Bullymongs roam the wastelands, Rakks patrol the skies and bandits protect their settlements, waiting for an unsuspecting traveller to pass by. All of these combine to make the world not only a beautiful and diverse environment, but also an incredibly dangerous one; and with tyrannical leader Handsome Jack controlling everything and everywhere, from the dangerous terrain of the Highlands to the safe haven of Sanctuary, the planet of Pandora has never seen such a bleak time.
With such a depressing setup, one would believe Borderlands 2 is stark in contrast with the tongue-in-cheek humour and over-the-top gameplay that made the original so loved, but the truth could not be any more different. The sequel to the 2009 hit lives up to the incredible hype surrounding it, surpassing it completely in more than a few areas and making it easily one of the best titles of the year so far.
Five years have passed from the closing credits of Borderlands; Handsome Jack has declared himself ruler of Pandora and has stolen the fame and credit for discovering the Vault and taking down the Destroyer, the godlike being trapped inside the mythical cache by Vault-creators the Eridians thousands of years ago.
Borderlands 2 begins with game's four main characters aboard a train that soon finds itself feet-deep in snow thanks to Handsome Jack's Hyperion soldiers. It's not long before player's find themselves meeting exciting new characters and building up an impressive arsenal of weapons. Not only will they explore the expansive environments of Pandora, but they will also build an army against Handsome Jack's forces and crush the evil dictator once and for all.
From this, it sounds as if Borderlands 2 has a much better focus on story than its predecessor and, for the most part, that would be true. The original felt as if the plot was inserted at the last moment just to give a vague reason as to why players would be doing what they're going to do. Whilst the plot in Borderlands 2 is good enough to follow, it's never quite as gripping as it should be to make it the reason to keep on playing. Nevertheless, there are some good moments including plot twists and set pieces but not all of them are as jaw-dropping as they should be. For a game that was promised to have a much better story than the original, this should be a massive disappointment: however, it's not.
Gearbox clearly didn't want to make Grand Theft Auto, having a gripping storyline set in an open world with three-dimensional characters that players can sympathize with and care for. Instead, they just wanted to make a game that was as fun as it could possibly be and they have completely succeeded in doing so. There is very little in Borderlands 2 that can be considered boring and many of the game's quests are genuinely charming, hilarious and downright original.
As examples, one quest involves players capturing a bandit so a little girl can torture him at a tea party, while another requires Vault Hunters to go out and find a new name for the Bullymongs. Not all of them are as ingenious as this and they are, deep down, nothing but fetch quests, but the sharp, witty writing and clever scenarios make them seem so much more.
If the razor-edge dialogue wasn't enough to make Borderlands 2 stick out from the rest then the visual style certainly finishes the job. When the original was announced back in 2007 it had a much more realistic tone but Gearbox quickly changed this, instead giving the game a cartoony look with bright colours and big, thick, black lines surrounding everything. Those who had been following the game were initially hesitant but when the game hit shelves two years later, it seemed as if the alteration had paid off and the graphics were easily one of the games strongest points.
For the sequel, Gearbox have stuck with this cel-shaded, cartoony feel; albeit they have tweaked the formula slightly to improve the look and keep things up to date. The result? Characters are still eccentric, guns still look crazy and the world of Pandora is strangely beautiful despite its deadliness.
The biggest change to the game's visual style is also one of the biggest additions to the title as a whole: the diversity within locations. As fun as Borderlands was, it was hard not to ignore the fact that the world of Pandora was very similar throughout the whole adventure: wastelands, deserts and the occasional ice section did provide some difference but it was still very 'samey', with the main colour palette never exploring anything past various shades of brown, grey or white.
Borderlands 2 changes this completely. While there are still some of the aforementioned wasteland/desert/ice sections that is certainly not all that is on offer. Cities, underground caves and forest stages help make the game feel bigger, as if players are exploring more far-off places of Pandora, instead of being restricted to one corner of the world. Combine this with brighter, sharper visuals and Borderlands 2 is an undeniably pretty game.
The gameplay of Borderlands 2 can be summed up in a very short phrase: the most fun gamers will have this year. What Gearbox have done with the sequel is nothing but genius; the core of the gameplay has little-changed, so this is still the Borderlands experience that fans know and love, yet enough new additions have been made to make this feel fresh and exciting and anything but repetitive.
If the guns were crazy in the original then Gearbox have made them more so, if fans thought the enemies couldn't get any bigger or angrier, they were wrong and if it was believed to be impossible for the developers to make the whole experience any more enjoyable then Borderlands 2 will prove that nothing is impossible. Everything, from the shooting to the driving to the looting, just feels better.
Whenever players find themselves in a fight on Pandora, all hell breaks loose. Enemies come from all directions and with the enhanced AI system controlling their every move it's very easy to feel outnumbered and that it would be much, much easier to turn and run away. Gearbox have altered the level design slightly, giving it a more vertical feel: enemies can, and frequently do, move above the player, allowing them to get a clean shot and take anyone in their way out.
With grenades flying left, right and centre and explosive barrels exploding here, there and everywhere, fights could very easily become so frantic, so mad that they then become difficult and frustrating. However, Gearbox succeed in walking a fine line, keeping shooting sections sufficiently challenging but never being too hard to beat: success or failure is dependent on how players can cope with the frantic nature of the gameplay.
Succeeding on the world of Pandora also depends on how upgraded one's characters are and, more importantly, how a player has managed their character's specialties. Killing enemies in Borderlands 2 rewards player's experience points that help push them one step closer to the next level; when the bar at the bottom of the screen is full, players level up, which gains them a skill point. These can then be spent on the skill tree to upgrade weapon damage, health or each class's special ability.
Unlocked at level five, each of the character's specific abilities can quickly morph from nothing special to something truly awe-inspiring. For example, Axton's Sabre turret doesn't do a great deal initially, but spend some skill points on it and it suddenly has the ability to fire rockets and detonate a small nuclear bomb surrounding it when deployed, taking out any enemies in the immediate vicinity.
The original Borderlands didn't really feature much diversity between the different sections of the skill tree but the sequel corrects this completely. Spending most of the points upgrading weapons allows players to feel like a walking one-man (or woman) army but taking time to boost health easily makes one feel invincible. Borderlands 2 is a game that gives players countless options but allows them to only focus on what they want to, making the experience personal and different every time it's played.
Another thing the sequel gets right is the sound. All voice actors, from main personalities to minor quest-specific characters, are not only well-voiced but are also hilarious. The stand out of this being homicidal thirteen-year-old Tiny Tina who is unlike anything out there and has something genuinely funny to say every time she opens her mouth. The guns sound great too, they're loud, meaty but more importantly sound as if they really would pack a very violent punch. The snarls of far-off creatures are both terrifying and exciting and creates a great sense of atmosphere and tension.
Despite the ever-increasing list of positives, Borderlands 2 isn't perfect. Whilst none of its problems are large enough to be game-breaking, they can be quite distracting. Enemies can get stuck in scenery as they move from cover to cover and the physics can go slightly awry when things explode, leaving some characters frozen in weird positions. It's nothing major but it isn't something that the player can ignore.
One of the main problems encountered was that, on a couple of occasions, quests broke. As an example, one quest placed the map marker in a strange (and incorrect) place which made it impossible to locate. This was solved by completing another quest before returning, at which point it was noticed that the marker had moved and was now in it's correct place. This later happened again on a second quest which naturally caused some frustration, although again was not game-breaking.
Fortunately, the bugs encountered are nothing that cannot be corrected with an update or two which will hopefully be taken care of either before, or shortly after, the official release date.
Borderlands 2 is an extraordinary game. With a stunning visual style, a slightly better story than it's predecessor and a great world to explore, this is a deserving sequel to an already excellent franchise. It does everything a great sequel should, by taking away everything that was bad from the original game, improving everything that was great and then filling the gaps with plenty of new content.
There's so much more to this game than mentioned and it would take hours to detail it all, but ending it here leaves surprises for players once they get their hands on it. Overall, Borderlands 2 is a game everyone should play, whether they have the original in their collection or not, and it will undoubtedly appear on countless top ten lists come the years end.
- A better storyline with hilarious writing
- A cleaner looking visual style
- Pandora is more diverse than ever
- Stunning audio with great voice acting
- Handful of genuinely ingenious quests
- Improves on the original in so many ways
- It's more Borderlands!
- Occasional glitches but nothing major
- The vehicles still aren't that good