The original Borderlands was a much beloved first person shooter/role playing game hybrid. I enjoyed it, but was not as enamored as many others were. A fun co-op game, the decent solo experience nonetheless did not compel me to stick with it. So it was with some ambivalence that I approached the E3 demo for Gearbox Software's sequel.

After that 20 minute tour, Borderlands 2 became a must have. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why, but the new environment, unique gameplay elements (Maya's Phaselock ability) or renewed co-op opportunity might have played roles. Regardless, it was my favorite demo and, I'm happy to say, the retail release lives up to my expectations.

The narrative not only ups the ante where the franchise's humor is concerned, but presents a more traditional story. Truth be told, I don't remember the original's story, and that could be part of my problem with it. Without a strong narrative to hold expansive open world gameplay together, I can lose direction not to mention motivation.

We are introduced to new playable Vault Hunter characters as well as their nemesis Handsome Jack. The cutscenes and overall design reflect the same highly stylized artwork of the original, but for me the dialog and voice acting is improved and of course the storyline is more than serviceable.

The entire game is portrayed tongue-in-cheek and it makes for a fun, light-hearted journey. Character dialog is by turns sarcastic, satirical or ironic, and visual cues likewise show a sense of humor and share in occassional pop culture references. It's an appropriately breezy, joyous context for a game focused on having a good time.

One of the first foes are Bullymongs, a good introduction to the game's enemies. Variety is the spice of Borderlands 2, and these creatures run, leap, climb and throw objects, and include a few variations. This passive one, however, was the last in an area and one of at least two such glitches. He seemed to welcome his end, so of course I obliged.

It's worth noting that at this point I opted to change characters. I originally chose the commando Axton and his turret option because I felt the siren Maya was a little weak in the E3 demo despite a cool, helpful Phaselock ability. But I reconsidered as I still enjoyed playing as her and wanted to explore what her skill trees had to offer.

Creating a consistent world is a challenge in expansive free roam games, but developers can err too far in that endeavor. At least for me, games like Far Cry 2, Red Faction: Guerrilla and, yes, even Borderlands can undermine quality gameplay with environmental design and layouts that adhere too closely to formula.

Thankfully, Borderlands 2 begins in arctic wastes instead of the desert ones so common in its predecessor. But it doesn't stay there either. And the topography also seems more varied, often with dramatically different elevations within the same immediate area. Bottomline, it keeps my attention (especially the ever-present Star Wars tie fighter in the sky), and stokes my anticipation for the next area.

Borderlands is the definition of a loot grinding game and its sequel is no different in this regard. Whether mounds, chests, lockers, boxes, drums, cases, crates, mailboxes or even toilets, not to mention dear departed foes, containers of all kinds house a wealth of items, ammunition and weapons. The only regret is not having enough empty slots to store all your pilfered goods.

Bosses come in all shapes and sizes and usually are pretty colorful characters or creatures. Some of the more challenging ones or areas really benefit from having co-op partners but at least early on are not impossible to take down solo. The only problem is that, like standard foes, they respawn once you've left an area.

As backtracking is pretty normal, expect to fight some a few times. I don't know if they disappear once you've closed the related quest and accepted your reward, but I had to fight the same boss(es) about four times so far upon returning even though the game had saved my progress at subsequent checkpoints.

As in the original game, leveling up provides various benefits, whether boosts to one's health and damage dealt or ability to use items or weapons that unlock at a particular level. For me, full health and shields is a boon as I tend to be felled rather ignominiously and often, which is why Second Wind likewise is a life saver.

Leveling up, in fact, is one of the principal benefits of playing co-op (besides the obvious camaraderie that comes with playing the game with friends). Whether by virtue of fighting more foes or clearing areas of said enemies more quickly, one's character can progress faster through the ranks.

One new, welcome feature are Badass tokens that can be earned for completing various challenges. These in turn can be applied to Bonus Stats; in my case, I so far have spread them pretty evenly but focused on Gun Damage and Shield Recharge Rate. The one downside is that the boosts are small, considering how often the tokens are earned (about one percent at a time).

Still, this RPG feature is appreciated and no doubt will have a more pronounced impact the further one progresses. It should be noted that the interface for this feature is well implemented and user friendly, though a little more explanation would be appreciated (what does Shield Recharge Delay mean for my character, or is it more likely a penalty for foes?).

Thus far I've appreciated the varied landscapes even within the same climate zone. As suggested, different elevations in terrain or levels of structures keep exploration and combat interesting, and multiple pathways likewise encourage a multitude of approaches to any situation. Any changes in this regard from the first game might be subtle, but noticeable.

Some characters, like Dr. Zed, Moxxi and the original playable Vault Hunters, make a return while other new ones add to the colorful ensemble. In each case they and their stories help define Pandora while, as quest givers, they provide an interesting context for what you do day in and day out.

Common nuisances like Skag and Rakk make their return. In the case of the latter, I underestimated the threat while I was exploring one property and had to duck for cover after they'd harassed me to within an inch of my life. I regret to say that this Vault Hunter is more often the huntee, and my siren's name of Sayonara is more than a little ironic.

Multiple elevations or levels not only provide an opportunity to appreciate Gearbox Software's terrific art direction but also several vantage points for strategizing one's approach to a new location or providing a tactical advantage for a skilled long-range marksman. However one makes use of them the vistas are wonderful.

In the first game I recall that rewards for completed quests were often monetary in nature. While there are such rewards associated with each quest in Borderlands 2, there likewise are weapons or items given in return for the successful fulfillment of such tasks. Because they can be kept or sold, I prefer this option over a strictly monetary offer.

The first time I heard the term "gun porn" was in reference to last gen's game Black by Criterion Games. That developer might have originated or perhaps popularized that label, but Gearbox Software has at least co-opted it if not outright taken ownership. The weapons are the true star of Borderlands 2 and like the first title there is no scarcity in Pandora.

Whether my favorite kind, flaming sniper rifles, or guns with other features such as electrical charges or explosive rounds, the game is a love letter to the Second Amendment, a gun afficionado's fantasy, or both. The new decision to allow gamers to inspect their toys with a 360 degree camera is simply delicious icing on a fiendishly delectable cake.

As in the original game, there are a multitude of quests that can be undertaken at the same time. However, some can be failed if not undertaken in time. Obviously timed tasks have limits, though perhaps not so obvious for me as I failed one without even realizing I had a deadline! Reportedly, some might have more dire consequences then just missed deliveries.

The actual gameplay is still as solid as before. Targeting feels precise, when compensating for appropriate recoil, and melee is intuitive and helpful especially against standard enemies. Hit detection is generally very good, though sometimes artificial barriers around environmental objects like fences or rocks can thwart shots.

Grenade throws follow reasonable arcs, at least when thrown properly which, in my case, is not guaranteed. Speaking of, I do think I'm my own worst enemy, as I tend to forget to use grenades or my siren's Phaselock ability, or when I do use the latter, I forget to reload prior to using it so spend time reloading while foes are suspended in air. Bad gamer! Bad!

Vehicles control pretty much the same as before, i.e. controls can be a little sensitive and sometimes result in overcompensation but they can be learned. One thing I greatly appreciate is being able to perform multiple tasks at the same time like reloading and opening containers/picking up loot. It's a time saver, especially when literally under the gun.

Borderlands 2 provides a wonderful environment to explore though even if it didn't gamers would still be motivated to do so if only to find hidden stashes of loot. This chest was impossible to see from ground level but given some advantageous leaps could be found. Too bad the items inside were anticlimactic, a risk in a game like this that makes some finds truly rewarding.

Bosses can provide some fantastic item drops when defeated but as with exploration you never know what you'll find. That said, the journey in this game is its own reward as such battles can be truly inspired and a joy to play. Unfortunately the game at least sometimes respawns bosses, too, so the joy can wear thin when backtracking.

Likely this sequel's most compelling change is in rewarding and allocating Skill Points toward one of three skill trees for each character. In the case of the siren Maya, the skill trees for her Phaselock ability are Motion, Harmony(?) and Cataclysm; the first relates most to movement, the second to health and the third to devastation.

The various skills are either character or team based. (It should be noted there are also character mods that likewise can benefit the individual or team.) While they can be upgraded in any combination, I am choosing to upgrade one tree, which augments melee with fire damage and Phaselock with fire, corrosive and explosive damage, if I remember.

This passive marauder is the second glitching enemy I found, coincidentally the last foe in this area as well. That said, for an open world game that I've played for several hours there are relatively few problems. Sometimes button prompts (especially for pickups) will stay onscreen or, as indicated, invisible barriers can interfere during combat, but these are minor.

One annoyance of note, however, is how loot descriptors can be a visual impediment to combat. In case you're not familiar with the franchise, dropped or found loot will include floating identifiers above them. These boxes sometimes obscure my entire screen when in a firefight or melee situation.

As mentioned I sometimes forget to use my siren's Phaselock ability, which is a shame because it's a powerful compliment to one's arsenal of guns. Immobilizing and suspending foes in midair while filling them with lead is a great tool whether alone or in co-op, and especially when against larger, stronger enemies.

Speaking of co-op, most of these screenshots were taken during my solo gameplay while I was reacquainting myself with the controls and getting familiar with this sequel. After level 6 or 7, however, I began playing more co-op with friends, and as reported, that's where this game really shines.

From distracting foes to using complimentary characters in combat, from teaming up in two-seaters to run over or shoot enemies, co-op is a great means of tackling the otherwise inhospitable world of Pandora. Nevermind the comaraderie and joy of playing such a well developed game together. And BTW, the drop-in/drop-out element works great as does team chat.

All this means that Gearbox Software has expanded on its winning formula and in ways that make this game almost indispensible. Co-op was always terrific, but by including a more thoughtful narrative, varying environments and adding Badass tokens and skill trees, solo play is now practically just as fun.