When I completed my initial playthrough of Borderlands 2 back in September the game left me feeling conflicted. It addressed all of my criticisms of the first game, and yet I found myself climbing a mountain of frustration before completing it. Luckily I’ve had ample time to mull this one over.
We’ll start with what it does right. As I said, Borderlands 2 goes to great lengths to correct the mistakes made in the first game. For starters, the world feels like it’s more expansive than a dreary desert populated by a few recurring NPCs. The varied landscapes, populated hubs, the cast of characters both new and returning; all of these contribute to making the player feel as though they are in a large cohesive world rather than desolate playground filled with dust and sand. The itemization has been much improved. The focus is still on having a mind-blowing number of permutations of stats, but this time around the variance between two guns feels more significant than one gun having slightly better accuracy, but a slower rate of fire. The itemization is far more generous with unique effects and elemental procs. Finally, bringing in Anthony Burch to pen the script for the 2nd game marks a staggering leap forward in the writing quality from Borderlands to Borderlands 2.
In fact, Burch’s writing carried most of the game for me. I’ll admit I was initially disappointed by the fact that the conceit of the game mirrored that of the first, but working within an established universe that emphasizes gameplay over narrative only gives you so much room to breathe in the first place. I also found it difficult to fault the plot when the heart and the soul of the writing went into making Borderlands 2 about the characters and the jokes.
The biggest struggle when reviewing a game like this is describing just how hilarious it is without simply rifling off one-liners verbatim while simultaneously combating the vagueness of phrases like “it is hilarious.” The best I can do to that end is describe the sense of humor and how it serves the drama. The humor trends towards the obscene, the immature, and the dark, but there isn’t any lack of dry wit either. It’s also saturated with pop culture references which cover everything from Top Gun to Dark Souls. In short, it manages to find a pleasant middle-ground between lowbrow and highbrow.
What really impressed me is the way the humor served the drama. As a still-fledgling medium, videogames often conflate drama with being relentlessly serious. However, it’s difficult to empathize with a completely self-serious character thrust into a situation where there is never any room to breathe between bouts of tragedy. Borderlands 2 leverages its zaniness and the jokes to make its characters appealing before inflicting terrible things upon them, and it works magnificently. The levity allowed me to engage emotionally with the characters. The game’s villain , Handsome Jack, is completely detestable, but I only really cared about him because I was able to invest emotionally in the characters that he tormented. If you remove that element of levity, he becomes just another one-dimensional, goofy, megalomaniacal video game antagonist.
While I was pleased with the writing overall, I’m still bummed about a few aspects of it. For instance, a betrayal occurs about mid-way through the game, and yet most of the characters still see fit to place their trust in this character. It’s also not adequately explained whether or not this character was acting of his/her own volition, which is almost irrelevant because the whole situation still would not quite add up either way. I would have also liked to see some of the more interesting characters get more time in the limelight. Tiny Tina, for instance, has one quest on the critical path and a few brief side-missions which, while entertaining, left me wanting more interaction with the psychotic 13 year old. The vault hunters from the first game are all featured prominently, and Roland is by far the least of interesting of the four and also the one you interact with the most.
There was also a clear dissonance created by how much certain enemies were hyped up and how non-threatening they were in gameplay. The first boss, for instance, almost killed the vault hunters from the first game, and you are told over and over that this boss is something to be reckoned with, something to be avoided at all costs. And yet when he finally shows up he is far less formidable than a huge chunk of the standard enemies who preceded him. Instead of tuning the bosses properly and letting them speak for themselves, expectations were created by the in-game events that led to ultimately disappointing encounters.
As I said, the writing, for the most part, carried the game for me. I say that not only because it made me laugh so frequently and it made the impact of the dramatic moments more gut-wrenching, but also because the combat felt so imprecisely tuned. It is my belief that a well paced RPG campaign provides the player with another experience to maintain something close to parity with the enemies as the game progresses by following the critical path. In my experience with Borderlands 2 I maintained that parity for around half the game. Eventually it became a slog as enemies out-leveled me. The spike in difficulty was satisfying at first, but I just fell further and further behind the enemies’ scaling. Towards the 3/4ths mark I was crawling through fights with enemies 5-6+ levels higher than me. This was after having replayed an entire mission due to a glitch in which I was caught in an infinite loop of dying and respawning, and doing some light side questing. At one point I was searching through chests in an area that I had painstakingly cleared and one of the chests spawned an elite enemy 6 levels higher than me. I eventually chose to grind a bunch of side quests out to catch back up. That combined with getting paired with slightly higher level players resulted in us breezing through the rest of the game, but by then it was all just mind-numbing. Making side-questing mandatory in order to not have a miserable experience is miserable design.
It’s a shame, too, because if the level tuning was better and some enemy health/damage adjusted upwards to compensate, the challenge could have been perfect to sustain entertainment throughout the lengthy campaign. Instead it was frustrating.
Temporarily setting this major flaw aside, I loved everything else. Combat is chaotic and aggressive and something unique for a shooter. The game is saturated with different enemy types all with unique traits. Add to the mix the franticness of elemental effects exploding all over the screen, the management of active abilities and procs, environmental hazards, and up to three other people running around and it can be almost dizzying. It’s also some of the most thrilling combat in any triple A shooter – when it works.
Despite the regenerating shields, aggression is favorable. Enemies can chew through your shields too quickly for the more passive tactic of hanging back and letting them regen every time they get low to work. Each class’ talent trees also favor being the aggressor with abilities and passives that rely upon doing damage to regenerate health or killing enemies before they can fully unload. Combine this with each class feeling distinct and the weapons handling so well, and the game can certainly be boisterous fun when you aren’t fighting a horrendously uphill battle.
Borderlands 2 is also quite clearly designed around co-op play if the marketing didn’t make it abundantly clear. It’s possible to enjoy the game alone, but it simply isn’t designed to cater to the lone wolf. The battles drive that point home. Simply having another player around to spread the damage out can be an enormous help. Battlefield management is a task made infinitely simpler by having others around. If only the loot system were better designed I wouldn’t have any complaints about the multiplayer side of things. Looting in this game is a rat-race. Whoever has free space and quick reactions gets the spoils. Diablo 3 solved this issue by having each player get their own slice of the pie, whereas Borderlands 2’s system harkens back to the 13 year old Diablo 2.
Borderlands 2 is an otherwise soaring experience disappointingly anchored by such anachronisms. Even though it solves many of its predecessors problems, it still gets tangled up in broader problems that are in no way new to the genre. If I had gone into this game aware of the scaling issues, I’m certain that my experience would not have been tainted quite so badly because I would have sucked it up and done some grinding, so I’m willing to be somewhat lenient in that regard. After all, when the game wasn’t fighting me I had a blast. That is by no means an excuse for the poor design, because none of this should have been an issue in the first place, but it makes judging this game a difficult task. It is a game that I remain deeply conflicted over, but I believe that its merits outweigh its flaws, especially when approached the right away.
6.0 / 10