Review: Borderlands 2
Borderlands 2 comes out this Friday, after a long patient wait and it would seem Gearbox have got a lot to say, with bigger, badder environments, a new wealth of guns and environments and some subtle changes to solidify this as one of the top first person shooters out.
To begin with we are again given a choice of four different characters, each equivalent to those from the first game. There are also additional customisation options for your character, with interchangeable heads and further colour schemes. If you have a save from the first game, there are a few unlockables thrown in from the beginning. As you progress through the game, there are more colour schemes to be unlocked and picked up as a bonus, which can be changed at new character customisation points in each area. For the purpose of this review I played a substantial portion of the early game with the Commando and Siren character classes, but gave the Gunzerker and Assassin characters a whirl to see how the combat mechanics changed.
We all loved the humour of the first game and what is noticeable from the opening credits is that tongues have remained firmly in cheeks. There are subtle hints that assumptions and hangovers from the last game are going to be broken, while simultaneously nodding to the games own traditions and tropes that worked so well before. Most of the characters from the first game make a reappearance and direct hints to the previous story are made. Yes, claptrap is in it again and still as annoying as all hell, but at least we are given every opportunity to laugh at him. He also feels like more of a character, rather than an in game mechanism to progress missions.
Right from the outset, you find yourself dropped into a very different world. One of the main criticisms from the first game was that after a while the environments felt samey and repetitive, which was a shame because they looked damn good. This time, Gearbox have made a clear statement: you’ll be getting more variation, not only in the environments, but also in gun types and design. They’ve really gone to town on the gun designs and when you pick up a gun you do get a real feel for how it will behave before you fire it. On the other hand, it means you’ll find yourself switching between guns more to suit a job and it becomes easy to lose vast amounts of time in the weapons menu, figuring out what to take, drop or sell.
One of the noticeable changes is the in game ‘ECHO’ menu. For one, it’s a lot flashier than before and has a much more naturalistic feel to it. It is now a lot easier to fully inspect weapons and there is now a mini map in the top right corner of your HUD, so you can pinpoint an enemy or waypoint easily without having to keep referring back to the ECHO menu. Which brings me onto a neat piece of game dynamics that helps to move play along quickly and smoothly. Ammo, health and money lying around following a kill is automatically picked up when you walk over it, so again, you won’t find yourself picking up unwanted weapons by accident. There’s still the option of picking up multiple items by holding the x button so veteran players will feel at home.
I was starting to feel that maybe Gearbox have pulled back on the difficulty of the game. There are a lot more health vials lying around for one and explosive scenery pops up on the HUD. Then I went in all guns blazing. ‘There are only three of them’, I thought. ‘This will be easy,’ I thought. NO.
The enemies are uglier, meaner and far more desperate to put their disease in you. The AI seems to be a lot more aggressive – you can’t just run in and expect to blast everyone away because your gun is shinier than theirs; you have to be more of a tactician and to some extent make a plan of attack. The game still flows brilliantly, except now it expects you to be smarter. Not only that, it recognises that you don’t need spoon feeding. Objectives are no longer marked directly on the map, but placed in an area. Harder objectives are given a larger area and vice versa – there is more of a ‘we give you a challenge, you solve it’ attitude to the game. Which is refreshing.
Interestingly, when you have to ‘fight for your life’, you are now able to inch your character forward a little, which is useful for both getting to your friends and getting revived, or moving around an ill-situated boulder so you can at least get a shot in. Still, it’s also a lot harder to kill an enemy and get that second chance.
The difference between characters is notable. Faced with the same situation as above, but playing with the Siren, rather than a Commando, I found I need to close the distance faster, packing as big a punch as possible and then quite literally punching the enemy in the face. Whereas the Commando demanded a tactical approach, the Siren required something more frantic. These differences make it more appealing to play through again with each of these characters, which means Borderlands 2 will have a hefty shelf life.
These differences also mean that when playing through with friends, you will want to coordinate your skill trees: there are plenty of opportunities to fill in one another’s weaknesses and create a great multiplayer experience. The skills trees themselves are well thought out, with each tree offering options that really complement each other and offer ways to strengthen playing style. It is also easier to invite up to three friends using the in game start menu, making it a little more straight forward than before.
As well as the recognizable skill tree, there is now a ‘Badass’ ranking, which can be increased by completing challenges. As your ranking increases, you get tokens, which can be used to increase your base stats, adding another level of customisation to your character. This is great, because unlike before, there is a tangible reward to taking part in the challenges. What is interesting about this ranking is that it is attached to your gamer profile and not the character, so you’ll be reaping the benefits on the second play through (trust me, you will).
A key element of the game now is that you are expected to explore and discover for yourself. Upon entering a new area, most of the map is blank; it’s the responsibility of the player to fill the details in by driving or running around. Missions will eventually take you these areas, but if you want, you can fill in the world around you first – and possibly make life easier later.
This brings me onto the driving element. Our old friend Scooter is back, as is the original runner vehicle with more to be unlocked. There are subtle differences however, in the way vehicles handle. Holding the right bumper initiates a powerslide, which is useful for avoiding immediate obstacles such as four armed hell creatures that want to skin you alive. The forward machine gun has a little more give to it, so you don’t have to be entirely head on to be able to take enemies on. Overall, vehicles feel a little more natural and trustworthy now.
Borderlands 2 is a game that had a lot to live up to and could easily have gone back and wrecked what made the first game so appealing. Changes to gameplay are not immediate but subtle reworkings to improve the flow and make it challenging for the right reasons. Each of the vault hunters are now given backgrounds, the non-playable characters feel like real, breathing people and the villain is a tangible enemy to aim for. The real difference and the one that makes Borderlands 2 a superior game to most first person shooters is the sheer depth Gearbox have embedded at the heart of the game – from its expansive, rich environments, to the wealth of weaponry and well-rounded story at its heart.
To sum it up: Pandora is a very different place now: harsher, more diverse, and out for your genitals.