The original Borderlands combined the best aspects of the first person shooter and action RPG genres into a hybrid game that entranced gamers with its tight shooting mechanics, fun cooperative game play and its literally millions upon millions of guns. Three years later, Gearbox Software has released the anticipated sequel Borderlands 2, and the developer has managed to improve on an already excellent title to create one of the best gaming experiences of this year.
For those who aren’t familiar with the series, the first Borderlands stars four “Vault Hunters” that travel to the alien planet of Pandora in search of an ancient treasure chest said to contain some of the most valuable loot in the galaxy. Players choose to play as any one of the characters and can team up with their buddies to tackle anything the hostile planet can throw at them.
By the game’s conclusion, the mercenaries discover that the Vault contained nothing but a giant tentacle alien they were forced to kill. The team gives up hope after searching for so long, and that’s where Borderlands 2 picks up.
In the sequel, four new playable characters take the leading role, leaving the originals as secondary characters that appear throughout the story. This time, an antagonist named Handsome Jack has come to Pandora in search of a second Vault said to emerge after the opening of the first one.
In his greedy quest for the coveted treasure, Handsome Jack is personally assassinating any Vault Hunter that comes to the planet that may step in his way. Fortunately, his attempted homicide on our heroes fails. Guided by a mysterious artificial intelligence that communicates telepathically and a hilarious little robot named Claptrap, it’s up to you to stop Handsome Jack, save Pandora and uncover the secret of the second Vault.
If this sounds like the video game narrative of the year, it’s not. Borderlands is not revered for its storytelling. Most of the plot from the original seemed like an excuse to put a gun in the players’ hands and release them into the wild to shoot anything that moves. The character writing was strong and funny, but the story as a whole fell flat, especially the ending that left gamers second-guessing if they had really reached the conclusion or not.
The story behind Borderlands 2 isn’t loads better, but it takes steps in the right direction. While the original had no real main antagonist, this game gives you one right from the opening cutscene. Gearbox gives you a clear goal from the beginning to tie the narrative together: Handsome Jack is a madman, and he must be stopped.
Where the title truly shines, however, is in its brilliant character design. Each person in the game, whether a main character or just another enemy you have to shoot, has some of the funniest dialogue I’ve heard in a game since Portal 2. For veterans, Claptrap was the lovable robot that didn’t know when to be quiet. In Borderlands 2, you can expect more of the same, but I laughed more in the first 15 minutes of the sequel than I did throughout the entirety of the original. What Gearbox lacks in big picture it makes up for in detail, and for a lighthearted romp such as this, it works perfectly.
When players aren’t laughing at the creative one-liners, they’re busy looting and shooting. The original Borderlands supported an estimated 17.5 million unique weapons, and no corners were cut here. Expect to see a brand new weapon every time you open a chest. Nothing really feels as exciting as opening a loot container that you fought through a hundred enemies to reach to find that rare, special gun you’ve been waiting for inside. It’s like Christmas morning every hour.
The shooting mechanics are as tight as ever as well. Whether sniping or blasting enemies up close with a shotgun, you can expect accurate responses and solid controls. The game plays as smoothly as any modern FPS, and that’s essential considering how much tougher the game is compared to the original. Expect enemies to duck into cover, roll around your shots and flank you when you’re not looking.
And you can’t forget co-op. As fun as this game is as a lone wolf experience, nothing beats grabbing a few buddies and exploring Pandora together. The increased enemy intelligence is a warm welcome, forcing you and your friends to work as a team and synchronize your abilities to tackle your foes. Good luck if you’re going solo. The game offers a convenient in-game menu that lets you jump in and out of a friend’s game instantly. You can tailor your personal options to only let those you want into your game as well.
There is a matchmaking option that allows players to join with other random Xbox Live members, but I wouldn’t recommend this over playing with trusted friends. When playing with strangers, there’s nothing stopping them from grabbing all the loot they can get their greedy hands on, leaving you with nothing. Playing with known buddies ensures a fair and fun game for everyone.
Despite everything Borderlands 2 excels at, especially compared to its predecessor, there are some glitches that can spoil the fun. Multiple times while playing, enemies would phase through solid cover or sometimes patrol the area as though they’re unaware that I’m there, despite the fact I’m standing directly in front of them. Twice I had two separate bosses get stuck in the environment, leaving them unable to attack me and giving me a free and unsatisfying kill. Even more frustrating are the slow-loading textures that pop up as you’re playing. The game can look like an N64 classic for a few seconds every time you load a new area, leaving the world muddy looking. Considering today’s current console technology, this is pretty unforgivable. Worst of all is that players have been complaining of giant gray and blue squares floating in the game in replace of textures that don’t load correctly. Hiccups like this didn’t appear in the original, at least not to this degree, so it leaves me wondering what went wrong. Hopefully these annoyances will be patched in a couple weeks.
Even with these mild annoyances, Borderlands 2 gives players exactly what they want: more Borderlands. Without changing anything too drastically, Gearbox kept the game the same while improving on the nuances of the original. Don’t come expecting a blockbuster story and you’re going to have a good time. The game was made to be enjoyed without a strong narrative, and the brilliant character writing does a good job of keeping you entertained when you’re not blasting baddies. With a 60-hour story, five announced playable characters and four separate downloadable content expansions in the works, expect to be looting the borderlands with your friends for a long time to come.