“This ain’t no place for no hero.” Set to the tune of Short Change Hero by The Heavy, Borderlands 2 opens with a sleek cinematic that perfectly captures the game’s personality. There’s the iconic Skag creature and there are bandits. There’s the four Vault Hunters being ambushed, there are bad robots and then there’s fighting. A dwarf of a man fires two assault rifles and a ninja skewers people atop a moving train. What does it all mean? I take a look at Gearbox Software’s latest FPS-RPG shooter Borderlands 2 and find out just why Pandora isn’t the place for heroes to call home.
Set five years after the events of Borderlands, Pandora really hasn’t changed much. You can’t step out of town for long without getting murdered by bandits or mauled by some animal, and people still keep their money in toilet bowls. What’s changed is that a giant H-shaped space station now looms in the sky. H for Handsome Jack, the new world power. Answering the call for Vault Hunters, our four protagonists soon find themselves on a mission to get rid of Handsome Jack. Not because they want to free Pandora, but because they’re fighting for their lives – Jack wants Vault Hunters dead. This mission will take them across snowy sights and industrial sites, meeting and greeting the local fauna with munitions and walking away with fat, shiny loot.
Never played the first Borderlands? You’re not going to miss out on any significant backstory, so don’t worry. In fact, that’s the one major difference between the two titles: the second actually has a fairly cohesive plot. Following the unexpected success of the first game, Gearbox writers Anthony Burch and Mikey Neumann have created a memorable villain you will love to hate. Handsome Jack never fades into the background as you move from quest to quest; his sarcastic banter and taunting can be heard at every opportunity. At one point he even talks about naming a diamond pony he bought just because he can. It’s quite the experience, laughing to yourself as you’re caught up in a fight.
Therein lays the game’s greatest strength: its brand of dark humour. Let’s be honest here, quest-driven campaigns are usually in the “fetch this, go there, kill that” vein and a developer needs to pull all the stops to keep the player engaged. Easier said than done but Borderlands 2 manages to pull it off by masking the quests with a layer of humour that is genuinely entertaining for the most part. For example, one mission has you sending out birthday invites for Claptrap’s birthday (the annoying/charismatic robot with a single wheel). Everyone refuses to attend and you end up being alone with him for a full two minutes as he awkwardly makes conversation and ‘parties’ with you. It may seem pointless and incredibly out of place in a shooter, but it actually does serve as character development and you’ll appreciate the break all the same.
Claptrap isn’t the only recurring character. He is joined by the likes of Angel, Scooter, Dr.Zed and more. They may be living under the shadow of Handsome Jack but you’ll find that Marcus still doesn’t give refunds and Moxxi is still… well, very much her. Over the course of time you’ll get to meet the former Vault Hunters as well, seeing them in a new light with fully realised personalities and lives. Not simply there for show, they too play a part in Borderlands 2’s story. There’s no rest for the wicked, after all.
In their place, we get four new characters to play with. Axton the Commando with his deployable turret that can stick on walls and shield players; Maya the Siren and her ‘phaselock’ ability to either crowd-control or single out a target; Salvador the Gunzerker that allows him to dual-wield guns; as well as Zer0 the Assassin, using a sword and his ability to go invisible for short bursts of time.
So how does Borderlands 2 play? At its core, the game is basically a shooter. Built on the Unreal Engine, the gunplay is very much a solid affair with different weapon types and designs at your disposal. Engagements can be a slow, methodical affair at range from behind cover, or fast and furious with lots of running, jumping, grenade tossing and faith – both styles are equally viable regardless of your class. Like most shooters these days there is an Aim-Down-Sight feature but unfortunately no option to hold your breath to steady your aim, making for some hilarious or frustrating scenarios.
The RPG elements come in the form of a levelling system, passive skill trees, a quest-driven campaign and most importantly, in Borderlands 2’s case, loot. “87 BAJILLION MORE GUNS,” exclaims one of their dubsteb-laden trailers. Honestly, in my efforts to get friends to play the first Borderlands in its early days, I resorted to calling it a ‘Diablo with guns.’ You’ll find loot containers everywhere, ranging from lockers to coveted gun chests.
All this talk about guns and loot but does the game deliver on that front? Why yes, yes it does. There are a number of weapon manufacturers in the game and each tout different specialisations. Maliwan, for instance, place an emphasis on putting elemental effects on their guns; in short, you have guns that can set enemies on fire. Or dissolve them into pools of acid, whichever your pick. They’re not just there for visual effect either. Electrically-imbued bullets do short work of shields while corrosive weapons are great against armour, so you’ll soon endeavour to keep a weapon of each elemental type handy just in case.
There’s stuff for your Vault Hunter as well, ranging from shields that emit a fire nova when depleted or class mods that bestow various benefits. Grenade mods? Yup, that’s a thing too, so rather than a boring lonesome explosion, you can get your grenades to create a singularity that pulls nearby enemies closer before exploding and coating them all in delicious, corrosive acid. (Not that I recommend tasting corrosive acid, mind you.)
To combat the monotony of finding nothing but money in smaller containers, the game introduces Eridium as black market currency for storage upgrades. These can be for your ammo capacities, backpack space or even the number of slots in your bank, so they’re not something you want to skip out on when you’re starting out. To make looting even better, money and ammo dropped by enemies is automatically picked up when you run past, reducing the need for ground-staring and button/key mashing.
A sentiment shared by many is the predecessor’s repetitiveness when it comes to the environments and enemies. Gearbox has endeavoured to solve that issue by introducing new areas for your merry band to sack and rampage through, guarded by more interesting enemy variants. Human enemies are a lot less static too, jinking and rolling around just to make your life that much more difficult. I believe special mention deserves to go to the Goliath. Shoot him in the head and his helmet pops off for a neat little surprise.
Character customization is back with a few changes. You can now switch between “heads” (morbid as that sounds), unlocking and finding more along the way. Additionally, instead of picking just the colour for clothes and hair, you now get to choose from a wide selection of themes. Also new is the Badass Rank system, challenges that reward you with small stat bonuses which carry over between characters.
I remember wishing for online, split-screen co-op while playing the first Borderlands on my PS3. Like some awesome fairy godmother, Gearbox has now made that possible. If you have four players but only two consoles, you can still play together. I don’t know about you but I find that pretty damn amazing. A word of warning, however: if you’re on the Xbox system playing split-screen, the second player needs to have a Silver account to save progress, and a Gold account to take that split-screen game online.
Further enhancing the co-op experience is a drop-in drop-out functionality, removing the need for game lobbies that stymied the action of the first game. The main menu itself sports a list of games currently in-progress by your friends, allowing you to easily join in without having to navigate through filters or different menus. On the PC end, Steam takes over GameSpy’s networking duties, ensuring things are as painless as possible for the gamer.
If you’ve played the first Borderlands on PC, then you’ll remember the game suffered from being a pretty bad port. You might also remember that Gearbox subsequently released a love letter to PC gamers after the second game was announced. You’ll be pleased to know that they’ve held up their end of the bargain and that Borderlands 2 on PC is what every game on that platform should aspire to be. The options are extensive, especially so in the graphics department. I’m running on detected settings and up ‘til now I’ve neither seen nor experienced any technical glitches whatsoever. Sure there are moments where textures take some time to load and fade in very noticeably but they don’t detract from the overall experience of the game.
Ultimately what we get is a beautifully presented product with all the sights and sounds that leave little to the imagination. The light reflecting off the waters by a coastal home, the swish of air as a treasure chest opens, the amusing one-liners that enemies spout in combat – Psychos even recite Hamlet on rare occasion. Don’t forget the soundtrack either, consisting of guitars or electronic tracks that suitably reflect the mood on-screen.
Let me address the issues Borderlands 2 has by starting with what I feel is the game’s largest flaw: the first few hours. I cannot stand tutorial levels designed to slowly guide the player any longer than necessary, more so when those sections have no way of being skipped. Many question whether the pacing should have been better as it feels slightly misrepresentative of the later game, while others find that being stuck with Claptrap for too long tends to grate the nerves a little.
Co-op progression also suffers from a little quirk. If a player joins another who is further ahead in the game, then those missions will not be completed for the joining player. Borderlands 2 improves on this by allowing you to Fast Forward quests that you’ve already played but it still feels a little odd having to do so. Thus, for best results, the player who is behind in the game should actually be the host. However, enemies scale accordingly to the host’s level, so should guests be more than a couple levels higher, the game risks being a little too easy. It’s a hard balancing act and while Borderlands 2 does tackle them reasonably, they should have pointed these out at the main menu.
Everything else is little nit-picks I have. Menu navigation still feels a little clunky, especially when moving between screens – the inventory comes to mind here. Comparing items isn’t very intuitive and I wish there are hotkeys like Q and E to swap windows left and right. There should also be hotkeys for marking the highlighted item as trash. As it is, there’s an over-reliance on mouse clicking to manage items and it gets tiring after some time. I don’t particularly like how they display your inventory either, going for a scrolling list style very similar to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It looks good on big screens but is just not ideal for large backpacks.
If you loved the first game, then you’re going to enjoy Borderlands 2. Gearbox have done very little to change the fundamental ideas behind the series, improving instead on areas like story, loot and user-friendliness. The title is worth grabbing on its own merit and once again does a great job of blending two popular genres together. And while it’s a solid game played alone, the game shines so much more in co-op, now made easier to participate in.
As for why Pandora isn’t a home for heroes? Simple: because there are no heroes. This is the lawless frontier of space, where untamed nature roams free, where there are more bandits than there are regular folk and where the good die young. Our motley crew of protagonists aren’t people your children should look up to – just people forced into action by circumstance. Yes, Borderlands 2 is a akin to the Wild West set in space, chock full of personality and comedy. You have my recommendation right there.
|SCORESHEET (out of 10)||OVERALL
Borderlands 2 is a shooter-RPG developed by Gearbox Software and published by 2K Games. It is available for the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and is out now. A Season Pass is also available for four pieces of DLC up until June 2013, not including the Mechromancer Character DLC.