Pure Fun, Up To A Point
Borderlands impressed the heck out of me when it came out. It put a decent storyline into a shooter (something that had evaded the genre since it started with DOOM), it put looking for weapons into the game (something no other shooter even thought to try), it gave hordes of enemies to kill (a throwback to older school games), and it even had a theme song good enough to play on the radio. I played it through multiple times, once for each character class (another idea rarely implemented well in shooters).
I was allowed to play the sequel, Borderlands 2, for 5 fun minutes at E3, assisted by a booth babe that, I’m embarrassed to admit, played a bit better than I did. It looked great, but games always look better at E3 (“the E3 effect”) than they do on my computer at home.
Borderlands 2 has four new classes, parallel to the original four classes. As before, each class develops along three different skill trees (at basically 1 skill point a level). You can spend points in multiple trees, but the “top skills” at the end of each tree are so good, it’s almost always best to finish out a tree before putting anything into another tree; one play through the game will get your character’s level high enough to fill out one tree. Overall, the new classes don’t have quite the pizzazz of the older classes; the best ideas seem to have been taken by the first game (there’s a fifth class only available as DLC; it’s a bit infuriating that you’ll find class-specific gear for this class, even if you don’t have the extra content). I do wish more of the skills were more interesting; far too many skills are marginal improvements like “+5% reload times” or “+ 0.8% healing when shields are down,” useless things that only serve as stepping stones to the useful skills (but nonetheless sucking up 5 skill points).
“It’s good stuff, and there’s plenty of replay value…”
Borderlands did guns and battles best, and the sequel delivers. It’s rare to use the same gun for more than a few levels, and a player will fire dozens of different guns, as he explores the world. The battles are often intense, and a player can often choose whether to use brute force, strategy, or even trickery, to ultimately win. It’s good stuff, and there’s plenty of replay value in trying various tactics/classes/skills/weapons to win a battle.
Up to a point. When a player beats the game, he has the option to play again at a higher skill level (much as in the Nightmare mode in Diablo, for example). Unfortunately, the scaling isn’t done well. Even with top tier, level-appropriate weapons, many enemies can absorb headshot after headshot after headshot after headshot, and you’ll often reload and perform the process again before finally taking even mid-boss enemies down… I sure hope there’s a patch to give me the option to tone it down at least a little.
The pacing of the quest system is likewise off a bit. You’ll “outgrow” most side quests, having little choice but to abandon them or spend time on a quest with minimal (for your level) rewards. You can do them earlier your second, third, or fourth play-through, so it’s not all bad.
The world of Pandora is still loaded with neat places to loot; in fact the game is jam-packed with Easter eggs, and maps I’ve played through half a dozen times before still have things I’ve missed on them. There are also many new fun things to kill, including Goliaths that can easily be used to attack other enemies. The world of Borderlands is a flat out crazy place, but there’s a consistent madness here that makes things like moon-sized cannons pointing at (and eventually shooting) your home city a credible part of day-to-day existence here.
If anything, Borderlands 2 has a better storyline than the first, with a very amusing arch-villain that insists that YOU are the bad guy. Many of the old characters are here, along with new ones (like Scooter’s Mom, who seems to create some continuity issues with the original game, but it’s all good). The original four class characters are here too, which I guess explains why the designers couldn’t just recycle the original classes.
The somewhat cartoonish graphics are basically the same as in the original, but this is a good decision—the simpler the graphics, the more enemies you can face, and thus the better the battles. Multiplayer, the weakest part of Borderlands, doesn’t seem any better here. Player-versus-player combat just doesn’t work in level-based games, and with every quest beatable solo in a few minutes, it’s hardly worth the effort to put a team together to beat a quest.
Bottom line, Borderlands 2 is worth the price of admission, although the few weirdos that didn’t like the original won’t find the sequel worthwhile either. Less competitive players that are content with blasting legions of non-player enemies will have a blast, however, for at least four full games (one for each class). Gamersgate is selling Borderlands 2 just a bit cheaper than Steam, and I find the download servers to be just a bit more reliable, too, even if ultimately you’re still playing the game via Steam.