Note: This review of Borderlands 2 will include all supplementary material released for the game thus far; the pirate-themed Captain Scarlett campaign and the additional character Gaige. These pieces of extra content came out close enough to the game’s release that both were enabled during my first playthrough of it and so my impressions of the game were coloured by these new additions.
A key focus of the marketing for this game was on how it was intended to exceed its predecessor in scope and polish, taking what was ultimately an amusing but empty-feeling game and refining it into something more universally appealing and complete as a product without compromising what made the original unique. It lives up to this claim in all respects, adding more weapon types, an entirely new roster of characters with greater options for customisation, much-requested visual customisation of characters, more variety of levels and enemies and ultimately a better sense of progression rather than a series of empty-feeling hub worlds which each were connected to a few areas. There is a far stronger emphasis on narrative, which allows for the game’s high-quality writing to shine through and also drives the player’s progress; plot missions do not feel as much like arbitrary tasks to be completed to progress but instead are more logically connected episodes in an ongoing conflict. This illusion of a more linear story and urgency in what remains a game where plot progress proceeds at a pace determined by the player is a strength of Borderlands 2; it provides a better incentive to proceed and to not simply stop all progress for several hours to burn through side-missions.
So structurally, Borderlands 2 is an improvement; while it still ultimately returns to the hub-and-branch structure of games of its type, there is one hub area and more emphasis on moving between clusters of sub-locations rather than a series of underpopulated and static towns which are ultimately functionally identical. To make this possible, the fast-travel mechanic is given far greater prominence, often eliminating much of the back-tracking that marred the original game. Many areas are still ultimately circular in nature, with the final area opening back onto the first via a one-way door, but each often has one or two additional areas to explore that are used for side-missions. Those that are not are simple linear affairs, generally obviously defined as areas that will not be reused. Thus, in simple level design terms, Borderlands 2 does not innovate from the modern FPS norm; some areas give concessions to the genre’s mazelike roots but there is little of the exploration inherent to a game like Doom. Its strength, however, is in how effectively it uses this as a framework for good action. Rage, a game compared frequently to Borderlands in its hub-based FPS structure, fell down in having uninspiring circular levels populated by unthreatening enemies that attacked in small, easily-managed waves. Borderlands 2 crowds its levels with vast hordes of enemies attacking from all directions in a constant state of chaos; while this is sometimes frustrating once the highest-tier enemies arrive, the constant need to keep moving and firing harkens back to retro FPS games and rewards system mastery over grinding use of cover and slow progress.
It is when Borderlands 2 is at its most chaotic, with rockets flying around, enemies attacking from all directions, grenades exploding into more grenades and so on, that the character abilities really shine; they are all designed around handling crowds of foes more easily, or buying the player time to deal with more pressing threats. The game remains chaotic and apparently unsurvivable, but the abilities turn the balance. There is also a strong focus on using them as much as possible, with upgrades generally focused on prolonging or expanding their effects. A key part of understanding how to play the game is learning not to conserve useful ammunition or special abilities for boss fights but instead to wantonly consume every resource the game gives you as fast as possible. Come the halfway point of the game this lesson is firmly impressed upon the player as even basic enemies become capable of annihilating unwary groups. Group play is not essential to success in Borderlands 2 as it ultimately was in the original game, but it does make certain sections far more satisfying or straightforward, and some of the lengthier and less rewarding side-missions are made more bearable when done with friends. Furthermore, the game allows players who have progressed in the plot in online multiplayer to immediately jump to that point in their own game, a feature which minimises repetition and wasted effort.
Making the game less arduous to play is ultimately the defining feature of Borderlands 2; many of the changes are intended to make progress more straightforward and reliant on skill at the game over tolerance for repetition of simple tasks. The more ambitious side-missions are a key part of this; many form small campaigns with an ongoing silly story, or test the player’s skill by challenging them to a race or a boss fight rather than a simple collection quest. Not all work; some fall prey to being simple “locate the flashing waypoint and press the action button” affairs but there are enough successes to make it a worthy attempt. However, were it not for the theme and writing, the game would remain a dry affair overall. It is defined by its humour, which ultimately sets it apart from most competitors. The jokes are scattershot, ranging from simplistic commentary on the state of modern gaming to absurd film parodies and dark character humour and while this ensures the action remains fresh in thematic terms (if not gameplay terms) at times it feels inconsistent; a mission involving the psychopathic Tiny Tina arguably crosses the line between dark comedy and simply being a little uncomfortable to watch, while an earlier mission lampooning Top Gun seems underdeveloped and incongruous – a simple procession of visual references and misquotes funny in a basic way but unrewarding compared to some of the better sequences.
The real joy of the writing, however, is the villain. Handsome Jack is the player’s constant commentator in the vein of Portal‘s acerbic supercomputer GLADOS, but replacing dispassionate corporate speak with inventive insults and surreal displays of wealth and cruelty. That so often his attacks on the player are simple incredulous exasperation at their continued success makes his actual interactions with them more shocking; he goes from figure of fun to actual threat seemingly at random, evoking Batman’s nemesis The Joker or Final Fantasy VI‘s Kefka. As a result, when he vanishes from the game as the player visits the desert levels of the Captain Scarlett DLC, his absence is notable. Instead of his absurd presence, the player has the Joanna Lumley-esque tones of Scarlett herself and an ultimately dull Hunter S Thompson lookalike whose gimmick (pretending to be a variety of dead people) wears thin very fast. This lack of a compelling villain – or indeed a truly compelling and funny character in the vein of Jack or any of the allies the player picks up throughout the main game – is the main criticism of the DLC. While the aesthetics of the new areas are stunning, and the new enemies and bosses just inventive enough to stand out from being simple recolours or reflavours of basic enemies, it feels slightly lacking in character. Even linked quests to gather audio logs, usually a source of amusing background information, feel a little underwhelming as the characters featured in them do not have the same appeal.
Similarly, the DLC’s other main addition, a hovercraft to drive with a new weapon attached, remains limited to its confines; being able to take it elsewhere would have made repeat playthroughs of the core game a little more interesting. These complaints are ultimately minor ones, however, and the Captain Scarlett campaign represents excellent value for money in raw terms of what it adds. It is not only more Borderlands 2, but it is different enough from what it adds to to seem fresh and new after several hours’ play of the main campaign. Similarly, the other available DLC, the character of Gaige, provides the same “more but better” appeal; her abilities combine those of other characters in interesting ways and then add new mechanics on top to explore the effects of.
In conclusion, Borderlands 2 is a significant improvement on the original; it sharpens up the narrative, the core game progression, the visual theme and many other fundamental aspects that needed adjustment. However, despite all these changes it is still a Borderlands game and the main criticisms – a lack of real innovation in terms of level design, a hub-and-branch structure that does not always appeal, and a sense of humour that is undeniably an acquired taste in how bizarre and all-encompassing it is – still apply. Yet these flaws do not detract too much from its strengths – it remains a solid and easily-understood FPS with enough randomness and variety of abilities and weapons to warrant repeated play, and with some of the sharpest and funniest writing in modern games. It may not appeal to everyone but there is enough to like about Borderlands 2 to make it a strong recommendation to at least try.