I loved Borderlands, the way you love memories of a summer or a semester when you first read a favorite book. Yet writing up impressions of a game like Borderlands 2 is quite difficult, actually. Where do you begin? "Hey, remember that game from October 2009 that inhaled 80 hours of your time? Well, get ready for a whole lot more of that." Because Borderlands 2, structurally, was instantly, drop-in-like-it's-2010-again familiar for me.
It's not to say there is no difference, or that this constitutes one huge DLC extension with four more classes. The first Borderlands couldn't draw on any user telemetry to refine its experience—which highlights how remarkable it is that the game became such an obsession. Borderlands 2 has the benefit of tuning itself with that data. "In fact, the servers are taking telemetry from the game we're playing right now," Jeramy Cooke, the game's art director, told me as we romped around Hyperion City, trashing the local dictator's monuments to himself.
A full featured minimap is perhaps the best example of that. Borderlands, remember, had only the compass with the cardinal directions across the bottom of your HUD, with a single diamond for your next objective. The mini-map doesn't obstruct your view, and it properly calls out objectives, enemies and allies, though I could see why maybe it was left out of the original. With a mini-map, I do tend to spend a lot of time glancing at that instead of a game's surroundings, however stylish.
There are still a lot of whoa-shit surprises in this game, most often in the firepower and loot you acquire. The four new classes all have new Action Skills, but I only got to test one in great detail: the Assassin's. Cooke, playing as the Siren, showed me that class' speciality, the phase-lock. The Assassin (name: Zer0) deploys a decoy of himself and then cloaks for a short burst of time. Your foes' critical areas are then highlighted, showing what to aim for to score a critical hit. Landing hits early in the cycle, I was told, won't deal as much damage but they will extend its time; waiting until the end and scoring a hit right as time runs delivers a mega-critical, whose damage practically assures a one-hit kill.
The Siren's phase lock draws somewhat on Lilith, the Siren from the original Borderlands, and fleshes out the canon of this peculiar character class. Evidently there are only six Sirens in existence at one time, and Maya, the Siren of Borderlands 2 is one. Her Phaselock accesses the same dimension that Lilith used to perform her Phase Walk, and freezes an enemy in a bubble. This is particularly useful—especially in solo play—when you or your team needs to pick off the weaker members of an enemy cohort before going after the real big problem leading it.
Maya has other skills that are especially useful, including one that, when Phaselock is deployed, drags a cluster of additional foes toward the bubble, presenting a nice fat target for those on your team who deal beaucoup splash damage (think: grenades). Mostly, the classes' trees evolve as they did in the original Borderlands, with some recognizable analogues to the original skill sets. However, Cooke said, re-spec costs have been reduced because of the designers' expectation that characters will have to reformat their skill loadouts to deal with different bosses and climactic battles as the campaign wears on.
Re-speccing should also help address one agonizing drawback of Borderlands that I encountered with my first character. I stupidly acquired weapons with high accuracy and damage factors but little (or zero) elemental effects, which were utterly necessary to defeat the Crimson Lance in the General Knoxx DLC on second-playthrough difficulty. Here, Maya's skill tree offers powers that deliver elemental effects, for example, allowing you to re-spec for a showdown with enemies particularly vulnerable to one of them (corrosion for armored foes, for instance) without having to hunt up a weapon to do that job.
I was disappointed to learn, however, that some of the hilariously grim death animations had to be toned down. I'll never forget the first shock kill I got, on a Brute in the second mission at the Dahl Headlands. Watching his eyes pop out and his head fry down to a barren skull, through my sniper scope, defined the holy-shit thrill that the original Borderlands provided. Unfortunately, overseas censors aren't too keen on seeing them this time around, so the electrocutions and immolations won't be as graphic.
The game still looks fantastic, runs fast, and plays just as addictively as its predecessor. Cooke and I had to be interrupted twice by a 2K Games representative whose job it was to shuttle me off to see another game.
I took a week's vacation when the original Borderlands released, riding my bicycle eight miles to a store to pick it up. In hindsight it was my personal game of the year for 2009. The only titles to get more time out of me this console generation have all been sports. Simply booting up Borderlands nearly three years later takes me back to some very fond memories. I'm old enough to know that you just don't get the same feeling the second time around, but Borderlands 2 looks like it will try its damndest to give it to me anyway.