Borderlands had the best of all possible debuts for a new IP: it sold great, and it made seriously dedicated players out of most who picked it up. It's rare to come across people who didn't play Borderlands without playing it for dozens, if not hundreds, of hours. But that dedication soon lead to softened enthusiasm. A great gameplay foundation grew stale through familiarity, and if a follow up was going to keep players engaged as the original did, it was either going to need lightning to miraculously strike twice, or expand the size of the bottle that was used to capture it back in 2009.
Gearbox adapted as best they could, and while the bottle is definitely bigger, and labled with a newfound pedigree, it's not catching as much lightning as it did the first time.
Shoot. And loot. This basic gameplay language of “give damage/take prizes” is the epicenter of every moment in Borderlands 2, and it continues to be an inspired gameplay hook. To wit, what the first game had wasn't broken, and Gearbox certainly hasn't fixed it.
Instead, what Gearbox has done is completely retool the character classes, subbing in a new set of faces with a different set of archetypal special abilities, and widening the gyre of character progression. The Commando still has a turret, but the Siren can now lock enemies in place, the Assassin can vanish and reappear for crippling melee damage, and the Berzerker now Hulks-out with a pair of guns rather than a pair of fists.
Each of these deadly malcontents can be min-maxed with level-apportioned skill points, adding substantial diversions to their core strengths that can be adapted for team or solo play. Shall you turn your Commando into a defensive powerhouse, recycling health and ammo at such a furious rate he can’t be killed? Or build up his turret into essentially another co-op partner that spawns and draws fire before launching a deadly barrage of missiles? Questions like these are both fun to ask and fun to answer. Respec-ing classes is easy, and the skill trees for each character feel much more distinct than they did in the first game. It makes the meta-play of putting a team together and assigning combat roles that much more enjoyable.
Layered on top of the skill trees is the new “Badass” system, which aggregates all manner of achievement-like activity performed by the player into medals, which can then be cashed in for stat-bonuses that affect every character associated with the profile, not just the character currently in use. While the boosts are very incremental (think 0.5 to 1% per medal), medals come in thick and fast, meaning that by the end of a level-capped playthrough with one character, any new character started will already have a playthrough’s worth of stat bonuses applied to them. It streamlines class-growth in a really smart way that pays huge dividends for each subsequent character, and takes the edge off some of the “birth pangs” of the first few hours. It’s a great change that would do well to be seen in more action-RPGs.
Playing Borderlands 2 side-by-side with the first shows how many huge improvements Gearbox has made to their engine. Colors are more diverse, and the weapon handling animations are orders of magnitude more lively. While the PC version is easily the best visual showcase for this title, it’s overall aesthetic strength has definitely kept pace with console standards over the last three years.
Gearbox has also expanded the number of parts available in their procedural gun generating engine. A raft of new paint schemes, textures, magazine styles, breaches, barrels, actions, accessories, and inspirations both real-world and outlandish combine to make the weapon designs feel a lot more diverse than the gun styles used by the first game. By the end, players will definitely recognize the procedural patterns in the loot, but they take a lot longer to spot and display much more variety than before.
Gearbox took an extremely fine edge to the shortcomings of Borderlands, and it shows. New animations, along with better AI, expanded gun-design elements, and broader class options make for a game that feels fresh where it counts. But the freshness comes across as very clinical- it feels antithetical to the anarchic, fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants authenticity that made the first game so much fun to discover.
So what doesn't quite click about Borderlands 2? It definitely fulfills every tenet of successful sequel design; the “bigger, better, more badass” credo coined by Rod Fergusson during the development of Gears of War 2 is on full display here. However, there's a certain urgency to its character, a desperation in its attitude that feels insecure and annoying. The loot-drive at the core of the game is so engrossing and consuming that when the instinct to slow down and explore the new majesties of Pandora kicks in, the player starts to discover how patchy and juvenile the spirit of this world is.
Much of this hangs on the writing, which is of the stripe that wants players to believe how badass it all is by telling them how badass it all is. The entire tone is incredibly self-satisfied, which could be pretty amusing, if not for the fact that the writing and characterization residing in the foreground rely too much on vacuous, bawdy jokes, and hamfisted pop-culture references. This style of humor also just doesn't mesh well with the darker turns that the story takes towards its endgame. There are moments where the mix calcifies into something really funny and unique, but per the specific tastes of the player, the consistency of Borderlands 2's charm will vary wildly.
When this disappointingly revitalized Pandora is paired with new problems like sparse fast-travel options and a map system that's nearly as bad as The Witcher 2's, it casts a shadow over what is otherwise a boisterous and extremely engaging Shooter-RPG that has, if nothing else, put forth a significant effort in being better than its first outing was.
Borderlands is now a known quantity, which is both good and bad. While Borderlands 2 is without a doubt the best version of Borderlands that there is, the best experience one can have with this fledgling series will always come with that first trip to Pandora, and for many, that special moment has already passed.