One of the nicest things about the original Borderlands was the element of surprise. Most notable before its release for being the Gearbox role-playing shooter that worryingly had its entire art redesigned midway through its development, the game that boasted a billion guns seemed to have no shot at making a killing.
In fact, Borderlands turned out to be almost the perfect console shooter-looter. A gratuitously colourful riot of guns and gore, insanity and excess, humour and hit points that quite deservedly became one of the most successful new IPs of 2009. With its level cap worn threadbare and its DLC long since devoured, however, Borderlands players deprived of their sustenance have been frothing at the mouth like starving Skags for a sequel. So how the dickens do Gearbox deal with these newly found great expectations? Simple, by giving you more, much, much more.
If the original Borderlands moseyed into town with enough firearms stuffed in its gun belt to stretch it to braking point, then the combined weight of all the weaponry available in the sequel will have it constantly retrieving it’s trousers from round its ankles. Pandora must be about the only place in the universe where the single reason you’re detained at customs is if you’re not carrying a loaded weapon.
When playing through the first game, I often imagined an unseen region of the planet given over solely to the game’s fictional munitions manufacturers. A land with forests of smoke stacks and rivers of molten metal where swarms of claptrap robots dance around one another like worker bees and foundries stretching further than the eye can see incessantly pump out weapons of all shapes and sizes. Everything from simple side arms to electrically charged shotguns and sniper rifles that spew out toxic slugs.
It’s a place that probably doesn’t exist, but it certainly could given the fruits of the various companies tireless labours. The precise number of different gun models in Borderlands 2 is immaterial, really. Suffice to say that the development team seems inspired by the concept of infinity rather than intimidated by it. And much of the brilliance of the game’s astonishing weapons generation system comes from the agony and ecstasy of knowing that once you discard a particular gun, you’ll probably never find exactly the same thing ever again.
If Borderlands 2’s weapons design has a thrilling sense of controlled chaos about it, the four new character classes are intelligently ordered evolutions of those from the first game. Maya replaces Lilith as the group’s resident Siren, swapping her invisible Phasewalk for a Phaselock which traps enemies in a suspended ball of energy. Zer0 the assassin takes over stealth duties with his ability to disappear for a limited time and create a decoy of himself to bamboozle opponents. Axton marches into the military boots of Roland, complete with portable gun turret, and Brick the Berserker is usurped by Salvador, the excellently named Gunzerker, who can soak up damage and dual-wield weapons.
As before, each character comes complete with a skill tree made up of a trio of diverging branches. The difference this time around, is the accentuated variety amongst the potential paths and individual upgrades that provide powerful opportunities for personalisation. Plotting alternative courses across Salvador’s skills map, for example, can see him built into an almost invincible walking tank who constantly regenerates heath and ammo, or a more offensive-minded killing machine with super-fast reload speeds and the almost permanent ability to double his fire power with two guns of your choosing. On the other hand, Maya’s Phaselock can be enhanced to deliver a devastating energy blasts or heal companions; and if you level up far enough, it can even do both.
It’s that addictive loop of levelling and loot hunting that looks set to make Borderlands 2 a potent proposition once again. Whether you’re questing you way across the world solo or as part of a tight-knit band of up to four friends – which many who’ve tried it will fiercely advocate is the ultimate way to play – while the scenery may be more diverse here, Pandora remains the same eccentric and vibrant crap hole you came to know and love. Choc-full of freaks who inhabit its rusting frontier towns and mutated monstrosities prowling its dusty plains.
Gearbox has apparently been working hard on improving AI to make enemies more than just psychopathic piñatas. With a little bit more nouse when it comes to self-preservation, they now cluster into larger groups and vary the ways in which they attack. While many of your adversaries will still be of a distinctly suicidal disposition, it should make for more testing progress through the game’s story, which has you on the trail not of a fabled vault, but odious über-industrialist Handsome Jack who is trying to wipe out the indigenous population.
Along the way, you can expect cameo appearances from some old friends and more of the simple, self-knowing humour that made the original game so easy to warm to. In fact, when it comes to crossing the Borderlands for a second time just expect your expectations to be that bit higher. And expect Gearbox to still manage to blow them away.