About half way through Borderlands 2 it became obvious that any attempt to compress the experience into a digestible review would be an exceedingly difficult task.
There are the facts, of course. This is the sequel to 2009’s Borderlands, a sci-fi game that blends two genres, the first-person shooter and the role-player. Set on the corrugated pioneer planet of Pandora, players choose from one of four classes, and set out to defeat a villain named Handsome Jack. Along the way, they take on numerous quests, explore the world, accumulate loot and spend skill points before finally confronting Jack in a spectacular showdown.
But that doesn’t begin to convey the scale, variety, presentation and personality of this game. Take Handsome Jack, for example: a superbly realised antagonist of the calibre gamers haven’t seen since Portal’s GLaDOS. Whereas videogame villains are too often summarily evil, Jack’s villainy, like GLaDOS’s, is in part a question of perspective.
Jack is an employee of Hyperion, a devout capitalist, and a radical moderniser. He believes he’s helping Pandora, and if his methods are often viciously extreme, to his mind, that’s simply a necessary means of combating the gun-toting forces of regression that are arrayed against him. Jack is sarcastic and suave, narcissistic, totalitarian, and boasts a keen, insensitive humour.
Against Jack are the forces of good – or at least, the forces of self-determinism, and the status quo. They’re led by two of the Vault Hunters of the original game, Roland and Lilith. Their base of operations, Sanctuary, is home to many of the hyper-exaggerated caricatures that compose Borderlands 2’s kaleidoscopic tapestry. Many will be familiar faces: the lovably gormless robot, Claptrap; the licentious, carnivalesque Moxxi; the Kevorkian Dr. Zed; and the white trash mechanical savant, Scooter. New, more dynamic characters such as Ellie, Scooter’s morbidly obese, sassy junkyard sister, and Tiny Tina, a hilarious and troubled 13-year-old demolitions expert, also greatly elevate the cast. Even the one-dimensional characterisation of Roland isn’t an oversight or creative dead-end, but done by careful design.
Players control one of four largely voiceless characters: Salvador, the stunted gunzerker; Axton, the preppy commando; Maya, the lithe siren; and Zer0, “a number” – also a faceless assassin. Each has three skill trees to build their character from, and each promotes a specialised style of play within each character’s class. What personalities these characters have are shown in their design and the few canned remarks they make; it’s evident that Pandora and its inhabitants are the real stars of the show.
The world of Pandora is much more clearly conceived than it was in the original, where the topography was largely featureless rock and desert pocked with shanties and ramshackle bandit fortifications. These return, and have even been elaborated upon, but there’s also much more variety, from savannah and desert, to ashen wasteland and pristine city, and while they’re diverse, there’s a very strong sense of progression through the zones and an overall uniformity.
In keeping with Pandora’s greater scope, the bandit and skag duo that defined the original’s bestiary has been considerably expanded and includes new archetypes such as summoning units, suicide units, and evolving units. But where Gearbox has broken the most new ground is with boss encounters. These are usually composed of several cleverly designed facets and tasks, but they also feature more bugs than can be found elsewhere in the game. Very occasionally, be prepared to lose progress in a fight and reload the area after a boss fails to correctly enter a new phase, for example. Elsewhere, players may be able to find advantage points from which they can attack without being damaged in return, and as these encounters award the greatest return in trinkets and guns, it’s easy to imagine a substantial subset of players exploiting such opportunities.
But these few faults and others, such as characters talking over one another during key exposition, are easy to overlook when balanced against the game's substantial successes. The collective impression of these small indiscretions is closer to an eager-to-please toddler who has accidentally got paint on the table, rather than grievous offences against quality assurance and game design.
Narrative sorely needed attention in this sequel, and happily, the game includes several gripping twists, and reaches multiple crescendos without ever losing its pacing and flair. It’s endowed with its own peculiarly defining brand of humour throughout, laden with sexual innuendo, bloody spectacle, and irony.
It’s a game for gamers, and a stark reminder that often the best games aren’t those that set out to redefine the medium, or seek dour creative legitimacy, but those that set out to entertain, to make us laugh, to surprise us, and make such an impression that we'll return to them for years to come.
Borderlands 2 is unreservedly recommended to anyone who can buy, borrow or otherwise secure the means to play it.