Back in 2009, Borderlands was released, bringing with it a colourful and unique visual style, the promise of billions of unique gun combinations and a co-op system to make other games tremble. It delivered on all fronts and it was hard to see how Gearbox could possibly have improved on an already stellar formula.
A few weeks ago, Borderlands 2 hit the shelves to huge anticipation from the crowd. More of what the first game had featured was promised, as well as a stronger narrative, more varied side quests and deeper RPG mechanics. All of them were considered lacking in the first title and all of them were refined for the second. Borderlands 2 is not only an excellent sequel to continue the work of its predecessor but it’s also a damn fine game that somehow manages to improve on what was already considered sublime.
Before I start, I have to mention that this is not a review. As I have done before in the past, it’s merely a collection of thoughts jumbled up in a non-specific order. You’ve likely already read numerous reviews of the game since it was released so I’m not going to unnecessarily add to the number.
- Most of what you remember fondly from the first game is either back in its original state or back with an array of refinements. For example, the visual style, the giant gun roster, the impeccable four player co-op system, the humour and wit around every corner and a large selection of side quests to undertake.
- In the case of the side quests, they are definitely a lot more varied than the first game. Instead of simply fetching items like a leashed dog, some of them are quite unique and interesting. One I recall was with an AI core that, when put into different machines, would continuously try to kill you, even by playing horrible music through a radio system. It was funny, unique and was definitely lacking in the first game.
- Guns guns guns, baby! Borderlands 1 had a crazy number of them and the second has even more. Yes, just like the first time around, the incredible number is determined by the gun stats being different as opposed to aesthetically different, but coming across the same identical weapon in both design and stats is rare. So rare that I have yet to experience it despite playing for over forty hours and collecting several hundred weapons during that time.
- Borderlands 1 had arguably an extremely poor main story. The focus was clearly on the loot ‘n’ shoot experience and while that remains true for the second, more effort has clearly gone into creating a stronger story thread to play the game around. It’s more interesting for a start, integrates the original vault hunters in a way that seems effortless and makes good use of using Handsome Jack as a villain you’ll be itching to pound into ash. The first game lacked sorely in this department but fortunately that’s not the case this time.
- The co-op. It goes without mention that the first game had a brilliant system going for it that made the game seem boring to play by yourself once you’d experienced the thrill of fighting alongside three other human players. It’s exactly the same for the second, only better. The addiction of the collective loot grabbing experience is still there, with new features such as a trading window introduced and old features like the duelling brought back. Too much meddling with the co-op would’ve endangered the way in which it just works so luckily Gearbox didn’t do much of that, instead electing to add rather than remove.
- Borderlands 2 makes good use of more varied environments to experience. For example, you have snowy vistas to traverse, dusty deserts, grassy hilltops crawling with bug life, darkened areas full of volcanic magma and towering cities full of robotic threats. For an alien planet, Pandora actually feels that way this time around. While having to deal with the loading points when moving between areas (seriously, merging them all into one open world would be amazing), the variety is definitely there this time even if it wasn’t previously.
- The humour. It’s there wherever you look and it rarely feels forced. Whether it’s Claptrap being silly again, Handsome Jack making quips or even the description of the quest you’re on, you’re surrounded by it at all times. It’s done in such a way that it feels like a natural part of the game rather than something that’s there merely for the sake of it. I’ve laughed more times than I can count during the game because it’s hard not to appreciate it when you come across it.
- There are easter eggs everywhere. I’m not even going to attempt to list them all because there are far, far too many but make no mistake, they are there. There is a Minecraft section in one of the areas, references to other titles all over the place and unique events that may occur when playing, such as the occurrence of a double rainbow that amazes Handsome Jack. There is also a character in the game named after a big fan of the series that died, and Gearbox put them in the game as a tribute to them. Not only are they fun to find for yourself but it makes it feel like Gearbox put in an incredible amount of effort to include them and that has to be appreciated, even if they are meaningless for the most part (although a few carry achievements for discovering).
- The new class types are more than good enough to compete with those of the first. I’ve only played as the siren but her skill of freezing enemies in mid-air is very useful, especially when it has been upgraded via the skill tree. When you’re playing co-op with each player playing as a different class, that’s when you really see the benefits of each class and what they have to offer.
- Among other things, Borderlands 2 is pretty long as well. My first playthrough took around 20-25 hours to complete with a few side quests, and the second will take longer as the enemies are tougher. Playing co-op will also add to the time spent, as well as starting games with different character classes. There’s also the DLC promised in the future, too. Borderlands 2 isn’t a short game by any definition so be prepared to spend a substantial amount of time in Pandora.
- As mentioned earlier, having to load every time you move to a different area can be irritating, even if it doesn’t take long. I would’ve loved to have seen an open world environment with all of the areas integrated alongside each other but if that will ever happen, it won’t be now unfortunately.
- To some people, being constantly bombarded with different guns of different strengths, grenades types, shields etc. could be overwhelming. I thought the same of the first game and while I have no problem with it, some might.
- Borderlands 2 can be quite a glitchy game. I have often had important quest items fall into the map beyond reach, doors opened that had an invisible barrier preventing passage through and vice versa. It’s a shame that encountering errors like this can happen often because it takes away from what is otherwise a stable experience.
- The vehicle controls still feel awkward to me. Navigating through tight spaces can be difficult because the controls seem less flexible this time around, which is problematic if you’re stuck in an enclosed space trying to escape. Perhaps driving with acceleration and reverse mapped to controller buttons rather than the analog sticks would be able to make it more responsive.
- It’s a little disappointing that they removed the individual gun type rankings from the first game. For example, using a pistol exclusively would make your skill with that weapon type increase. There’s none of that this time and I can’t see why.
- Once you’ve hit the level cap (50), there’s a sense of emptiness waiting on the other side. You won’t rank up anymore, you won’t gain XP and if you’ve neglected to catch up on any side quests collected beforehand, you’ll be so overpowered in them that the fun will be eradicated. The only option is to start a new game, which you may find tedious considering you’ll be at least half way through a second playthrough to reach level 50. It just seems like there’s not much else to do once you’ve achieved the maximum level.
- Still no aiming down the sights during second wind? I don’t like it, especially if you’re of a modest distance from a nearby foe. I’m glad they’ve allowed weapons changes during second wind but it still needs ADS if you ask me.
Despite the occasional flaws, Borderlands 2 is an excellent, well crafted and brilliantly addictive game that will capture a place in people’s collections that no other title could achieve. Quite how Gearbox improved and refined on something as good as the first game to produce something like this is extraordinary and shows their skills as a developer. It’s too early to say right now but there are few games releasing for the remainder of this year that could usurp Borderlands 2’s position as my game of the year, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.