I’ll open this review with a confession; I played Borderlands 2 wrong. One of the defining features of the franchise, perhaps the defining feature, is that it is heavily built around co-op play. However, I have absolutely no time for online co-op, only enjoying local multiplayer. While split screen is offered here, like most games of this generation, it’s terrible and not worth playing. Normally this would have just put me off buying the game at all, but literally everything else about the Borderlands series hugely appeals to me; the humour, the open world, the RPG elements and most of all the incredibly stylish graphics. These factors led to me taking the plunge and giving this game a go, playing solo. I expected to quite like the game, so I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that I absolutely adored it, loving every minute of it, cementing it’s position as one of my favourite FPS games I’ve ever played.
Borderlands 2, like its predecessor, is set on the world of Pandora, a planet dominated by arid wasteland which maintains a wild west-esque frontier feel. One of the major criticisms of the first game was that it’s environments were too same-y; really, there’s only so much you can do with desert, even through such a beautiful art style as Borderlands. This isn’t a problem in Borderlands 2, and while there is plenty of desert wasteland, it’s offset with some beautiful snowy locations, some striking underground locations, and even some areas filled with verdant greenery. There’s even a location which reminded me of Morrowind, and I really cannot give a higher compliment than that. The world isn’t truly open in the vein of the Elder Scrolls or Fallout, and is more like that of Fable in that it is a series of independent hubs. In terms of the lore of the setting, I confess to being lost, but this is somewhat to be expected when entering into a franchise with its second entry. I don’t get the impression that the Borderlands universe is teeming with narrative possibilities the way other gaming settings such as Tamriel are, with the immersion coming more from the striking vistas of the landscape and the beautiful graphics rather than from a feeling of rich and fascinating history, such as in the Mass Effect setting.
Apparently, the original Borderlands had a fairly bare bones plot, and thankfully this cannot be said for the sequel. I was able to discern that the original concerned a rumour of a Vault in the deserts of Pandora filled with unimaginable riches which led four hunters to attempt to seek it out. Upon opening the Vault they discovered that it instead contained a terrifying alien creature, and final boss of the game, before the revelation that Pandora was actually home to other Vaults, each likely containing another devastating biological weapon. Between the original game and the sequel, much of Pandora has been taken over by Hyperion, a huge arms dealing company, headed by the charismatic psychopath Handsome Jack. The player is one of four new Vault Hunters, who at the opening of the game are on a train which is bombed by Handsome Jack, leaving the player crawling from the wreckage in an arctic wasteland, before being rescued by the highly amusing little robot Claptrap. The player embarks upon a journey which brings them up against Jack, as well as intersecting with an incredibly likeable and amusing cast of characters, including the Vault Hunters from the first game.
Probably the first thing that you’ll notice about the plot of Borderlands 2 is how incredibly funny it is. This is without a doubt one of the funniest games I’ve ever played, both through a cast of hilarious characters and, even more impressive, an admirable integration of the comedy into the gameplay itself. One particular mission, named ‘Shoot This Guy in the Face’, had me in stitches. The game is filled with characters who don’t just say funny things, their designs are also top notch; I couldn’t look at the ridiculously proportioned Ellie without laughing, and the excellent character animations led to some decent physical comedy, something often lacking in videogames. Characters like the little deluded robot Claptrap and the psychotic pyromaniac child Tiny Tina charmed and amused me so much that just thinking about them makes me smile. Borderlands 2 did something even more impressive however; it actually made me care. I was invested in what happened to this bunch of ridiculous characters, and the moments in which the plot veered towards the serious and dramatic managed to not feel forced, with the transition working surprisingly well. Where many games build a great narrative out of their world, games such as Skyrim, Bioshock and Fallout, Borderlands is actually more traditional in how it constructs a narrative, by investing the player in characters they grow to care about, for all their strangeness. The villain, Handsome Jack, is a clear highlight; some villains are great because they’re complex and interesting, maybe even tragic (Andrew Ryan is a good example), and some have a strange sort of likeable charisma (think of the Joker or Hannibal Lector), and some are just stone cold, unbelievable pricks. Handsome Jack fits neatly into the latter category and whilst it may be a cliché to say so, he’s a character you love to hate.
Borderlands 2 is a hybrid FPS/RPG, but unlike Fallout 3 and New Vegas the focus is very much on FPS, with the RPG stuff underpinning excellent gunplay. The player is given a series of missions, including plenty of compelling side quests which often transcend the ‘go here, kill x amount of y’ structure which can tend to pervade the genre (although there’s plenty of that too). The player isn’t given free rein of the world straight away, with new locations revealing themselves gradually, with enemies scaling at a good pace with the player. Borderlands 2 is class based, and it says a lot for this game that as I was researching which class to play as there appeared to be no clear consensus as to which is most fun/useful. I eventually picked ‘Axton’, which gave me a deployable turret which I correctly predicted would be useful if I was to solo the game. The player is able to level up their abilities throughout Borderlands 2, but a singular playthrough isn’t enough to gain all these powers the player may want to, which encourages replayability to unlock the most deadly abilities. There’s also a fun little side levelling system, in which the player is given small stat boosts for gaining ‘badass points’, gained for achieving…well, badass feats. There are thousands of potential weapons to choose from, with some randomly generated and some legendary items offering unique properties. For most of the game you’ll be swapping out your weapon set every few hours or so as new loot presents itself, but by the end of the game you’ll have gained a few favourites which you can get nice and familiar with. My personal favourite was an acid shooting pistol which was incredibly useful against armoured foes. The game is fairly fast paced, controlling as something of a mixture between Halo and Call of Duty, with the ground speed of CoD and the floaty jumps of Halo. There are a few vehicles to help you get around Pandora, and they handle in a way similar Halo’s Warthogs.
The Fallout games are just as great in their own way, but they don’t really function as shooters, but Borderlands 2 does. It successfully manages to scratch the FPS itch whilst keeping the depth of an RPG. The progression is satisfying, although I’m not convinced that I like the need for multiple playthroughs to reach the level cap, but at least this leaves room for progression in the DLC. I suspect that after this game I’m going to struggle playing straight shooters without RPG elements; I grew too fond of seeing numbers pop up as I shot the enemy, and the ever so satisfying words ‘critical’ in bold red as I gained a head shot. Although this serves a natural gameplay purpose, to show the player how much damage is done, I also just love the aesthetic of it, making even the most robust bullet sponge fun to whittle down. The game handles so well on foot that it’s a shame the same cannot be said for the vehicles, which are floaty and lack weight. Borderlands 2 reminded me a lot of Rage, only with personality and charm where Rage was a largely straight faced and derivative, but the vehicle handling is really the only area in which Rage remained superior. Vehicles are useful for traversing the land quickly, but rarely actually fun to use, which is a shame. Luckily, the majority of the game is experienced on foot, and these sections are always incredibly fun. I generally loathe boss fights in FPS games; remember Fontaine in Bioshock, or the Nihilanth in Half-Life? Awful. The RPG elements save them here however, and the boss fights were genuinely some of the most enjoyable experiences of the game, utterly daunting in scope, so it’s difficult not to feel awesome as you bring some of the tougher ones down.
Borderlands 2 is an incredibly striking looking game, and in a sea of shooters all tending to look the same it’s wonderful to play something which is willing to get a bit colourful. I’m a big fan of the cel-shaded style, I still think that The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker is the best looking game ever, and it’s a pleasure to see some developers still using it. The voice acting is a definite highlight, managing comedy and tragedy equally well. A large burden of the voice work is carried by the four Vault Hunters of the previous game, as well as Handsome Jack, and they all acquit themselves brilliantly. The more minor characters are all excellent as well, with particular credit given for the wonderful Tiny Tina, whose truly bizarre speech patterns never failed to amuse for all of her too brief time in the game. The production values are clearly very high for this game, and it all runs very smoothly as well; this has to be one of the least glitchy open world games that I have ever played.
I expected to like Borderlands 2, but I never expected to love it. This is all the more pleasing considering that I utterly ignored one of the major selling points of the game; if I hadn’t liked it, I’d have only had myself to blame. Borderlands 2 is one of the best games that I have played this year, and I highly recommend it to anyone, solo or co-op.