Have you ever been unable to get yourself out of an abusive relationship? Borderlands 2 kicked my ass, lit me on fire, took all my money and I still keep coming back for more.
Three years ago Gearbox made a game called Borderlands. It was a colorful, cel-shaded first-person shooter with a few RPG-like qualities that let you build one of four characters in a way you wanted.
(They were all great, but my particular favorites included the sniper with a pet bird who he could send on attacks and a magically-inclined redhead who I built to blast through enemies with fire.)
Now Borderlands is back, sporting the same cel-shaded style and boasting even more loot and even more enemies. Gearbox practically invented a new number (it's in the bazillions) just to account for all the guns you can find on the planet Pandora. Fire-pistols, corrosive-SMGs, slag (a smokey purple effect) shotguns, shocking-sniper rifles. You use whatever your trigger-happy heart desires against enemies big and midget. Some of said enemies attack you with their own elemental effects. A muscular goliath will vomit up corrosive acid on you. Or a spiderant will attack with slag. Feisty robots will burn you with flamethrowers. The combinations are wild. And damn dangerous.
Forget the bandits, bugs and mechanical things trying to kill you as you walk through the open world of Pandora. The main threat in Borderlands 2 is a handsome man named Jack. Handsome Jack, if you will. The unjustly rich Hyperion corporation president is also a complete asshole. Though he's had statues of himself built in cities and propaganda posters glued on the walls, there's no denying his tyranny. The citizens of hub city Sanctuary—hiding in the one safe haven they have left—certainly don't deny it. They've been ripped off and taken advantage of by Hyperion more times than a rakk has eaten a skag. His greed is limitless, and now Handsome Jack is after dark, alien power hidden in a Vault. That's where you come in, filling the role of a vault hunter and mercenary yet again.
The ending of the first Borderlands was...anti-climatic, let's just say. It left a confusing hole in the long journey you spent to get there. Beautifully, Borderlands 2's story not only compensates directly for that emptiness—smartly tying up loose ends—but it's also a lot more complex than the first game's story.
I laughed a lot in Borderlands 1. I giggled at the names of bosses and my eyes sparkled at shiny new weapons. I enjoyed listening to dialogue from all the personalities of non-player characters, showing off their paranoia or charismatic banter.
But my heart never dropped in Borderlands 1. I was never shocked or appalled by something I just witnessed in the progression of the story. I felt all those things on my second run through Pandora. It caught me completely off guard in the best way, even if I'm still upset by the things that happened. The story in Borderlands 2 occasionally gets serious, dark even, and it was something I felt and believed rather than just listened to. I have never been so invested in Pandora and its citizens until this sequel.
Non-player characters still have that twisted humor edge that you'll recognize from the first title. All your favorites—Claptrap, Scooter, Patricia Tannis, Mad Moxxi—and some new ones—Tiny Tina, Ellie—and even the four vault hunters we played as in the first Borderlands add to the character of the sequel. They all have personal vendettas and agendas they need your help to carry out. They'll all leave their mark on Pandora in some way. And they'll all be fundamental to your mission in taking down Handsome Jack.
Enemies are just as awkwardly lovable as the NPCs. Bandits will cry out things like "I almost paid off my mortgage!" when you kill them. How often do you find a game that makes you chuckle mid-battle? In the midst of being circled by threshers who can warp you into their range or crystalisks who can spit out explosive crystals at you, there's always something to appreciate or be impressed by.
Some decisions about combat confused me, though. While pursuing certain quest lines imperative to the main story, you'll begin a long sequence through the one zone it's contained in. These range from snowy battlegrounds filled with mechs to bandit camps filled with tattooed psychos. These treks last for awhile. Typically they'll start off with a health and ammo vending machine so you can load up before you run into enemies.
But Borderlands 2 is a difficult game with fickle enemies. They're hell-bent on living. One ammo vendor just won't cut it, especially when enemies tend to drop more money than they do ammunition. And if you're playing with friends, you can count those random loot boxes to be split at least 50/50 if not by up to a quarter. Unless you're *that* person who runs up to loot every box before anyone else can get to it.
I found myself without ammunition all too often while working my way through Borderlands 2's long quest lines. Enemies are tough; they require a lot of bullets shoved into their faces before they'll go down. And they go down fighting. Robots will charge at you to explode with EMP power, which often took down my shields and dropped me close to death. Or they drag their half damaged bodies across the platform to you, even throwing grenades with their good arm. Survival is tough on Pandora since Handsome Jack took charge. His Hyperion-powered mechs and bounty-hunting bandits won't make it easy for you.
I figured out that playing as the new siren, Maya, was not the best choice to power-solo through Borderlands 2. Granted, the new skill trees—separated into three main trees—are so varied from one another that my Maya may be completely different than another player's Maya. I chose to be a more destructive Maya, dealing heavier damage and adding elemental effects to her strikes, but only after I tried her as more of a healing character. She still never felt too equipped to defend herself against the large waves of enemies Borderlands 2 constantly throws at you. Waves even mix with each other, sometimes to your detriment, but luckily sometimes to your benefit as you watch bandits kill off bullymongs.
But even when I played co-op, with fellow game journalists who chose the more independent commando or gunzerker, they found conserving ammunition to be just as much of an issue. It was next to impossible.
So I tried making the run all the way back to the start of the level to use all the cash I picked up on some direly needed ammunition. Some levels were so long, though, that enemies would start to respawn as I made my way back. It felt a little bit like torture. You could say it's part of the challenge, that respawning enemies test your ability to complete missions under a timed pressure. If you feel that way, all the better. Because Borderlands 2 will have that pressure looming over your head. Take too long to finish off a wave of enemies, and they'll be spawning behind you before you know it.
This kind of brutality on the player makes one thing crystal clear about Borderlands 2: it's very much meant to be a co-op game. Especially when considering the siren, whose action ability is to suspend enemies in the air, it's obvious that a lot of the game was made with the cooperative experience in mind.
The commando's turrets make that class probably the most ideal for a solo experience, but power in numbers is heavily emphasized here. You'll certainly be facing off against an overwhelming swarm of enemies at once, so you might as well come packing. The swarms sometimes feel endless. Having a friend or three at your back can mean the difference between getting through a quest in an hour or getting through the same quest in 20 minutes. Even with skill points spent towards increased critical hit percentage, deadeye aim and some wildass smartbomb talent, it's still preferable to play with friends to get through it all.
Playing Borderlands 2 at its most ideal setting—namely, with friends—is still a challenge. Especially in later levels, you'll often find yourself pressed up against a wall with so much chaos in front of you that your head will spin. And that's a good thing, when you know you have friends to hold the fort while you run back from the last checkpoint.
Borderlands 2 is best played at the slowest pace possible. Explore. Try out all the mission board quests. Look around for yellow exclamation points as you drive through the map to pick up even more quests. Do each one. The variety in quests is refreshing, especially thinking back to side quests in Borderlands that often felt stale and monotonous. In Borderlands 2 side quests will take you to meet new quirky characters, learn more about Handsome Jack and his reign of terror, or learn more about the vault and Pandora and the original four vault hunters. There's a lot to learn out there in your second pass through Pandora. There's a lot of fun, funny new story arcs to experience, too.
The only downside to having a ton of fun side quests is that there's no way to easily track them. There's the standard method of organization that groups quests that are a part of the same area together on a list, but you can't toggle through them easily on the map. You'll have to manually cycle through them, clicking on new ones and then switching back to the map to see where you need to go. An indicator of a nearby quest on your way to your intended one seems like an easy addition. But really it's just a minor nuisance. Just ask that one friend you always make drive to keep you on track with quests. I'm sure they'll oblige (I always do, and I always like driving, too).
There's so much more I should tell you about Borderlands 2. I want you to know about the enemies that will evolve into more dangerous, badass versions of themselves if you don't kill them off in time.
I want to tell you about the new weapons. Weapons whose reticles will focus—and thereby increasing your accuracy with it—the more you shoot. Weapons you throw at enemies for extra damage instead of just reloading the proper (read: boring) way. Weapons that have fire, corrosive, shock, and slag damage that you'll use against enemies that can wield that same damage against you. In fact, the game practically necessitates that you seek out those weapons with extra elemental effects, either for splash or continuation damage, or because they work well against an enemy's armor type.
I want to tell you about how stylish the game is, and about how much personality it has. Every time you die and Hyperion resurrects you, you'll get a snide, wiseass remark from the machine in question. Whoever you choose to play as will make comments about their fighting prowess mid-battle or mumble about what weapon to choose when you find new loot. Characters have funky costumes and flair like they did in Borderlands 1, but you see a lot more of that in the sequel. You can even make your own character look absolutely fabulous.
But there's really only one thing that you need to know about Borderlands 2. It's a tough, stylish, emotional ride through everything that made Borderlands 1 such a great game. Pick three friends, span the character classes, and get to killing. You won't be disappointed.
Video contains some spoilers.
If you're up for getting a sneak peek at some of the first few NPCs and low-level bosses you'll meet in Borderlands 2, hit the video above. More »