In 2009 2K Games released an unknown IP to the world, and that IP was Borderlands. It was a game that had been in development since 2007 and there were some major changes about a year prior to the games final release. I remember Wal-Mart here in Canada selling it on release day for $39.99, putting trepidation into gamers that it was being discounted as it wasn’t any good and there was fear it wouldn’t sell. Low and behold though the game was awesome and many people became addicted to hunting for loot on planet Pandora. With a mix of FPS and RPG elements, the game took off and became a surprise success.
Since that time Borderlands’ loyal following has grown and many fans of the original have been clamoring for a sequel. Well not one to disappoint, developer Gearbox Software has been working hard on a sequel and we here at COG have had a chance to play the final retail version over the past week or so. After having played the game and I have to say that many will be happy with what Borderlands 2 offers and I think the proposal of heading back to the world of Pandora will be met with open arms.
Posting a review before the official release is always a “walk on egg shells” experience when trying to talk about the plot of a game. I don’t want to say too much but yet I want people to know a bit of what to expect. So, here is what I will tell you: Borderlands 2 is true a sequel to the original Borderlands. Since opening the Vault in the first game, Handsome Jack, a new character to the franchise, and one who is with the Hyperion Corporation, is trying to find another Vault to use for his nefarious purposes. Your mission is to stop Jack and save Pandora and its citizens from utter obliteration. There is more to the story, but I don’t want to ruin it and any surprises it holds.
Although not bad, the original Borderlands storyline was not as compelling as it could have been, but in Borderlands 2 you will pay more attention to the narrative this time around. As the plot unfolds you will learn more about what Handsome Jack is up to, how he despises Vault Hunters, and why you have become part of all that transpires. You will also come across many recognizable characters from the first game, including those who headlined the DLC that was released it. I found it quite a treat to see how so many characters from the original game play a role in Borderlands 2, from key plot points to those on the fringes of the main story.
A key feature to Borderlands 2 are the side missions. Although they are not directly linked to the game’s main story they are a treat. Given the nature of the writing, many of the sidequests in this sequel are much more then what they were in the original. You’ll find yourself paying attention to why you are doing them and you will enjoy the subplot in each one. Sure, as with most sidequests in other games many of them come down to fetching items, killing certain characters, or completing some driving challenges, but the gang at Gearbox have made them so enjoyable. For example, I found myself playing through a series of sidequests that Lilith from the original game was connected too, and given the nature of this “side story” I played them all in a row just to see how everything unfolded. Of course earning EXP didn’t hurt either.
The addictiveness of collecting loot is a main gameplay element of the Borderlands franchise, and this continues in this sequel. For those that know what I am talking about, skip this paragraph, but for those who are unfamiliar with it read on. Enemies leave various weapons, shields, and mods for your character. These can range from the basic items to items with certain elemental bonuses such as explosive, fire, corrosive or shock. Collecting these items is addicting, and occasionally you will come across special loot chests with even better items. You will be hooked immediately and want to find more rare items as you make your way through the game’s story.
Given the nature of each items stats, you will have a lot of deciding to do in regards to what items to keep and what to sell or throwaway. Character mods such as special skills, shields, and bonus producing items give the game an RPG feel as you try to give your character specific strengths to fight the enemy using the items you find. It really is a game of chess given that some elemental bonuses are better against certain enemies. For example, corrosive or fire based weapons/items are great for fighting enemies with flesh while weapons/items with shock elements are great for fighting shielded enemies.
Speaking of characters, there are four new classes this time around. There is Salvador, a Gunzerker who can wield any gun in any combination (two guns are better then one). Maya is a Siren class who uses Phaselock (magic of sorts) to heal party members, control enemies, and of course fight. Axton is a Commando who uses guns, missiles, and augmentation in battle. Finally, Zer0 is from the Assassin Class and he can vanish into a stealth mode and attack from any direction. You can customize the look of each character ever so slightly with different heads and different colours for their outfits. These four characters are very different from each other and offer up very different battle techniques. Personally, I used the Axton, the Commando, whose Sabre Turret offered up some great protection and added firepower when I needed it.
Borderlands 2 includes skill trees that are character specific. Although there were skill trees in the original game the difference this time around is how you can really tailor your character’s skills to how you want to play. The way you spend your skill points dictates how specific bonuses may be applied. There are three trees for each character. You begin earning skill points at level 5 and you earn one skill point each time you level up from that point. It’s a very RPG’ish thing and something that gamers will enjoy. For those who want to experiment, you can reset your skill points at any time at customization stations found in various levels, for a cost. Once you reset your points you can then take a different path in your skill tree journey. I liked being able to have more depth this time around and I found that choosing which areas to focus on my skill trees really came down to what I valued when heading into battle.
Controlling your character is very simple, and if you have played any FPS games in the past you’ll have no trouble here. Even if you have not you will be happy to hear that the tutorial hints in the game are good and you will be shooting, meleeing, and using your special power in no time. I felt right at home as I played.
Borderlands 2 is a fairly long game. When playing the sidequests in conjunction with the main story you should have no problem getting 20-30 hours of gameplay on your first play through. Pandora is a much larger planet this time and you’ll be exploring A LOT of it. Add to this the addicting cooperative, and any desire you may have to play through with other characters or attempt to play on the uber-hard mode, and you have a game that will last you for quite awhile. Gearbox supported the original Borderlands with lots of DLC and there is no reason they won’t do the same with this sequel.
Even though Borderlands 2 shines in single player, the cooperative mode is just more reason to play. Playing with friends online is very enjoyable especially when you consider that you can all experience the game’s story and sidequests together. The more cooperative players online, the harder the enemies become, and the better the loot you can find. You all share in the EXP that is earned when anyone kills an enemy; however, the in-game loot is not shared so you may find yourself in a race with others to get the loot that enemies drop or in a race to open a loot chest before others. Personally I like closely examine anything from an enemy or loot-chest before picking it up and I try to share it with those I am playing with, but you may not have this same experience as some people just want to grab all the loot for themselves. With this in mind you may want to set out some ground rules with your cooperative players prior to heading out into the world of Pandora.
Visually Borderlands 2 is impressive as it takes the strengths of the original and makes improvements that benefit the look of the game. The first thing that anyone who has played the original will notice is the varying environments that you get to explore. You’ll venture across areas of Pandora that you did not know even existed. From snow and ice to sandy deserts to lush green fields, there are a lot of different environments for you to discover. The cell-shaded cartoon look is kept for this sequel as well, and if anything it is more solid and enhanced then the first game. I also noticed that you can see much further into the distance, which only enhances the overall scope and size of Pandora this time around.
Although the game looks pretty darn good there are some issues that were a surprise given that the sequel is out three years after the original. Most notable are texture pop-up and technical glitches that should not be found. To have some of the items in crates and some of the environments details go from blurry to sharply defined right in front of your eyes is strange to say the least. As for the technical glitches, they are such that they can affect the overall experience. For example, I was doing a sidequest for Dr. Zed where I had to go investigate who was using a yet unseen weapon that was creating wounds that the famed Borderlands doctor had never seen before. In my battle with the individual with the gun I died, but not until I inadvertently blew up a gas tank that killed him just as I was warping to be regenerated. When I came back I was to “search” the character and get the gun, and although the waypoint showed where I had to be, and I could see the item marker in the actual level, I could not collect the weapon as there were no prompt to allow me to do so as it was under the ground or in a piece of the environment. It forced me to exit the game and restart. When I did, and I came back to the level, the body had been placed elsewhere, and once I approached it I could finally collect the gun.
Another issue I also had is when randomly exploring areas where I faced previous boss characters earlier in the game. These bosses would be in the level once again resulting in another battle with them. Sure, some of these bosses were not as strong anymore, as I had leveled up, but I kept wondering why there were showing up as I had already vanquished them earlier in the game. Finally, I also found myself hung up or stuck in various areas of some levels now and then which can be frustrating as hell when you are trying to get away form a barrage of bullets and grenades. Bottomline, as I write about these issues I am of the belief they should not have been so prevalent and they do end up taking something away from the game as a whole.
In regards to Borderlands 2 audio, I have to say that I enjoyed what was put on the disc. First and foremost is the voice acting. It is great to listen to the narrative play out. There are a large number of characters that you will come across during your play through. I found that each time I came across an NPC who is part of the storyline, or those who are highlighted in sidequests, I actually wanted to listen to what they said as the various voice actors do a great job bringing all the characters of Pandora to life. And of course who can forget the distinct voice of the famed Claptrap. The dialog that is written for him, and others throughout the game for a matter of fact, has a great sense of humour and manages to make you laugh more then a few times. My only complaint in this area, and it is a minor one, is that when characters are speaking, and the dialog is also presented as text on screen, it can lag behind the actual speech. A minor complaint indeed, but something I noticed.
In regards to the music, it played out quite effectively, from calm music during regular exploration to intense and high tempo music during battle scenes. The music definitely manages to heighten the intensity of combat and particularly more so during boss battles. Finally, as for the general sound effects, they manage to wrap up an already solid aural experience. From the varying sounds of guns, turrets, and melee weapons, to the sounds of the environments themselves, everything oozes quality. I for one was amazed by the games use of surround sound. No matter what you are listening to in your speakers, such as voices, running water, or even the wind blowing, slowly spin your character around and you will here the sound travel to each speaker in your surround set up as you do so.
Borderlands 2 is one heck of a game. The improvements are many, the narrative is well written and told, and the game’s characters are voiced by some great voice actors. Add to this the addictive nature of searching for loot and ability to play the game’s story and sidequests with friends online, and you have all the elements of an excellent game. That being said, the overall experience is affected somewhat by the unexpected technical issues I mentioned earlier in this review. At the end of the day Borderlands 2 is a game that should be played, as the fun factor is high, the addictiveness is through the roof, and the game provides hours of gaming entertainment.