Our first venture out to the Borderlands in 2009 was what can only be described as a welcome surprise. After a troubled development which included completely changing the graphical style, the gaming community adopted a wait and see mentality. That didn’t last too long though as rave reviews littered the interwebs and word of mouth was very strong indeed. The original Borderlands was a purely loot driven top notch co-op first person shooter experience with fantastic combat, endless guns and a completely naff story - the ending is routinely criticised the world over. The idea was there for all to see though, fusing Diablo style loot driven gameplay with a truly bonkers yet solid first person shooter caused many a gamer to shout “this is what I’ve wanted for years!”, shortly before asking their mom for a snack or their wife if they could have ‘one more hour?’.
So back we are again with Borderlands 2, nicely highlighting two tried and tested cliches - ‘if it ain’t broke’ and ‘throw money at the problem(s)’, the latter making this sequel one of those nice occasions eclipsing the original in almost every way. Put simply if you, like many, found the original to slowly become a borefest (especially in single player) stuffed with repetitive quests and rinse and repeat enemies, then fear not! Borderlands 2 is what everyone wanted and full respect to Gearbox, they had a great idea, they dipped their toe in the water and now they have the success of the original to push forward and make a better game...rest assured it is a much better game.
Probably easier to start in familiar territory for those thinking that they have changed almost every aspect of the game, ditching things that gamers loved the first time around. Gearbox aren’t so dumb, all that was good remains and everything else is either refined or added anew. Loot continues to play a big part in the game and sure there are an absolute ****load of guns all waiting to find a home within your backpack, but even here in the highly successful elements of the original refinements have been made. Guns are noticeably different now based on manufacturer and the manufacturers themselves have trademark abilities that the other companies do not have, along with a vast variety of environmental effects that really show their value later in the game (and even more so on a second playthrough). You can now also obtain a ****load of other inventory items to compliment your class, weapon choices and play style - these include class mods, grenades, shields and relic items which can give stats boosts to both you and your teammates. - the variety found within even these simple mechanics is now staggering. Perks and badass perks further push the insane amount of character buffs available - perks obtained through ranking up and obtained from three distinct skills trees and badass points acquired by completing hundreds of in game challenges. The beauty of all these systems is the sheer volume of character setups available, no two would likely be coincidentally identical.
It is worth noting that this would have been difficult to manage had they not also revamped the UI but luckily the Gearbox team thought of that too, providing a streamlined interface which is easier to use in general and particularly better at comparing the gear you are currently rocking with what is lying on the ground.
The original characters from Borderlands return but are not playable (they do appear within the game though as do several other old favourites). For this sequel you are given the choice of a brand new set of characters, although admittedly they are tweaked variations of the characters present in the original. Axton is your standard turret dropping commando, Maya is the phaselocking Siren, Salvador is the dual wielding gun toting dwarf-like Gunzerker (tank) and Zer0 the stealth orientated assassin. Choosing your class when playing solo doesn’t really have a massive bearing on how difficult it is to progress, it really boils down to your individual play style - however when you play the game arguably as it’s meant to played, as part of a four player wrecking crew then the mixture of character options within the group is paramount.
Whilst the game is excellent when playing solo, embarking on the adventure with a co-op team of like minded individuals all souped up to the max with their respective abilities the game absolutely soars, easily becoming one of the best co-op experiences ever released. Granted the game is significantly more difficult with a four player team, but entering a heavily fortified robot filled military base alone would be a tough task but entering with a full crew is not just tough, it’s a riot and at times completely bonkers. A turret goes down from the commando, tearing the place apart with rockets and heavy gunfire, the Siren uses phaselock on multiple enemies hurling them into the air, the Gunzerker dual wields rocket launchers spraying and praying with gleeful abandon, all the while Zer0 is darting from the shadows slicing and dicing as he goes (in reality Zer0 is more likely standing there wishing the Gunzerker would take a break so he could actually use his stealth capabilities).
At times Borderlands 2 is just simply insane and the mixture of play styles when combined through co-op play make the game feel very much like that was exactly how it was meant to be played, not how it could be played, but how it should be played. Loot is shared, ammo is shared and even if your character is maxed out you can collect the ammo anyway and it is distributed to your team. Quest rewards are given to each co-op player but note that guns are all one off items so be quick if you are playing with some loot hungry players, all too eager to nip in and steal the spoils of combat “ooh this shotgun looks nice...where did it go? Come back I wanted that”.
If there are any negatives to be found within then perhaps the guns could pack more punch, explosions could be more impactful and enemy feedback has room for improvement. It is quite feasible that this is as a direct result of the graphical systems used but even so it could be better. To add to these minor issues the sound of the weaponry isn’t as bombastic as perhaps it should be - more pew pew than boom boom and with some slight tweaks you cannot help but feel that this would be an untouchable release. These really are small bumps on an otherwise flawless road.
Co-op is best in class, allowing you to play solo and then effortlessly move across into another player’s game. Some nice treats lie within the co-op functionality also; when you play online all progress is saved and if you ventured further into the game than previously upon going back to single player you will be given the option to skip any missions completed when you come across them. Such nice little elements really enhance the experience as you know that whatever progress you have made, it is saved and you will not be forced to repeat anything. The game also tells you as you attempt to join another game how good a match that game is for your save file, based on characters playing and mission progress. It’s just all done very well and should be the blueprint for four player co-op titles (Halo 4 please don’t disappoint!).
Story wise it is fair to say that some people were genuinely disappointed with the first outing; the narrative was weak, the ending terrible and generally the main story threads were sparse. Gearbox appeared to have taken a risk placing ex Destructoid and Hey Ash Whatcha Playin’? contributor Anthony Burch at the writing helm but if you’ve watched any episodes of Hey Ash, you’d know it wasn’t actually that much of a risk at all. Credit where credit is due, the main campaign story is vastly superior to the original and to add to this some of the side quests are an absolute riot; no more so than Ashley Burch making a guest appearance as Tiny Tina, the anarchic teen who just loves to blow sh*t up. The side quests are where the bulk of the comedy can be found, for example if you undertake a quest called ‘Too Close for Missiles’ from a NPC named Loggins, you are in for a Top Gun littered treat. Sarcasm, slapstick, dry (almost British) wit, crazy randomness and thoughtful character writing all combine to really make you want to explore every part of the game, even the plethora of fetch quests demand your attention. It is such a nice change to actually want to do what are usually dull fetch quest side missions and not just because there might be a decent gun at the end of it but because they are actually both entertaining and often tough.
To keep the story ticking over the main villain of the piece Handsome Jack continually mocks you as you move through the main quests and discover new areas, revealing more and more of the story as you go. The witty writing for Handsome Jack makes him completely lovable and while on paper that shouldn’t work, with him being the guy you are hell bent on beating, it works like a charm. By the mid point of the adventure you will not only want to hunt him down (as he’s a naughty so and so), you will also look forward to the next time he decides to pipe up and give you some grief.
Four player co-op games that span well over twenty hours are not ten a penny and whilst plenty have tried they have never quite scaled such heights. For a long game to keep you coming back for more in the way that Borderlands 2 does you will wonder why every game wasn’t like this.
Borderlands 2 is a fantastic single player experience with a strong genuinely funny story and fantastic intuitive combat. It is however when utilising the full co-op function that the game simply soars easily becoming the benchmark for future co-op experiences - this really is how it should be done. Industry take note and well played Gearbox, well played. Co-op gaming at it’s finest.