Review: Borderlands 2

Borderlands 1 Player Characters

Bor­der­lands 1 Play­er Characters

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 Player Characters

Bor­der­lands 2 Play­er Characters

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.

Borderlands Siren Lillith

Bor­der­lands Siren Lilith

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.

Borderlands 2: Different Faces of Maya

Bor­der­lands 2: Dif­fer­ent Faces of Maya

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.

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