BORDERLANDS 2 (2012) – GEARBOX SOFTWARE
If you are the sort of person who imagines one day “wouldn’t it be cool if a shotgun could fire rockets?”, then you’ve probably come across Borderlands. A space-western centred around the core idea of ‘shoot and loot’, it was a surprise hit upon its release in 2009 and sold over 4.5 million copies, driving demand for a sequel. Last year we got that game in the form of Borderlands 2, promising a bigger and better game with over ‘a bazillion guns’. While the game’s armoury can’t quite match that lofty figure, it makes up for it with a humorous, colourful world that forms the backdrop for one of the best games in recent years.
Following on directly from the events of the first game, the alien world of Pandora has changed somewhat. Since the opening of the Vault, a strange mineral called Eridium has started popping up in the planet’s crust, and the Hyperion Corporation led by Handsome Jack now owns the mining operations with an iron fist, observing everything from their lunar base which covers the moon. The game opens with four new Vault Hunters arriving on Pandora in search of a fortune – they are ambushed by Jack however and left to die. Upon being rescued by the last Claptrap robot in existence, the Vault Hunter is able to proceed to the bandit town of Sanctuary, one of the few remaining safe havens on Pandora, and team up with the Crimson Raiders resistance. The remaining 25 hours or so sees you racing Jack to the opening of a newly discovered Vault, whilst also doing lots of other crazy missions and amassing the most eclectic armoury of weapons you possibly can.
The plot in the Borderlands was paper thin at best, so the addition of a good solid story is more than welcome. Much of the improvement is due to the much richer development of character; familiar faces from the first game including redneck mechanic Scooter, the medically inept Dr Zed and gun-selling capitalist extraordinaire Marcus are around to provide continuity, but it’s the eccentric Claptrap who steals the show. And then there’s Handsome Jack, who may well go down as one of the great gaming villains of recent times. Never lacking for a smart-arse comment, he continually taunts you and your efforts at every turn, always one step ahead of the plan and yet at the same time capable of moments of incredible ineptness.
Fans of popular culture will also find plenty to enjoy in Borderlands 2; films, TV, music and memes are gleefully parodied and referenced at every opportunity, and often provide the strongest source of humour. One early mission for example see you hunting mutant ninjas who may well resemble turtles, while other missions lampoon everything from Top Gun to Super Mario Bros. The inclusion of all these homage’s is admittedly a double edged sword; if you haven’t come across the source material, much of the game may appear random and be less enjoyable as a result. Persevere with it though, and Borderlands 2 offers about 25 hours worth of shooting and looting mayhem, with plenty of replay value for good measure.
Given the success of the relatively unique system that Gearbox put together for the first game, they would have been fools to abandon it. What we get then in Borderlands 2 is a refined version of ‘shoot and loot’. You can pick one of four characters (with another two classes available as DLC); Axton (who has a turret that he can send out to do the killing for him), Maya, (the Siren, a rare individual in the Borderlands universe who can freeze enemies in midair), Zer0 (an assassin who speaks only in Haiku) and Salvador (a short and angry Gunzerker who can dual wield weapons), and gradually level them up over time as you earn experience from completing missions and dispatching enemies. Your chosen character can have four weapons available at any one time (selected with the d-pad), and also pick up shields, grenade modifications, class mods and ancient relics which can boost anything from fire rate to increased elemental damage. Strewn across the world of Pandora are chests and crates which can be opened for increasingly better goodies and ammo (weapons range from bog standard to legendary, with a colour defining each tier in the menus), and there are vending machines dotted around to buy or sell whatever you’ve found lying around. The game is good fun in single player, but comes into its own online where up to four players can take on the world (and each other if they so choose to duel), with scaled up enemies and chances of finding even rarer loot.
The basic gameplay mechanics are thoroughly enjoyable; each class feels identifiably different to the others, with the inclusion of the dual wielding Gunzerker being a particular highlight. Other elements of the game have benefited from some slight tweaks – for example, any loot you pick up that you know you aren’t going to use can be marked with a cross and sold in bulk at vendors (or stuff you like can be marked with a star so you don’t sell it on accident). Vehicles have also been given a significant overhaul and now have more realistic physics. There are also a few small touches that are really quite nice to observe: for example, when firing a revolver, the character now hammers on the trigger as fast as you can press the right trigger button yourself. I guess the only major annoyance is the lack of space early on for storing items if you are a mass hoarder of guns, but apart from that I’m hard pressed to pass a negative comment on overall gameplay.
Borderlands caught attention with its quite unique visual style, but players were unfortunately treated to an endless sea of drab colours. The sequel changes this for the better, throwing in a range of different environments from snowy tundra’s and poisonous caverns to the edge of a volcano to show off what Pandora really looks like. The general design of the world, including the custom designed weapons and containers for the various companies that exist in the Borderlands universe, is also quite a sight to behold. The face’s of some of the characters can sometimes seem a bit off and the game occasionally gets a bit choppy when there’s lot of enemies on the screen at once or when several grenades explode in the middle of a firefight, but in general Borderlands 2 runs smoothly and without glitches, which an excellent presentation of HUD-style menus for your equipment (you can also look at your bayonet-wielding rocket launcher from all angles in a 3D viewer). The game is also backed up by several strong vocal performances, in particular Dameon Clarke’s award winning turn as the snarky Handsome Jack, though some performances can wear thin very quickly (here’s looking at you, Tiny Tina). The ambient soundtrack ranges from the good to the non-existent, my personal favourite being the twangling sounds of the Caustic Caverns.
There’s good reason why Borderlands 2 has attracted the praise it has – there’s very little not to like. It’s a funny, visually striking game with high replay value and satisfying control, and a big step up from the original game. It verges dangerously on the edge of being completely stupid at points, and some of the missions at the mid-point of the game can drag a little, but the overall experience is worth the few instances of pain. If you are looking to re-visit the highlights of last years releases, then I would put this one near the top of the pile.