- Fri, Oct 09
- Destiny shotgun weapons receiving new nerfs, set to lose "Shot Package" perk next week
- Steam machines will be GameStop exclusive unless you buy online
- Natsume: "Nintendo's done with Game Boy games, we're not releasing anything else on VC"
- Materia Collective boards the Final Fantasy VII remake hype train with a licensed remix album
- Thu, Oct 08
- Laura Matsuda unveiled for Street Fighter V as electrifying new grappler
Borderlands 2, sequel to the blockbuster cooperative first-person shooter, is an epic yet ultimately conflicting experience. Never has there been made a game that exudes such charm and humor as Borderlands 2. It's obvious Gearbox went to significant lengths to polish and improve the aesthetic and personality from the first title. Perhaps this is best shown through what must be hours and hours of wonderfully staged dialogue and character animation. Complimentary to that, the overarching story's writing is markedly improved, and that stands for the dozens of side quests that can and will devour hours of playtime, too. Without a doubt, Gearbox has created a world in Borderlands 2 that players can truly feel invested in.
With style should come substance, however, and while Borderlands 2 certainly retains the unique gameplay experience of the original title, not all is perfect in Pandora. A perhaps unhealthy reliance on the foundation of mechanics Borderlands was built, along with a number of reactive alterations due to fan criticisms have created a stubborn and inflexible experience. To put it simply, between Borderlands and Borderlands 2 Gearbox decided how it wanted gamers to play its game and woe to those who explore beyond that scope.
To be blatantly honest, I had some of my worst gaming experiences of the year with Borderlands 2, but I also had some my most memorable gaming moments ever. The difference is in the details, and there are many details left to discuss. Borderlands 2 is worth dissecting and processing.
Return to Pandora
Borderlands 2 starts much the same as the original Borderlands -- with CL4P-TP, a hapless, annoying, egotistical little robot, and so the tone is set for the rest of the game. At face value, CL4P-TP offers a reintroduction (or introduction for new players) to the world of Pandora, being a familiar character in a wildly different environment. Further, he slaps you in the face with the often clever and always raunchy humor that pervades Pandora. There's much more being alluded to, however. Much like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, CL4P-TP pulls the player forward into a world both unworldly and strange, yet oddly familiar.
Two more characters are also introduced very early on, completing our welcome to Pandora. There's Angel, the seemingly prescient digital intelligence that guided the Vault Hunters through the original Borderlands, and she says that once again Pandora is in dire need and only the player can perform the requisite tasks to save it. Then there's Handsome Jack; Handsome Jack is an a-hole. Jack runs Hyperion, the company currently in control of, well, everything on Pandora, and he has exploited, murdered and basically done whatever he pleases to acquire power overwhelming -- and now he wants you dead.
In Borderlands 2, characters are everything. Before, it was fine to say that the series' unique FPS Diablo-esque action RPG mechanics made it stand out, but not anymore. The entire Borderlands 2 cast is wonderfully written and voiced, from returning stars like idiot savant Scooter to new, brilliantly done characters like Tiny Tina and Ellie. Then there's Jack, oh, there's definitely Handsome Jack. If Handsome Jack doesn't join gaming's pantheon of perfect villains then there is something terribly wrong with the world. There is no greater jerk, no more maniacal asshat, and the way he sells his sociopathy and disconnect from humanity is impeccably executed. How many times I must have wondered whether he could be so malicious. Does he actually believe the bull he shoveled, is there any way to empathize with him? Just experiencing Handsome Jack is worth the price of admission. His interactions with the main character and the returning stars from classic Borderlands are marked in my memory, nay, scarred, and won't be forgotten.
It could be said that the overarching plot in Borderlands 2 is mechanical or conventional -- world in danger, power-hungry villain searching for an ancient power, heroes needed ASAP -- and they wouldn't be wrong, but Borderlands 2's cast changes the rules in a way that maybe only Mass Effect has done before. Barring the fat jokes, the memes and the occasional tired pop-culture reference, Borderlands is significant due solely to its writing, involving players in ways a "bajillion" weapons never could. Borderlands is richer because of its writing and cast of colorful characters -- richer in meaningful, memorable ways.
Borderlands 2's still classy art style helps deliver the proper environment for adventuring of all kinds. The painterly cell-shading of the original game remains, as fabulous as ever, though certainly in higher fidelity than the now three year old title. The style is never particularly striking, but it's certainly unique, and Gearbox's environmental artists do a proper job creating a number of set-piece areas that seemed to be missing from the first Borderlands. Still, the vast majority of Pandora is populated with junk heaps, boxes and other assorted ramshackle buildings and refuse. Really, there are only a few areas in Borderlands 2's expansive world that are notable or even eye drawing. Enemy design has a similar issue, where if you've seen one you've seen them all. A fresh area may be caustic themed (green), or a new enemy may be shock-powered (blue), but they still look similar enough to the ice themed (white) area with the western-style bandits (brown). The point of creating a larger world is proved moot if every zone feels the same. Gearbox should take a look at city-hubs Sanctuary and Opportunity when developing future DLC environments and consider fewer zones with more appeal.
Not Without Problems
And here is where things begin to spiral out of control. Simply put, personality and style do not a good game make. Fans rewarded Gearbox in 2009 by strongly supporting Borderlands because it was an original experience with potential. The idea of an FPS with action-RPG style loot drops and level-progression is an exciting idea, but with a fanbase comes higher expectations. FPS titles are very mechanically demanding, level progression systems need excitement introduced every level and precision balancing, and loot drops, well, it's not hard to imagine how a "bajillion" guns and a dozen character skill trees require some extensive QA and optimization. Frankly, classic Borderlands shied away from many of these issues by being multiplayer focused -- it's easy to forgive flaws when friends are around to keep spirits high. With Borderlands 2, there's really no excuse anymore, yet the old-fashioned gameplay remains, and even the few changes Gearbox did make are for the worse rather than the better.
Let's get real, the original Borderlands was designed for consoles. While that's not inherently a bad thing, after all shooters on console are typically much more popular now than their PC counterparts, the type of shooter Borderlands is thrives on the constraints a console creates. These constraints include limitations on speed, movement and precision -- recall Quake on console vs. Halo on PC -- which are all things Borderlands accepted readily because the game made up for them with the power of its weapons, its overpowered skill trees, and the fact that there were four people working together. All of these faults have been retained for Borderlands 2, only after 3 years of further development it's not quite so easy to forgive them. This is compounded by design choices made by Gearbox, such as improved enemy AI and combat mechanics require a higher level of accuracy and much more precise, strategic movement. Simply put, the ol' slow and steady gunplay is showing its years.
Borderlands got away with it though, so why doesn't Borderlands 2? Short answer, it's because Borderlands was easier. Long answer, it's because Borderlands made up for its relaxed, imprecise gameplay by inflating the power level of the player. Enemies would run straight at a player or wait patiently for their deaths, but now they strafe and roll, hell, they even react to crosshairs being placed on them. Skill trees were designed for satisfaction, to impose a sense of strength in the player with each level, but now most levels impart percentage points of unfulfilling statistics and very rarely mechanically alter how a player goes into a fight. Guns used to drop with sick overall stats, but in Borderlands 2 now have extensive rule systems placed upon them so no one weapons is too strong in any one area. Thematically, Gearbox pushes the idea that each player is a "badass" throughout Borderlands 2, but I never felt that way beyond scripted story points.
Players can make up for weak individual strength by playing cooperatively, as Gearbox quite obviously intended. This is certainly so, but let me reiterate to everyone that single-player is absolutely not the best way to play Borderlands 2. Enemies and quests are designed for multiple players, hiding their weak points at awkward angles meant for flanking teams, and some bosses exploit this fact egregiously, touting shields nigh impossible to down individually, or launching undodgable attacks that will down an individual player that if had a teammate would resurrect right up. Two of the three Zero skill trees are simply unviable solo, as they're heavily reliant on melee, which is a very poor strategy without a friend to help revive you. The game is certainly soloable in a challenging, broken sort of way, just don't expect the game to be tuned to that style of play. Thankfully, recruiting friends into a party is easier than ever. PC players can rest comfortable knowing multiplayer is handled in-client as opposed to through GameSpy, and all players should be happy that there are additional features for opening or closing a party to friends or the general public.
Once in a party, players will find many of the issues that are intolerable in single-player persist, but the opportunity to be revived the situation is much less painful and punishing. Characters are still less powerful than I think fits a Borderlands game, unless they're abnormally overleveled or twinked. Still, as most know, it's difficult not to have fun no matter the game or the game's quality when playing with friends. In this review, at least, that doesn't serve as an acceptable excuse for sloppy gameplay.