on December 26, 2013
The original Borderlands was a good, if flawed, game that combined full on first person shooter action with RPG elements. While Fallout III (another first person RPG) focused more on the RPG aspect (the VATS mode, where combat is temporarily taken out of the arena of reflexes, and instead depends entirely on stats, was ample evidence that Bethesda knew the limits of the game's FPS mechanics), Borderlands put twitchy action first, with the RPG elements there to essentially keep the player engaged beyond the mechanics. As unique as the game's cel-shaded look, pick up and play online co-op questing, and overall quirky feel were, the game did suffer from a few flaws. Namely, the game's characters and storyline progression were muddled and sort of buried, Pandora's desolate environments tended to blend together, and extended play sessions could become extremely tedious. The promise was definitely there, but the execution was just a bit short of the game's ambitions.
Borderlands 2, fortunately, delivers on that promise extensively. This review is for the Game of the Year Edition, which takes the already impressive "vanilla" Borderlands 2 game, and packages it with a second disc to install the 4 major downloadable campaigns, 2 additional characters, and a couple odds and ends. That's right; Gearbox wisely learned that we don't want that voucher @#$#@$!, and want something that will work if we fire up the old Xbox 360/PS3 a decade later, after the servers no longer have that DLC up. So a word of warning- make sure you have enough hard drive space (probably at least 7-8 gigs). Unfortunately, the GOTY Edition does not include the "Headhunter" mini-expansions that just came out, nor does it include the latest level cap increase. That being said, this edition of the game has a lot of gameplay packed in there. On my single playthrough as a Gunzerker, I've clocked around 95 hours after completing all the campaigns, and most, but not all, of the sidequests.
While the original Borderlands essentially threw you onto an alien planet with the vague goal of "find and open the hidden alien vault", Borderlands 2 has a much more out-front story, involving a corporate villain named Handsome Jack, who has somehow taken credit for the original Vault Hunters' deeds from the first game. The game begins with him double-crossing a new team of Vault Hunters, thus setting the conflict up from the get-go. During the course of the game, you run into the now-discredited old Vault Hunters, who are trying to fight the tyranny of Jack (who has essentially declared his intent to rule Pandora), as well as other characters old (Scooter, Tannis, Marcus) and new (Tiny Tina, and a host of other NPCs). The humor is much more pronounced, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. Fighting "shirtless men" volleyball players at a bandit airbase in an obvious reference to Top Gun is pretty entertaining, as are the violent verbal outbursts of Randy Savage-wannabe Mr. Torgue, but by the same token, the constant sardonic, pop-culture/internet meme savvy, relentlessly self-aware, almost hipsterish "Really? Seriously?" tone is bound to annoy at some point. The game's unmistakeably prominent personality is a double-edged sword, but it does certainly keep it from being another grim po-faced military shooter.
It's much harder to find fault with the rest of the game, though. Borderlands 2 manages to be modern and old-school at the same time. The character ability progression, constant allure of finding new cool weapons, vehicular combat, and slick controls all fit in perfectly with current gaming, as do the vast, open environments. By the same token, however, you'll find the kind of elaborate area layouts (complete with dead ends, and all manner of nooks and crannies) you'd find back in the days of Doom II, as opposed to the linear, simplified level design many shooters use currently. On a similar note, when many shooters seem content to have a limited selection of enemies, Borderlands 2 is bursting with variety, and even more so in the GOTY Edition. Mutated madmen, enraged nomads, corporate soldiers, armed bandits in jeeps and hover-gunships, robot walkers, flying drones, transforming fliers, killer arachnids, multi-armed giant primates, burrowing underground monsters, wolf-beasts, crystalline hulks, chameleon-like deadly lizards, monstrous flying insects, pirates, ghosts, biker gangs, unbalanced corporate goons, titanic insectoid walkers, deadly flying spoors, alien scorpions, savage cultists..........oh, and orcs, skeletons, dragons, knights, wizards, and dwarves. I've managed to miss more than a few enemy types in my list, so as you can tell, there's a lot of variety. The environments also have more variety this time around, even if there's some blatant resource recycling. Icy wastelands, temperate highlands, deserts, irradiated volcanic fields, frontier towns, swamps, and even some more developed areas await you. Places like Hayter's Folly (an oasis hidden in a cave system), the vast scale of the Caustic Caverns, which only appear after a major story event, and "The Beatdown", a Detroit-like urban area taken over by psychotic gangs, are just a couple of many well-designed environments. Like many western RPGs, to get the full experience of the game, you need to tackle side quests constantly, as they not only provide experience points, they also expose you to characters and areas outside the main questline. Oh, and they are often quite amusing.
The expansions are all surprisingly meaty, and together provide a huge amount of bang for the buck (enough to easily make it worth the purchase even if you have the non-GOTY version). What's more impressive is the fact that the core game itself never felt compromised in favor of cutting content for it to only be resold later as DLC. The expansions all feel connected as part of the whole experience, but are still separate enough to avoid feeling like just cut content. All 4 expansions are high quality, but the last one, "Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep" is particularly noteworthy, as it takes the game in a fairly different direction, turning the game into a loving parody of the fantasy genre, set in a set of fantasy-themed zones that you can still jump back and forth from with the rest of the game areas.
If there's a weakness, aside from the occasionally overbearing "this is teh LOLZ!!!!" humor, it's that, as before, extended play sessions can become tedious after a while. While this game has definitely improved on keeping the environments from blending together as much as the first game's did, Pandora is still a relatively desolate place, and the game's heavy reliance on, well, shooting stuff can make it hard to play more than a few hours in a row. But this is something that most games with a lot of content unavoidably suffer from, and it's nothing that taking a day off in between sessions won't easily fix. All things considered, this game is one of the better ones to emerge from its generation. For people who never played the base version of Borderlands 2, and for those who did, but didn't bother with the DLC, this one is a no brainer.