The original Borderlands is most often called a “surprise hit”, not because everyone was expecting it to be rubbish, just that nobody was expecting the level of success it achieved.
Backing up for a sequel is often fraught with peril, but after the huge success of the original and its raft of very popular downloadable content, Gearbox was always going to take another crack at the world of Pandora.
But how do you top a game famous for having a bazillion guns? Gearbox reckon the key is a bazillion times more guns than before. And a proper storyline that makes some kind of sense. And a ton more memorable characters and locations.
So, basically, MOAR EVERYTHING!
Pandora, the world of Borderlands, has been colonised and mined and plundered by generations of humanity. An ancient alien civilization set up shop untold millenia before and what they left behind has been the target of treasure hunters and mega corporations ever since.
The original Borderlands heroes were Vault Hunters, fortune seeking mercenaries inspired by tales of the incredible wealth locked away by the ancients. Without spoiling anything, the truth was a little different but that hasn’t stopped Vault Hunters continuing to seek their fortunes on the surface of Pandora.
Turns out, Pandora’s a big planet and there wasn’t just one vault. How convenient!
Your epic quest for ever shinier loots and/or vaults full of cash is punctuated by increasingly violent confrontations with the forces of your competitor, Hyperion’s “Handsome Jack”. In light of some of Jack’s more heinous actions towards Pandora’s populace, players will naturally assume they are the heroes of the game.
Jack’s not having a bar of that. As far as he’s concerned, he’s the hero of this tale and with his army of Hyperion soldiers and robots he’s going to bring civilization to Pandora… even if he has to kill most of the inhabitants, and the Vault Hunters, to do it. You may have arrived on Pandora seeking your fortune but you’re quickly wrapped up in a fight for survival and freedom from tyranny and injustice… Also, Jack’s kind of an asshole. He takes time out of his busy schedule to tell you he named his pony (made of living diamonds) Butt Stallion. He also intermittently communicates with you throughout the game to relay anecdotes from his attempts to subdue the world, or to comment on your progress. Sneeringly.
Not all of the humour is so crude and immature as Jack’s pony naming… but there’s quite a few juvenile references, such as the outdoor toilet with a “No Fapping” sign on the side. The developers are also not afraid to work a little humour into explaining some of the game-y concepts to you, with the account-wide item stash being initially explained in grandiose terms by Clap-Trap… who finally relents and says simply, “Look, it’s for twinking items between your characters.” Pandora may be a somewhat bleak place to live but humanity is resilient and will find humour in any situation. The world is surprisingly a lot more believable for it, too.
Of course a shooting game is nothing if the shooting’s not fun, even when the game has some RPG elements braided into its hair. Borderlands 2‘s gunplay is generally more satisfying than its predecessor while also being a lot more visually impressive. Barrels on minigun-style rifles will spin faster as you fire longer, the hammer on a Jakob’s revolver can be rapidly fanned just like you’re an Old West cowboy and there’s even some guns with stabilising fins that flex and reposition themselves as you fire.
It’s not just bullets you’ll be firing, either. Rockets, grenades, flares, flechettes both regular and explosive, frickin’ laser beams… And not always from the expected delivery systems! Rifles sometimes fire mini-rockets or lasers, pistols spit out flechettes, submachine guns fire a stream of fiery energy balls which switch to homing fiery energy balls when you use the attached scope. I once found a rifle with a much higher damage rating that was shooting rockets rather than bullets, giving me some good splash damage on top of the solid direct damage.
It wasn’t until later that an accidental shot while running towards some loot revealed that the rockets would actually bounce off a surface before exploding!
The game is full of such surprises, which makes every loot drop and supply chest a lot more fun to open. You won’t always get something that’s definitively better than your existing gear, but the number of just plain interesting weapons is extraordinary.
This variety has also been extended to the grenade, shield and relic equipment players will find. Grenades can now have multiple modifiers, such that they could bounce off surfaces, stick to enemies, restore player health, burn everything to the ground, or all of the above. Shields still protect you from damage, but now they have new tricks like absorbing ammo from shots fired at the player.
Graphically the game is much as it was for the first outing, just much more polished and with little bells and whistles like better gun animations, higher quality models and nicer textures. The same not-really-cel-shading look has been maintained and it’s still so different to most of the other big name games that it’s hard to really fault them for not pushing too much here. Borderlands 2 isn’t trying for the ultra-realism of other shooters so all it really needed was some nicer textures and better animations, and that the game has in spades.
One neat addition is the integration of nVidia’s PhysX technology on the PC. It’s mostly being used to create flappy flags and banners and to gooey up a lot of the blood, water and other liquids, but it gives the game a real kick in the pants, visually, for those who can run it. Gravel being kicked up and flung around the environment from gunfire and explosions adds a lot of flair to what are otherwise fairly static environments. It does require decent hardware to run without impacting performance, but it shows how serious Gearbox were when they said they’d be catering to PC fans of the franchise, who’d felt a little miffed with the initially poor port of the original game.
Unfortunately one of the bugbears of the original, the inventory system, still hasn’t been sorted out. The system for swapping weapons into your active slots is not at all intuitive and, at least to begin with, you’re going to spend a bit of time swapping the wrong weapons around and sometimes even dropping much loved gear on the ground. These problems decrease as you learn to work around the eccentricities, but it’s hard to imagine how the inventory system passed muster during development.
The other major issue with the original Borderlands on PC was an atrocious implementation of Gamespy’s matchmaking system. For the sequel, Gearbox has done away with Gamespy and integrated the vastly superior Steamworks instead. Steam friends can check each other’s progress and join the fight from the Steam client. The main menu of the game also shows which of your friends are playing, what level and class they are and whereabouts they are in the game, giving you another easy way to play with your mates.
Overall, Borderlands 2 is more of what made the original great. More guns, more story, more characters and more of the world of Pandora to explore. In an industry where many of the same basic concepts are copied endlessly it’s refreshing to have something that steers quite deliberately away from the ordinary.
And it’s a little surprising that Borderlands is still the only franchise with this peculiar mix of guns, loot and roleplaying. But with additional content already being planned, we may not need any other games like Borderlands 2…