot” completely intact from the original. Aside from slightly altering the abilities of each character to make them more well-rounded (you can do more than just snipe as the assassin character, for instance), not much has changed in Borderlands, gameplay-wise.
One of the new hooks that I appreciate is the “badass” system: a way to reward a long tenure in Borderlands 2 and experience with multiple characters. Completing certain challenges in Pandora — the world of Borderlands 2 — earns “badass tokens” which are redeemed for small, but noticeable, bonuses to stats like reload speed or shield recharge. I didn’t notice any immediate differences in-game, but it made me feel like I was always accomplishing something.
The co-op multiplayer on PC works directly through Valve Software’s Steam platform and boy, what a relief this is. I didn’t have to reconfigure my router or use any third-party software to start playing with friends right away. And yes, those are both things I had to do with the original Borderlands.
Finally, the artificial intelligence got a significant overhaul in Borderlands 2. Enemies in Borderlands 1 could all be defeated by the universal “walk backwards and shoot a bunch” technique. Not so in Borderlands 2, where enemies bob and weave around your attacks and have a supernatural awareness of exactly how much health you have left. It makes for an extremely challenging game in some spots that borders on frustrating, but quick respawns keep it from “keyboard smash” level.
The comic book art style that made the original Borderlands stand out from the crowd is alive and well in Borderlands 2. Borderlands 2mixes it up with some colorful environments that expand upon the infinite desert of the first game. The enemy designs continue to toe the line between hilarious and terrifying.
The fun in Borderlands 2 comes not just from the thrill of getting new guns and improving your character, but also from discovering all the hilarious nooks and crannies of Pandora. The writing may lean a little heavily on internet humor for some (think, “cool story, bro”), but Borderlands 2 made me laugh out loud more than any other game in recent memory.
Unforgettable personalities line the streets, deserts, and glaciers of Pandora, and they do a great job keeping players invested in the main story. The side quests, though, are where the writing really gets crazy. And by crazy, I mean awesome. Offhand, I can recall side quests with references to Top Gun, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Donkey Kong. There is an incredible amount of optional content in Borderlands 2, clocking in at more than a dozen hours. I would praise it more if Pandora was easy to get around, but unfortunately, this is Borderlands 2‘s biggest flaw.
Backtracking is one of my biggest pet peeves in all of gaming and, to complete most of the optional content in Borderlands 2, you will have to do a lot of it. There are fast travel stations around Pandora, but there is only one for each major area, some of which take as long as five minutes to run across. Even worse, some of the fast travel stations are only one way, meaning you can get warped to a destination for a mission, but you still have to run all the way back. Riding in a vehicle eases the pain a bit, but vehicles are not allowed in every area of Pandora. The cherry on top of this bad navigation sundae is that the map in Borderlands 2 depicts 3D space so poorly I actually had to watch videos on YouTube to find out how to reach some locations.
I regard every second spent wandering through an area I’ve discovered before with no clue where I’m going as wasted time. It is especially unforgivable when Borderlands is pulling a lot of inspiration from Diablo, a series that made the “town portal” popular. If Gearbox had included a way to quickly go back to Borderlands 2‘s main hub area, or if you could fast travel within large areas that have already been cleared, they would have eliminated a lot of empty time spent wandering the frozen wastes of Pandora.
Borderlands 2 addresses every single complaint I had with the first game, and is better in every possible way (except, maybe put a scroll of town portal in Borderlands 3?). But going so far to specifically address fan concern robs Borderlands 2 of any surprises.
Borderlands 2 is full of hilarious writing, is a blast to play with friends, and promises hundreds of hours of content. But a lack of gameplay innovation will disappoint fans looking for more than just “more Borderlands“.