A gazillion guns just got gazillioner – but there’s more to this shooter than just killing and collecting.
The original Borderlands, released in 2007, took a unique twist on the loot-em-up genre, putting the player in a first-person view where every freshly looted weapon made a visceral difference. Though an enjoyable and somewhat addictive experience, the game was let down by significant repetition and absence of plot, relying entirely on the eternal promise of better loot to keep players engaged.
The sequel – creatively titled Borderlands 2 – marks a significant improvement over the original. Sure there are even more guns, with more unique visuals and functions, but developers Gearbox have put a lot of effort into a decent script and story that gives the player more to chase than just the next boomstick.
The four vault hunters from the original return as NPCs for the sequel, and this time they come equipped with a thoroughly unexpected mix of voices and personalities. It’s a pleasant surprise that Gearbox have put in the effort to develop these familiar heroes and bring them to life with the same level of personality and depth found in characters such as Marcus and Scooter.
Where the game truly shines, however, is in the form of Handsome Jack, the game’s primary antagonist. Head of Hyperion Corporation and all-round uber-jerk, Jack gives players a believable and abhorrent villain to despise. Brilliantly voiced and brought to life by Canadian actor Dameon Clark, Handsome Jack is a surprisingly deep character whose constant taunts inspire equal amounts of scorn and motivation, his psychopathic nature becoming more present as the player overcomes every challenge. One of the best antagonists in gaming for a long time, he isn’t just the standard bad guy who threatens the player with a menacing laugh and a twirl of his moustache; this is a man who twists emotions and deflects guilt onto others, a literal psychopath unable to comprehend the suffering of others and truly disturbed like an abusive and manipulative partner. Chilling and brilliant stuff.
Guns too are improved in many ways. Different weapon manufacturers now have clearly different designs and mechanics for their weapons, unlike in the original. Vladof weapons are clearly designed to look like Kalashnikov variants. Dahl guns always fire in bursts when zoomed. Maliwan weapons are incredibly unique and high-tech looking, contrasting sharply with Jacobs’ wild-west inspired designs and American-style wooden stocks. Like NPCs, even the guns have their own unique characters and personalities.
Unfortunately, the game suffers from some noticeable balance issues. Not all player characters are equal, and those playing the Commando or Mechanomancer will find the game quite a bit easier. Contrast the Mechanomancer’s ability to spawn a killer robot that murders nasties by the handful to the Assassin’s ability that provides quite literally five seconds of breathing room, and maybe the chance to kill a single target.
Guns still need some redress, as pistols far more often than not are deadlier and more accurate than assault rifles and sub-machine guns. In pure terms of damage-per-second the player is often at a big disadvantage by using anything other than a pistol, save for sniper rifles which are generally only of use at range anyway. For a game centred around finding zany random guns, this apparent weighting towards the least satisfying feeling weapons is curious. Though it may have just been bad luck on the playthroughs I did, it’s clear from various message boards I’m far from the only one so cursed.
These relatively minor issues aren’t too hard to forgive in light of the game’s highlights, especially compared to the original. Whereas the first Borderlands had players shooting swarm after swarm of identical bandits, the sequel has a mixed and lively variation of opponents to set ablaze or melt with acid bullets. Writing is far snappier too, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments courtesy of witty NPCs and outrageous scenarios. The great PC port is gravy on top as well.
Bigger, brainier and blastier than the original, Borderlands 2 is a must for anybody who enjoyed Gearbox’s first foray into loot-em-ups, and a game worth serious consideration for anybody looking for a first-person shooter with character and attitude. A sterling release and one of the year’s best.
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