I wasn’t all that fussed on the first Borderlands game. I appreciate that I am in the minority here, but there was something about the world and forced sense of progression that left me feeling somewhat cold towards the whole experience. I love FPS’s and I love collecting loot; for all intents and purposes, I should have loved Borderlands. But I didn’t. Maybe it was the constant collection of fetch quests or perhaps the disconnect I felt between myself and the world of Pandora, but whatever it was, it’s still here for the sequel. Bad news, aye. Well, fear not, as while I still take issue with a handful of Borderlands 2’s design choices, what it did well in the first game (which was admittedly quite a bit), it does even better this time around….
….and maybe that’s why I’m enjoying Borderlands 2 so much more. The segregated lands of Pandora, while individually impressive, still feel utterly disparate thanks to the return of those loading screens and the story and missions (with the exception of a few doozy’s), are still largely forgettable, but with such fine improvements to the core FPS gameplay and a raft of additional upgrade abilities and tweaks added to the already bewildering options available first time around, I for one found it much easier to overlook those nagging little gripes which conspired to tarnish my experience with the first game.
At a glance, it all looks very much the same; it’s set on Pandora again, the four new characters, despite a tweak to their core classes, are much the same as the crew available in the first game and the visual style (that pleasingly unique cel-shaded, comic book style art design), are all present and accounted for. Spend a little time with Borderlands 2 though, and the improvements under the hood quickly become apparent.
The most obvious of these, and arguably the most important, is the improvement to the actual FPS gameplay. Borderlands 1 wasn’t a terrible shooter, but it wasn’t a great one either, and while Borderlands 2 won’t be worrying Halo or Call of Duty, it’s certainly a more cultured beast than its forbearer. The mechanics themselves have only been tweaked, albeit successfully, to produce a marginally smoother, more accurate shooter, but the AI and level design, well, that’s a different story. Both have seen significant improvements, with the two combining successfully to make Borderlands 2 a far superior shooter to its predecessor.
With smarter, more varied enemies to deal with, you are now forced to mix it up and at least occasionally abandon the distance game that was quite so prevalent in Borderlands 1. This subsequently leads to a more varied playing experience, one that encourages you to switch approaches on the fly and pick your enemies a lot more carefully than in the past. Enemies will duck and weave, shoot from cover and throw grenades while others will charge at you with gay abandon. Needless to say, you’ll have to keep your wits about you as, if nothing else, Borderlands 2 sure does love throwing enemies at you…..loads of them.
One of its sneakier tricks this time around is to funnel you into more confined spaces, forcing you to deal with enemies in different ways. With its wide open spaces, it would be easy for Borderlands 2 to fall into the same trap as its predecessor, but thanks to some smart level design and some carefully planned mission objectives, you’ll often find yourself fighting in these smaller spaces, unable to fall back on hit and run attacks. Above all else, this enforced change up of approaches does a great job of encouraging specific skill use – something that I found far too easy to ignore when playing the original.
Despite slight changes to the aesthetic, name and classes for the new characters available in Borderlands 2, you’re still getting the same core options. The biggest difference this time around comes from the fact that these classes are not nearly as stringent when it comes to levelling and upgrading as they were first time around. Despite the lines between the classes naturally becoming more blurred as you progress, it’s the class specific skills that successfully keep them differentiated right to the end.
With more class specific skills, mod slots, loot and, somehow, even more guns to choose from (what’s more than a bazillion?), elemental upgrades, stat buffs and tweaks a plenty, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that you will likely spend more time in Borderlands 2’s menus than the actual gameworld. That’s not a criticism mind; the menus, with their myriad of facts and figures, are initially daunting, but it’s amazing how quickly everything falls into place. Within an hour or two, you’ll be picking out the core facts of any newly looted item with eagle-eyed precision. And oh my, isn’t it all so bloody addictive.
Even more so than in the case of Borderlands 1, the continuous search for better weapons, better shields, better upgrades – it’s unrelenting and seemingly never-ending, and for a large proportion of gamers, videogame heaven. By perfectly capturing two of the most beloved tenants of videogame design and bringing them together as successfully as they have here, Gearbox have arguably created the perfect concept for a ‘core’ console videogame. It’s not yet perfect by design, but the framework itself should certainly lend itself well to the many inevitable sequels to come.
The story once again proves inconsequential, but the writing this time around feels much sharper on a moment to moment basis and is, without question, the funnier and more memorable of the two games. With a great villain in the form of Handsome Jack, a brilliant supporting cast, a host of cool little cameos and outstanding voicework throughout, Borderlands 2, despite its forgettable main story, would prove a journey more than worth taking even without the constant lure of loot and upgrades that it could so comfortably fall back on. As I said, the world of Pandora could do with being a tad more cohesive and a more natural integration of side-quests will be required if this franchise is to ever reach its true potential, but minor design quibbles aside, Borderlands 2 proves a sizeable improvement over its predecessor and a genuinely fantastic gaming experience in its own right.
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