The lights are on
Despite the improvements Gearbox packed into every corner of Borderlands 2, the final product is probably most similar to everyone's favorite hillbilly gearhead: A bit too full of the previous iteration's DNA and a couple eggs short of a full basket. Much like Scooter, Borderlands 2 is likable enough, but not quite all it could have turned out to be. Although almost every aspect of the original Borderlands has been improved upon, there's just a bit too much of that first generation hanging around.
The original Borderlands started with a fairly slow, linear slog through a smattering of bounty or fetch quests. Borderlands 2 takes a fairly similar approach, but adds a narrative layer. Story is front and center as players fight their way out of a wintry wasteland after Handsome Jack blows their train sky high. The result is an opening area that, while almost identical in design to Fyrestone and its accompanying canyon in design, feels like much less of a grind. The rest of the story maintains a similarly high focus on story, with even the "Collect N units of object X" receiving a welcome infusion of humor and backstory. Assigning the majority of sidequests to NPCs helps add personality to tasks that would have been little more than a check mark on q list in the original Borderlands. The addition of a hub city called Sanctuary offers a similar change of pace, allowing for a greater sense of exploration when heading out on missions rather than a straight line push from area to area.
Unfortunately, in spite of all these improvements and a much more coherent narrative overall, Borderlands 2 faces similar pacing issues to its forerunner. Gearbox is still fond of sending players back to zones multiple times and heaping on the fetch quests. Attempts to postpone backtracking-induced boredom by designing larger, more varied areas eventually just makes things worse as grabbing an echo recorder turns into a fifteen minute hike. Thankfully, the story avoids the erratic tendencies of the original Borderlands; although, significant plot points - including one of the biggest twists in the entire series - are still often followed by a perturbing number of frivolous activities. By the time I finally had my showdown with Handsome Jack I had been ready to watch the credits roll for several hours.
The gameplay of Borderlands 2 isn't much different from its predecessor. Every gun feels unique, with even more emphasis on handling variation between different element and manufacturer types. The overhaul of challenges presents players with persistence beyond the scope of a single character, as well as reward for continuing to scorch the ground they walk on with a hailstorm of bullets and explosions. Better balancing in skill-trees see a similar increase in variation and spending points in a way that makes your character an unstoppable force is nearly impossible. In fact the game presents a more engaging combat experience than the previous installment across the board. Playing through a mission at the suggested level feels like a challenge in Borderlands 2 and a group of slightly weaker enemies should still be considered a threat. While I respect the attempt to keep the game engaging, I felt that the increased difficultly turned out to be a double edged sword at times.
Borderlands had players turning into unstoppable killing machines by the end of the game. Borderlands 2 lurks in the shadows, waiting to beat down unsuspecting Vault Hunters with ruthless efficiency. The addition of modified down time for the game's "Second Wind" mechanic, based on how many times a player is downed, sounds like a clever way to reward careful/skilled players. First impressions can be misleading though as getting downed in group of enemies may mean getting a second wind only to be downed again immediately. With every subsequent instance causing the constantly depleting life gauge drain faster this balancing mechanic often winds up punishing those who venture into combat alone. Borderlands 2 is also strangely fond of spawning waves of enemies in an area, turning skirmishes into protracted fights. Just as many deaths are garnered from a wave a powerful enemies spawning around a player and turning them into a red stain as are from any kind of tactical carelessness. By the later stages of my time with Maya sniper rifles became my weapon of choice as close quarters combat had become entirely infeasible while playing alone, even with a class mod that quickly regenerated lost health.
The worst part is that I could forgive the slight pacing missteps and occasionally brutal difficulty if it weren't for the myriad half implemented ideas. Dropped ammo, health, and money are now picked up automatically as players walk over them... but those same items found by opening one of the game's many crate equivalents, and for some reason both dropped and uncovered stacks of the game's new currency Eridium, still require tedious sifting through. There is no reason players should have to go through that effort just to pick up something that is distributed throughout the party automatically anyways.
The ability to trade between your own characters is nice, but the decision to limit the slots available for that purpose to just four simply replaces the tedium that feature was supposed circumvent with a different kind. Multiple instances of the game's excellent dialogue often overlap in a garbled mess of conflicting noises, the improved mini-map isn't quite improved enough to tell players exactly where they need to be, and it is almost impossible for any class other than the Gunzerker(with a specific skill build) to swap weapons fast enough to take advantage of the increased damage of the new slag element. Every two steps of improvement Borderlands 2 makes is accompanied by one inexplicable step back. I don't like to nitpick this much when reviewing a game, but in the case of Borderlands 2 there are just too many nits to ignore.
I love Borderlands 2, I will probably put hundreds of hours into exploring a newly refurbished Pandora over the next couple of years, but I feel it falls short in too many areas to say it's significantly above average. Looting is fun, the guns are crazy, and the writing is funny but ultimately it's an iteration rather than a transformation. Everything feels improved, but most of the improvements feel like they weren't thought about any deeper than the first time someone scratched them onto a piece of paper. If Borderlands 2 were loot it would be Blue, good but not great, and after three years in development I honestly expected to find more than Blue in my Epic Loot Chest.
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