Borderlands 2 is out this week. VG247’s Dave Cook gets lost in a world of guns, violence and wub-wub to find out if it’s a solid sequel.
Gearbox took a gamble with the first Borderlands. When it was first unveiled on the cover of Game Informer in 2007, the promise of randomly generated weapons, a huge world and a twisted sense of humour sounded inviting. However, it looked like every other shooter out there on the market.
Following its reveal, Borderlands quickly went dark before re-emerging over a year later with a new cel-shaded art style. All of a sudden it felt new, it felt fresh, and the world at large was more willing to pay attention to what Gearbox had to say. The studio had a hit on its hands.
Watching a developer try new things and take risks with new IP is always interesting, but in sequels, studios run the risk of getting too comfortable and can end up repeating what worked before to the point of over-familiarity.
Borderlands 2 definitely has this problem during its first two hours, but once you escape its bottleneck tutorial areas that familiar Borderlands scope and sense of comedic anarchy starts to really shine through. It’s almost like revisiting an old friend.
Fair enough, if something isn’t broken it should be left alone, and yes, trying to change things too much will just alienate people, this much is true. Just don’t go expecting Borderlands 2 to reinvent the format the series created in the first game.
Playing as one of four Vault Hunters, your chosen character is on their way to Pandora to find a second Vault hidden somewhere in the planet’s depths. You quickly find yourself ambushed and left for dead by the ruthless and self-obsessed Handsome Jack, CEO of the Hyperion Corporation.
He’s reminiscent of the typical douchebag villains you encountered in the original Borderlands, regularly interrupting your communications receiver with sarcastic banter and stories involving his diamond encrusted pony. He’s a hilarious villain, and his constant goading is worth many a chuckle.
Handsome Jack, at your disservice.
This is just the top layer of Gearbox’s attempts to flesh out the ensemble cast of Borderlands 2, giving it narrative heft that far surpasses the original. Even rote quests with mundane objectives – such as gathering resources to build new vehicles – are given deeper purpose by making sense in the greater context of the story.
It’s not until you encounter the first game’s Vault Hunters that you are given a true purpose, as you battle to take down Jack’s dictatorship regime and stop him from opening the second Vault. In short, the cast and plot of Borderlands 2 actually make you give a shit this time.
Gameplay isn’t that far removed from the original, and this is where some gamers may stumble a little. Guns are unquestionably the star of the show once again, as randomly generated firearms throw several scopes, stat variables and decals into the mix.
However, elemental modifiers have been given greater purpose in this game, and this is where Borderlands 2’s combat really starts to get smart. For example, you can grab a flame pistol that lets you inflict DPS damage and burn through armoured enemies.
Alternatively, new Slag weapons let you coat attackers in Eridium first and then by switching to a standard weapon you will inflict extra damage. These subtle elemental changes do make a difference – if you opt to use them of course.
New elemental enemies also orce you to switch weapon and strategies on the hoof, such as the Firehawk gang, a group of crazed bandits who are mostly immune to flame weapons. So instead you need to try another elemental weapon or shoot gas canisters off their backs.
Another method would be to lure enemies near elemental barrels full of acid, explosives or Slag, then shoot them to inflict damage. Strategic play like this keeps combat engaging, and the addition of new grenade modifiers that can be combined to make ludicrous effects gets you thinking about combat a lot more.
On top of this, each of the four new characters boast distinct play styles. Zero is an icy-cool ninja assassin who is a crack sniper shot, as well as boasting brutal sword attacks. His hologram action skill creates a decoy that gives you a short window to evade enemies or sneak up on them safely to deliver a killing sword blow.
Salvador. Likes guns, isn’t afraid to use them.
Salvador is the portly Gunzerker who can dual wield any weapon, be it a sniper rifle and rocket launcher, or any other mad combination. Axton is a Commando, and is comparable to Roland from the original Borderlands. His action skill sees him deploying a turret to provide extra cover in the heat of battle.
Finally, Maya is Borderlands 2’s resident Siren class, and is capable of using Phaselock to immobilise enemies and follow up with gunfire. Zero is perhaps the most interesting out of the four classes however, but he starts of relatively weak by comparison, so expect a tougher fight at the outset.
When fighting on foot won’t cut it, you can use Scooter’s Catch-A-Ride stations to spawn vehicles into the world, but this time there is a wider range of rigs to choose from. You can upgrade vehicles, change paint decals and more, although the flimsy twin stick control method from the first game can still irritate, especially when navigating areas with large drops.
The world itself is much larger than the first game – if that can even be believed – but instead of repeating the same dusty, rocky environments ad nauseam, Gearbox throws many varied locales at you from the start, with frozen wastes, sprawling cities and steampunk compounds shaking up the tone constantly.
Cities are full of vendors that peddle firearms, augments, grenade mods and more. There are also new black market vendors that only trade in Eridium minerals you can find out in the world. Their stock usually gives your character permanent stat boosts, such as upping ammo clip sizes and more.
Borderlands 2 is a game founded on these little modifiers, and this is where the new Badass Rank system comes into play. It’s a capless system that rewards players with tokens for hitting certain skill objectives. These range from killing a set number of an enemy type, shooting projectiles out of the air and more. Tokens can then be spent on incremental upgrades for your stats, and these bonus applies to all four characters.
While Gearbox has played it safe by essentially replicating the original Borderlands’ gameplay mechanics at their core, everything else around them has been fleshed out and improved just enough to make this feel like a superior follow-up.
Incremental upgrades and rewards drive progression like never before, and when coupled with the strategic options that come with elemental gunplay, it’s hard to find yourself getting bored or wandering listlessly without purpose.
An emphasis on plot gives all of these ingredients reason to exist, and as a full package it’s hard to find many games that can match Borderlands 2 in terms of sheer content, entertainment value and fluidity.
Gearbox Software has created one of those rare sequels that truly does advance the original IP, and at a time where creativity can sometimes seem lacking in the triple-a arena, that is something worth shouting about.