Borderlands 2 should ship with a health warning crudely emblazoned on its cover: “Warning, may cause the onset of severe obsessive compulsive disorder.” We’ve never been the most laidback individuals, but Gearbox’s latest Diablo-meets-Doom first-person shooter unearths the very worst in our compulsive natures. Only yesterday we found ourselves rooting through the Kellogg's Corn Flakes in pursuit of a corrosive shotgun – we blame the lucid shade of green on the rooster’s noggin as the culprit for our absurd episode.
As such, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the same impulsive loot hunt that elevated the original Borderlands is still at the sugary centre of the sequel. Borderlands 2 opts to eschew the sophomore slump by serving up an experience that’s structurally similar, but tantalisingly refined. Environments now span squalid snowy outbacks and Orwellian dystopian skylines, in addition to the rusty ramshackle deserts of the franchise’s debut. In addition, the cast is much more robust – drawing on the wealth of names and personalities introduced across the first title’s multiple expansion packs.
Sadly, the one element the sequel’s missing just so happens to be the only thing it can never reproduce: novelty. The first title delighted us to the point of performing Claptrap-inspired moonwalks across the office car park, but its sequel just never grabbed us in quite the same way. Make no mistake, it’s still a thoroughly impressive game – it’s just missing that je ne sais quoi.
From a plot perspective, Borderlands 2 picks up approximately five years after the conclusion of the last game. Upon opening the mysterious vault at the close of the previous adventure, Pandora was overrun by a rare material named Eridium, which prompted pantomime villain – and Hyperion honcho – Handsome Jack to set down roots nearby. While mining the spoils, the antagonist learns that there’s a second vault buried deep beneath the planet’s surface, forcing a new crop of hunters to band together in an attempt to steal back the key from the aforementioned adversary’s clasp.
The plot is relayed through a surprisingly large roster of characters, but despite the best efforts of Gearbox, the narrative is largely redundant due to the nature of Borderlands 2’s gameplay. If you play the series anything like we do, you’ll be sprinting between conversations and completing objectives before NPCs have even finished reeling off their instructions – which is unfortunate considering the sheer wealth of dialogue that’s in the game.
That said, the slapstick tone will not appeal to everyone. While there are some genuinely funny exchanges, the game often relies on its hyperactive nature to bridge the gap between its next big punch lines. A 13-year old demolitions expert named Tiny Tina may sound comical on paper, but when you’ve been forced to endure her screeching schtick for several hours, you’ll be reaching for the mute button. Caricature car mechanic Scooter’s slack-jawed observations become similarly grating, as do the repetitive proclamations of gun dealer Marcus every time you use one of the game’s many vending machines. “Shop anywhere else and I’ll have you killed,” he observes whenever you offload your latest stash of unwanted loot. We’re not sure his minions would stand a chance against our fire-enhanced submachine guns.
And that’s really where Borderlands 2 comes into its own: the weapons. Playing with different gun types is as delightful as ever, with the variety significantly expanded thanks to a greater emphasis on manufacturer individuality. As you spend time with the game you develop relationships with the fictional brands that complement your personal play style best. Hyperion, for example, builds futuristic weapons with startling fire-rate and accuracy, while Jacobs opts for traditional six-shooters that pack a real Western-inspired punch. The sense of personal progression is impressive, and you’ll frequently find yourself rotating your arsenal with new goodies uncovered around the world.
However, the impressive depth extends beyond just weapons. You can also unlock different relics, grenade types, class modifications and shields – each designed to give you a unique gameplay experience. By the end of the campaign, we had a shield unit that allowed us to send out a pulse of explosive energy each and every time it was depleted. That and it also set enemies on fire when they hit us with melee attacks. Oh, and it improved our reload speed.
The overall sense of customisation is much better than its predecessor, too. Now you can personalise the appearance of your chosen character by augmenting new heads and costumes. The game even ensures you get a good glimpse at your current protagonist by adopting a third-person viewpoint when you access the menu screen – and, of course, anyone you play with in co-op can see your equipment.
Should you decide to trade those weapons, however, the game now boasts the tools required to make that possible. When playing in either split-screen or online, you’re given the option to initiate a trade by holding down the Circle button. Alternatively, you can raise the stakes by opting to duel for the artillery – a feature which is particularly welcome when you can’t decide on who should receive the best loot drops.
While the overall online experience is much smoother than its predecessor – you can jump into any game on a whim, and also open up your own personal adventure to friends and strangers – it does still rely on you playing alongside people who share a similar level to you. Hopping into a game where your character’s progress is either significantly lower or higher than your team mates is just not that enjoyable, and it’s a shame that Gearbox hasn’t figured out a way of solving this issue yet. It’s particularly problematic when you want to play alongside friends, but are all at different points in the campaign.
Thankfully, it’s really easy to create new characters and start fresh experiences. There are four classes to choose from, each augmented with different abilities and skill trees. For example, the Siren – who we spent most of our time with – has the option to trap foes in a stasis bubble. Elsewhere, the Gunzerker can dual-wield multiple weapons, while the Commando can drop a turret anywhere onto the battlefield. The Assassin’s special move is perhaps the most intriguing of them all, allowing him to trick enemies with a decoy and take them out in close quarters.
All of these abilities can be tweaked and changed as you level up your character and earn skill points. As with the original Borderlands, each character has three unique skill trees which you can invest in, each unlocking unique attributes. The trees are much more balanced this time around, and there are no longer any weapon specific properties, leaving you free to experiment with the game’s wide ranging arsenal without feeling locked into a particular play style.
Unfortunately, while the gunplay is slick and smooth, some of the new enemy types are infuriating to the point of irritation. The archaic artificial intelligence means the gameplay is still rooted in the same throwback circle strafe formula of its predecessor, but this time you’ll have to contend with Stalkers, who possess the ability to turn invisible, and Raaks, who flit about teasingly in mid-air. Taking out both types can be real test of your patience, and while the ape-like Bullymongs and returning Skags are less infuriating, it’s the aforementioned nuisances that leave a lingering impression long after you’ve finished playing the game.
Indeed, it’s a shame that the AI is so straightforward, because the enemy design is conversely complex. Some of the robot foes are the best, occupying the ability to transform into bulldozers and other ridiculous forms. Elemental damage is emphasised throughout the campaign, with shock weapons draining shields, corrosive weapons burning through armour, and fire weapons scorching flesh. There’s also a new property named Slag which enhances the impact of elemental types. It’s best to have a firearm of each type available in your inventory to maximise your combat effectiveness.
Unsurprisingly, the game looks absolutely spectacular too. Its use of the creaky Unreal Engine means that textures can take a while to stream in, but once they do, the title’s mix of bold primary colours and thick cel-shaded outlines make it a real visual tour de force. The experience is prone to frame-rate drops in high intensity areas, but these are only ever momentary lapses, and while they’re noticeable, they don’t necessarily detract from the overall experience of the game.
In addition, locations feel much more alive this time around, with interesting visual detail hidden in every inch of the game’s multiple districts. Billboards, settlements and Easter eggs occupy every nook and cranny of the title’s massive world – and it’s unlikely you’ll discover everything during your first play through.
Thankfully, Gearbox has implemented a mechanic designed to reward players who intend to experience the campaign multiple times. Bad Ass tokens can be accrued by simply playing the game, and can be spent on upgrades which apply to any character you create. It’s a minor thing, but it helps to develop a sense of persistence across the whole package.
Borderlands 2 doesn’t quite recapture the same sense of wide-eyed wonder that made its predecessor such a commercial smash-hit, but it’s still a dangerously addictive game. The humour may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the lure of the shooter’s loot is as strong as ever. It’s a safe sequel, but a solid one – and, honestly, who can resist the appeal of a title where you get to target midgets with rifles that fire mini-nukes as opposed to bullets?