“Let me tell you a story…” Marcus said three years ago at the beginning of the first Borderlands, before shoving you off his bus into the middle of a wasteland filled with psychos, guns, alien mysteries and dangerous things just waiting to be unleashed from Pandora’s hidden depths. What followed, though, wasn’t much of a story at all: just a whole lot of guns, and a lot more killing.
With Borderlands 2, Gearbox has made good on Marcus’ simple promise and put together an amazing story to go with their already-insane amount of firepower and mayhem. Along the way they managed to walk a very narrow path that not all sequel makers follow: don’t touch what’s great, improve on what’s just good, and either cut or fix what’s bad.
Get ready, because Pandora has definitely changed for the better.
Borderlands 2 – The Face of a Hero
The first improvement Gearbox made was adding a villain to Borderlands 2. While there were antagonists in the first Borderlands, they weren’t nearly memorable enough to make the players feel like they had a reason to continue hunting the Vault beside simple fortune and glory.
Handsome Jack makes you want to keep fighting just for the chance to put a bullet in his smug, psychotic mouth. His face (which many have noticed isn’t even his, it’s a mask) has been all over the game’s marketing material from the beginning, and from the moment you start playing you have a very good reason to want him dead. As the game progresses he taunts you over your communicator, continuing to stoke your hatred of him while munching on pretzels, naming his pony made of diamonds after you (and calling it something we can’t repeat here), or brutally murdering anyone who stands in his way. He reminds me a lot of the Joker, both in temperament and tactics, and will almost certainly wind up on people’s “Best Villains” lists.
The bathroom of our favorite steward bot (note the poster…)
What’s doubly frustrating is Jack’s the person who has profited the most from the opening of the original Vault. When that happened Pandora began producing an alien element called eridium, which catapulted Jack into an instant mega-trillionaire and started another mining boom on the planet. He even re-wrote history, claiming he was the person who first opened the Vault. Jack’s plans involve more than just wealth, however, and the cast of the first game comes together to help your Vault Hunter stop those plans and free Pandora from Jack’s tyranny.
Jack’s not the only story improvement in town, though. Seeing the changes the original four Vault Hunters made after the first Borderlands is a treat, and the various side missions all do a great job either adding to the narrative or just piling on wacky reference after wacky reference. When possible, keep an eye out for ECHO-recorders just lying around Pandora’s zones: each zone has a collection that tell a small bit of the story, including why the four new Vault Hunters came to Pandora, or where Jack originally came from. It’s a little like Bioshock‘s audio diaries, and goes a long way to helping give you a bigger picture of how life on Pandora wound up in the state it’s in.
While Gearbox doubled down on story in their game, they also added a lot of layers to their combat. There are many more varieties of bad guys to shoot, and many, many more guns to shoot them with.
A new type of damage introduced in Borderlands 2 is called slag, a byproduct of processing eridium. Unlike other elemental damage types, which work well against certain enemies, slag paints targets with purple goo and increases all damage from other non-slag weapons. A slag pistol, for instance, may not do much damage on its own but could turn your shotgun into a hell-cannon able to take down raging badasses in a single shot, leading players to look for interesting ways to combine guns in their arsenal for maximum effect.
The way enemies react to each other is also interesting. Bandits in particular got a big upgrade to their AI: psychos will still charge directly at you, but other armored raiders are more savvy, ducking and running behind cover to let their shields recharge or just get away from snipers. Goliaths are massive, slow-moving slabs of meat until you shoot their helmet off: then you’ll see the horror that lies beneath, right before they jump back to full health and start murdering anyone (including other bandits) near them.
One interesting addition to combat is the new Badass Ranks, which are awarded every time you complete challenges such as dealing a certain amount of elemental damage or finding all the hidden items in a certain zone. As you gain more ranks you can add incremental improvements, such as an extra one percent to shield recharge rates or gun damage. The ranks and changes carry over to all your characters, so you won’t necessarily feel compelled to do everything possible on one playthrough just to get the best stats possible.
While all those additions are nice, there are some underlying problems. Enemies respawn somewhat erratically, and on the whole far too quickly. More than once I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t take down the boss in front of me, and every death also respawned an entire town’s worth of bandits around me, leading to more deaths that cost even more money. The fact that your own respawns take a continually-larger percentage of your overall cash also hurts if you get into that kind of a situation, and you watch your hard-earned cash pour out by the tens of thousands with each death.
Saving your progress is also a bit tricky. While the game says it saves your progress each time you pass a waypoint, if you quit out of the game halfway through a zone you’ll find yourself back at the beginning when you come back, forced to slog through the entire area again. While I can appreciate the desire to prevent racing through zones just to get to the next waypoint before dying, and thus leapfrogging touch encounters, it can still feel overly-punishing at times.
PC Makes A Difference
When it comes to first-person shooters, there are going to be (loud) arguments from console and PC supporters about why their platform is superior. Gearbox released a “love letter” to PC gamers during their development of Borderlands 2 to let them know they weren’t going to get the cold shoulder this time, and made good on many of their promises.
I played the PC version, and can attest that the game’s comic-book art style has never looked crisper, and I was pleased to see all the additions Gearbox put in such as an FOV slider, more resolutions and other performance enhancers. NVIDIA’s PhysX technology adds wonderful interactions with cloth, snow, enemies, and the environment. There will be details to quibble over, and the fact that these kinds of features needed to be highlighted instead of automatically included is a bit concerning, but in the end my mouse and keyboard are happy, so I’m happy.
The soul of Borderlands lives on in this sequel, and it lives to shoot psychos in the face. But Gearbox has added so much depth, constantly sharp humor and enhanced gunplay that Borderlands 2 is infinitely replayable. So get off my bus and get to it, already.