Borderlands 2 review
If you’ve ever alphabetised your DVD, CD or game collection. If you’ve ever shed a tear over an empty space in a sticker album. If you’ve ever taken the Pokémon tagline ‘Gotta catch ’em all!’ literally rather than just seeing it as a suggestion. If you’ve ever emptied your wardrobe only to put it all back in again hours later because you might wear those horrific Christmas jumpers one day. We’re not judging you. No, you’re in good company here, friends, because we’re the same. And we’re soon to share a similar obsession, because Gearbox has created an absolute OCD nightmare of a game, and hot damn, if it isn’t the most addictive, glorious and ultimately futile quest for completionism we ever did see.
Picking up where the staggeringly successful original game left off, this second visit to the oddly inviting world of Pandora seems to have just one goal: crank every dial to 11 and see what happens. And that curiosity is sated incredibly swiftly, with the scientific conclusion that going to 11 means ‘AWESOME THINGS, ALL THE TIME’, and we’re fine with this. Obviously. Any shooter that can entertain before you’ve even picked up a gun – or any RPG that can get you interested in your class before you’ve even levelled up and started fiddling with skill trees – has to be doing something right. And having finished it several times over and put co-op through its paces, we can safely say that it’s not just something that Borderlands 2 does right. It’s more or less everything.
Model numbers and slight name differences once gave the illusion of an endless arsenal but here, Gearbox is far more up-front and visual in its creative, procedural way of creating weapons. While two guns might share a similar title, their individual strengths and weaknesses are generally apparent at a glance. A larger clip or even a barrel-fed magazine indicates a larger clip size, while various types of scope are easily visible atop each weapon, and melee enhancements such as bayonets sit proudly below the barrel. Generally speaking, it’s far easier to tell what a gun does well just by looking at it, although the well-presented stats do a great job of filling in the blanks. For all that you’ll take for granted, though, some weapons really need to be tried out to be properly appreciated – a fact that several of the unique weapons toy with beautifully – and as much as you may fall in love with a particular gun, it’s unlikely that you’ll advance even a single level without finding something that isn’t of equal merit to your prized firearm.
And while guns might be the focus of Gearbox’s weapon-hoarding adventure, the same sense of diversity and potential now applies to every single piece of equipment you may find on a corpse, in a bin or tucked safely away inside one of those inexplicably exciting large chests that litter the hardest-to-reach corners of Pandora. Grenade mods can take on multiple properties – a homing corrosive black hole that absorbs health? Sure, why not? – and even class mods and relics come in a far wider variety than the original game even so much as threatened. With that being the case, it’s far easier to develop your character to the way you want to play than it was before, or at least it is if you have the patience to grind for decent gear.
You see, the random nature of a game so geared around loot drops is always going to offer different experiences for every player. You could go in convinced that you want to play as a badass sniper, but all it takes is for a purple SMG to drop and, just like that, you’re rocking an automatic and taking the fight to the enemy at close range. It can be a little frustrating if you’re hell-bent on playing a certain way, sure, but Borderlands rewards those who adapt to it more than it does those who go in with expectations and desires. Play enough or trade with others and you’ll surely find that dream gun you’re after eventually, but the journey to that point is arguably what makes the game so good in the first place.
It’s not just equipment that benefits from a new-found sense of variety, either. Anyone who couldn’t get on with the fact that the original game basically started with five hours of fighting freaky dog things in the desert will be glad to hear that both locations and enemies are now far more varied in scope – Skags are back, though there are probably more individual kinds than there were enemies in the first game, but they’re joined by a host of new foes to slay ad infinitum, each of which needs to be tackled in a different manner to the last. Some are awesome – the mutating Varkid and various classes of Thresher spring to mind – but others… Yeah, not so much.
Robotic enemies are far less satisfying to put down than their fleshy counterparts, which is doubly frustrating as there are so bloody many of them. With the right gear, it’s not taxing to dispatch most of them with the same strategy, making them by far the weakest enemy type, even though there’s still a decent variety to their mechanical ranks. Settings fare far better, with Gearbox taking cues from its DLC maps from the original in making some seriously expansive, open play fields to explore, and ones where sometimes a vehicle isn’t so much a benefit as a necessity, such is their scale.
Even missions seem far better thought out than they were in the original. Despite the fact that most objectives can’t really stray too far from the ‘go there, find/kill that’ template, there’s still a sense of imagination and freedom to approaching most goals. On top of that, any active quest will be tracked and reported on regardless of whether or not it’s your current task, serving as a handy reminder to the vast nature of your current job list. And trust us, it fills up fast. Distractions are everywhere. A new side quest here, an out-of-the-way loot chest there, a challenge-filling bounty elsewhere… It can be hard to stay on track with so much to do. Not that staying on track should ever be the concern anyway – if you’re holidaying on Pandora and not taking in the sights, you’re doing it wrong.
If you’re planning on playing through in co-op, it’s worth noting that while all players earn experience for every kill, the game still scales to the host’s level. Join a higher-level game and you’ll level up at a decent rate if you can stay alive, but anything you find will be so far out of your league that it’s generally only useful as a quick source of cash. And on the flipside, join a low-level game and you’ll one-shot everything and quickly fill up on junk – not the way to go, unless you’re helping a friend through a tricky section.
Play at or around the same level, though, and the synergy between the four character classes is both evident and glorious. Gunzerker and Commando can fill similar tanking roles, while Siren and Assassin offer ranged support in both offensive and – in the case of the former, at least – defensive flavours. It’s a case of finding a party that fits your particular character build, but if you’re playing with friends, it shouldn’t be too hard to orchestrate it so that each of you has skill and abilities that play to those of the rest of the group. And hey, you can always just respec your skill tree around present company at an almost inconsequential cost. It’s almost like that was an intentional design choice on Gearbox’s part, huh?
Some may sneer at Borderlands 2’s referential, pop-culture-oriented sense of humour, and it can be a bit much at times – for a world so well defined as to be unlike any we will ever know, these alien guys sure do seem to be keeping up with their early 21st Century memes. Others may balk at the grind-friendly gameplay, though few would argue that that one super-rare drop doesn’t make all the effort seem worth the while. But for all its all-but-inconsequential shortcomings, Borderlands 2 is a masterclass in game design that pretty much every developer could stand to learn something from. Almost impossible to put down and stunning in its presentation, Gearbox’s latest is a game that simply begs to played and played and played until you’ve done everything. And then you’ll do it all again with friends. Because no matter how many guns you pick up along the way, you’re never gonna catch ’em all, Ash.