Borderlands 2: Second shot aimed with a steady hand

September 24, 2012

Borderlands was all about over-the-top weapons and characters. The folks at Gearbox didn’t try to sell you on anything except for having fun taking down baddies with ridiculous weapons. Borderlands 2 takes what made the first game great and applies it to some of the bits that didn’t stand out the first time around. Weapons were great before and feel even better now, grenades are much improved and the locations are more varied. In most of the ways that matter, Borderlands 2 is an end-to-end replacement of the first game. The additions to 2009’s formula fit the universe wonderfully, and the returning vault hunters from the original game make for a story that I was actually invested in instead of one that only pushed me from quest to quest.

Improved A.I.

The biggest and most important change (which Justin briefly mentioned) is the improved A.I. The first Borderlands was not a difficult game, and this was mostly due to awful enemy A.I. Thankfully, the smart changes Gearbox made have really improved the experience.

Enemies will react to being shot, move around and even stagger if their health is low enough. This means you are unable to simply line up shots on an enemy and run backwards, which allows for each scenario to feel different enough than the last. — Andrew Passafiume

For all that it does right, though, Borderlands 2 is far from perfect. User interface is important. It’s not where we have fun, but it is where we make decisions and process information. The better the UI, the shorter the time is until we can get back into the action. Many decried the menu system from Borderlands in split-screen for forcing the player to pan to see some of the information. This is a valid complaint, but that UI was usable. I could see and read every piece of text in the game on a 32” screen, even when playing split-screen. I can’t say that same about Borderlands 2. In an effort to make the menu feel more organic, Gearbox has changed the design and moved the menu into the game world. What that means is that the menu is not orthogonal to the screen – it is always sitting at an angle, and even on my brand-new 47” screen, every bit of text is blurry when playing split-screen. In a game centered around cooperative play, it is ridiculous that I cannot reliably read the text in the menu.

Pandora finally feels alive

The original Borderlands was a funny game, but despite the fantastic world that Gearbox created, it all felt lifeless. Borderlands 2 introduces us to a more compelling villain, better (and funnier) writing and some major improvements to the world as a whole that make it feel more alive than ever.

Some of the referential humor can be a bit much at times, but I almost always find myself chuckling as the writing and impressed by just how fleshed out the whole world feels. Bringing back the original cast as helpful NPCs was a smart touch as well; we never connected to them in the first game, but here they are allowed to shine. — Andrew Passafiume

Also gone is the simple and useful compass from the original. The old compass showed you at a glance where loot, enemies and your quest objective were located. All of these functions have been replaced by a mini-map in Borderlands 2, and the mini-map is worse in every way. Your eye is drawn far away from the action to see where you need to go and where the remaining enemies are, and loot is no longer shown after dropping from enemies. I’m also not a fan of the auto-pick-up of ammunition and health. It is not uncommon in the early game for ammo and health to be scarce, for both my wife and I to need health, and for one of us to accidentally pick up health while being at 50% while the other is at 10%. This was never a problem in the first game, and it’s frustrating here.

With that complaining out of the way, Borderlands 2 adds a lot to the original and makes it, overall, a much better game. Challenges have been replaced with account-wide badass ranks and tokens that can be used to increase the stats of every player tied to your account. Gun manufacturers are more stratified than ever before. You can tell when you’re using a Tediore, for example, because instead of reloading it you throw it at your enemy, watch it explode, and wait patiently while a new one materializes in your hands.

My favorite addition, though, is that Gearbox has brought shields and grenades up to the same standard of crazy customization that guns are at. Right now my siren runs around with a shield that sends out harmful pulses to nearby enemies as long as the shield is at 0%, and my grenade sticks to enemies, explodes into five smaller grenades and then blasts again dealing fire damage. I only ever equipped transfusion grenades in the original, and I can count on one hand the number of times I found them useful. In Borderlands 2 I frequently run out of grenades because they are just plain fun to use.

Diminishing returns

This seemed likely to happen, but I wanted to hope it wouldn’t. Borderlands 2 is a lot of fun, but it does not feel like the same refreshing experience that the original was. All of the smart changes that Justin mentioned are spot-on, but I could already see myself starting to get a little tired of the gameplay despite those changes and improvements.

It’s clear that there is a lot more that can be done with this fantastic formula, but it doesn’t feel like Gearbox did as much of that as they could. They played it safe, which is fine, but I’m hoping that once Borderlands 3 rolls around, we’ll be seeing some bigger changes to the formula; if not, this series might become stale quickly. — Andrew Passafiume

Environments are more varied than in the first game, and quests are more involved. The simple addition of quest givers instead of the generic bounty board makes the game world feel more populated, and the enemy variety is greatly improved. Combat is harder, which is welcome, and to balance it the enemy AI has been tweaked to keep baddies from running away while you’re down but not out. I find myself hunting for a second wind fairly often, and I manage to get it the majority of the time, because enemies will remain interested in downed heroes now.

Driving feels like it did the first time around, which I’m okay with since I’ve played enough Halo to be okay with camera turning, but the enemy lock-on has been replaced by competent runner targeting. It makes vehicle combat feel substantial instead of something the needs to be present because cars are. Cars also feel more hearty because enemies are no longer instantly killed by being run over. That makes sense, and it keeps me alive.

Borderlands 2 succeeds at iterating on a great first entry. The humor is maintained without going overboard, the story is worth paying attention to, and the new character classes complement each other well. My two favorites are siren and commando as I enjoy the different takes on the original classes. After playing around with Axton’s sabre turret and Maya’s phaselock, I can’t imagine wanting to play the BL1 classes in the sequel. I love my Lilith build dearly, but I am so much more involved with Maya in combat that I prefer her hands-down. Axton’s turret is more versatile, Zer0’s focus on melee or sniping is a great combination of Brick and Mordecai, and Salvador is non-stop fun when all you want is to shoot everything on the screen without worrying too much about strategy. Borderlands 2 isn’t perfect, but you should play it, set things on fire and laugh like a maniac with three other vault hunters. Then do it all again with a new character class or build.

Pros: Shooting feels good, guns are more varied than BL1, grenades are great fun, character classes all feel unique and and interesting to use
Cons: The UI is blurry, the mini-map is a poor replacement for the compass, auto-pick-up is frustrating before health and ammo regen class mods are found

Score: 5/5

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