In my household, the original Borderlands had the misfortune of coming out the day before Forza 3, which effectively killed its chances of ever finding its way into my Xbox 360’s disc drive. It wasn’t until last year, and a generous Steam sale, that I was able to sit down and get into it. It was a good, but flawed game, combining first-person shooter mechanics with a Diablo-style loot fest.
Now a sequel is upon us, and the good news is that it improves on the original in almost every way. If you’re a fan of Borderlands then read no further: buy Borderlands 2 now.
Borderlands 2 opens on a train. After character introductions, we get our first glimpse of the game’s villain, Handsome Jack. This guy is a completely fantastic villain, and happily contacts you throughout the game, making it clear that he does not like you very much, and would you kindly get off his planet. It’s through him, and the remainder of the character dialogue, that one of the game’s major improvements comes through: Borderlands 2 actually tells you a pretty good story.
Another major change over the original game is that the zones are somewhat smaller and much more varied. In the original, it was easy to get bogged down in a zone and spend hours traipsing across it. There were a small number of hub zones, and other zones hung off these. Borderlands 2 offers more zones, but they also tend to be smaller, allowing for a much more varied set of environments to explore. The game also offers a central town that serves as a base of operations in your quest to defeat Handsome Jack.
The zones themselves look fantastic. The game builds upon the cel-shaded style of the original, and is arguably the best-looking cel-shaded game to date. It’s an interesting choice for a game of this kind, but it works well, making the game feel like it’s equal parts anime and adult Western animation. Heavy Metal meets Trigun, perhaps. It may put off the Call of Duty audience, but that’s not exactly the worst thing in the world.
The real star of the game, and the reason it can be so compelling to play, is its loot system. Beneath the cel-shading and the first-person shooter mechanics lies a dungeon crawler at heart, and there’s a satisfying explosion of loot after the death of most enemies in the game. The most important form of loot are the guns themselves, and the game is designed to randomly generate a ridiculously large number of guns. Manufacturers are given a bit more emphasis this time around, and different gun manufacturers have different specialities with their guns, ranging from elemental damage output, to firing rate and reload speed. Players can stay loyal to a single brand, or they can mix it up and just upgrade however they wish.
There’s also a little more character customisation this time around. While it’s not possible to change armour pieces or the general appearance of the four classes, it is possible to change their face and hair, as well as their armour colours, and there’s a huge number of possilities with these. Throughout the game, there will be customisation items that unlock different colour schemes and (much rarer) face/hair styles. My Siren looked particularly good as a Tediore customer service girl.
As is the case with the original, Borderlands 2 is best experienced in multiplayer. Players can party up from the game’s main menu (which will list friends who are playing and what quest they are currently on) and the game runs pretty smoothly, even with some latency. I did notice that one of my friends tended to jump around a little bit, but gameplay was smooth between us, and we had no trouble clearing a large zone of bandits and completing quests.
That’s not to say the single-player isn’t fun, of course, and Gearbox have taken steps to limit some of the feeling of loneliness that could come from fighting through the first game. There’s a much larger number of friendly (well, as friendly as anyone on Pandora gets, at least) faces about the world, which helps make it feel like a much more populated planet. These range from familiar faces such as Mordecai, through to new characters such as the rather worryingly cheerful Tiny Tina.
If there’s one weakness in Borderlands 2, it’s that the game can take a little while to really get going. As with the original, the early zones don’t feel very exciting or fun to play through, and I would forgive you if you gave up on it before getting to Sanctuary. Once you get that far, though, you’re in for a really fun adventure, fighting for the freedom of Pandora and its people.
Ultimately, Borderlands 2 is all about refining a winning formula, rather than reinventing it. The first game was good but flawed, but this is, quite simply, good. Great, even. It’s nice to see a game that answers all the questions asked by its predecessor, both in terms of story and gameplay. If you only play one first-person ARPG-style dungeon-crawling loot-fest this year, make it Borderlands 2.