When Borderlands was released in 2009, it was a unique new combination of first-person-shooter (FPS) and Role-Playing-Game (RPG). Its gameplay, while on missions given by “quest givers” in the RPG sense mainly featured shooting as the main interaction with the environment. And there was much shooting. The main criticisms of Borderlands tended to lay bare the interface between FPS and RPG: that the story was too weak and the NPC characters too wooden or that the “millions of guns” were in-the-end too similar. Borderlands is a great game that has aged well, but…
Borderlands 2 carefully and incrementally takes each facet of Borderlands and puts a fine polish on them. It successfully turns each strength up to “11” while filling in each of the weaker areas with new ideas. That’s pretty tall praise considering that the original Borderlands was a runaway hit.
To break it down, the Borderlands formula is simple. It follows the tried and true RPG formula of leveling up (to become more powerful) and random loot drops to give the player some random chance to find a great weapon at any moment. It adds to that a rare scalability that allows co-op play by making the challenge just enough harder based on the number of players and it sweetens its deal by declaring that more and better loot will drop with more players. This formula would work well — and does in a number of games, but not Borderlands.
Borderlands adds to this a crazy, irreverent and quite unrealistic world where guns have crazy elemental effects, irreverent bandits run straight at you to suicide, and death is but a quick unrealistic re-spawn at the last “New-U” station. Each of these are important for fun and each of them make sense in the Borderlands universe.
The first and most obvious change in Borderlands 2 is that the four classes are now five. Borderlands shipped with four classes that tried to follow the classic RPG outline: Brick the berzerker as the tank, Roland the soldier as the fighter, Mordecai (who has a bird) as the ranged damage dealer and Lilith the siren as the magic user. Right away, players noticed that the RPG formula didn’t always work when the group composition could change as players dropped into and out of a game leaving the party lacking certain skills. While the “action skill” of the classes were different, they could each achieve relative parity in weapon skill — without this, the game might become unplayable without the right group.
Some thought must have gone into this because Borderlands 2 shipped with four classes and have so far expanded that list to five. Rather than pigeon hole each class RPG-style, each class has group-focused and self-focused abilities. The Siren can now be a healer or a damage dealer, depending on the selection of talents (as an example). Like the first game, this works to a certain extent: the “gunzerkers” dual-wield ability (as another example) is less useful in solo play than in group play, but only somewhat so.
To return to our “crazy, irreverent and unrealistic,” the numbers bubble up from the enemies as you shoot them in colours that indicate what types of damage your weapons are doing. Elemental damage in Borderlands 2 has been given a bit of a rework: gone are the complex concepts of “proc” and “elemental pool” that were discovered to be at the heart of Borderland’s the first. These were difficult to understand and predict and they tended to produce unscalable effects when taken to their extreme. The “hellfire” SMG comes to mind here. In Borderlands 2, the elemental effects have a straightforward chance and magnitude that are included in the weapon’s “card” for easy reading.
The enemy AI and variation has been given workover, too. Borderlands 2 adds a large number of new human, animal and robot enemy variations. The biggest change, from a player behaviour point-of-view is that enemies that have an affinity to one elemental type or another receive vastly reduced damage from even the base damage of a like-affinity weapon. In the original, a powerful gun with good base damage would work well to take down enemies with the same elemental affinity — just not as well as it worked for those with different affinities. In Borderlands 2, this is not true. A weapon of like affinity (even one of a higher level) can feel almost useless against enemies that can resist the elemental effects. Most players will first discover this as fire weapons are common and effective in the staring levels of the game, but are suddenly almost useless against the first robots that appear. Some kudos here for manufacturing the situation along with the spawn probabilities that make this hard lesson learned.
Enemy diversity and AI deserve mention, too. In Borderlands 2, even the average bandit camp has more diverse (and smarter) combatants, but the true variety of soldiers, robots and creatures needs to be experienced to be appreciated. There are creatures with teleport and invisibility as well as creatures with the full range of elemental attacks. The combination of creatures in any set piece often overwhelms the players (if they fail) not by sheer numbers or power, but by cunning combinations of attacks and environmental factors. A suicide bomber can rush you and their grenade can push you over the edge to an environmental death (for instance) or the pulling force of a creature can draw you into your own grenade’s Area of Effect (AOE).
Last of our factors, unrealistic, is nonetheless important. Realistic shooters ply their trade by tricking gullible people into believing their game experience is in some way an emulation of real life battles. This despite the fact that there are few consequences to death and operating an assault rifle is as easy as clicking a mouse or controller. Borderlands and Borderlands 2 ply their trade with many unrealistic nods to game license (the brother to narrative license): it must be fun. From the unrealistic cell shading effect of the visuals (which are still quite striking) to the manner in which weapons and elemental effects can work, Borderlands 2 pays little heed to realistic physics.
And it doesn’t need to: it’s fun. Numbers cascading from your targets give direct feedback to the damage you’re doing (even if the target may take several minutes to take down). Low gravity may explain the high jump height, but little matter: it’s fun. Even the existence of a nearly endless supply of suicide midgets might be due to some religious fervor (and there is a quest that pokes fun at this idea), but it’s unrealistic fun.
The last item to consider comparing Borderlands to Borderlands 2 is the story. The original has been called out for an overall simple and short story and for regions and environments are are overly similar. Borderlands 2, if you follow the story hidden in recordings, explains the entire story of Borderlands as an extension of it’s own narrative. It does this in a surprisingly believable way. It goes on to tell it’s own story and along the way it introduces a surprising variety of locations and situations. The story is both longer and more involved (although it’s still very much a video game story — and the narrative plays out in only one way — this is not a game about “choice” — in fact, as a side note… it really panders to a fatalistic lack of choice).
Borderlands 2 is, put simply, a great game. If you enjoyed the first game, you will enjoy the second game more. If you haven’t tried the Borderlands series yet, Borderlands 2 is a good place to start. While the game as much as promises more sequels to come, waiting for them is waste: this game is fun.
As a note of housekeeping, I will not deal with the DownLoadable Content (DLC) here. It deserves it’s own article. In the original game and in the sequel, the DLC forms a weight of content that is at least equal to the main game’s content.