The original Borderlands was something of a quirky surprise. It combined first-person shooter and dungeon-crawler RPG tropes into a unique blend. It may not have mastered either genre as well as their purest examples, but the combination was fresh enough to make it a bona fide hit. Now that the surprise has worn off, Borderlands 2 is gambling on subtle refinements to the formula instead of packing the same punch. Gearbox has made a game that is in every way superior to the original, but has some trouble escaping its core weaknesses.
Borderlands 2's first environment is a pristine snowy tundra, a very different setting than the first game's seemingly endless desert wastelands. It only lasted a short while, though, before I was once again cast into diesel-punk, sand, and grime. These settings lasted most of the game, with a few notable exceptions. The settings serve as an apt metaphor for the game in relation to its predecessor. It is very much the same as the original, with a few smart improvements. Those improvements are touch-ups, like a shiny new environment sitting unassumingly next to similar, older ones. This isn't entirely a bad thing, since it satisfies those who, like me, enjoyed the first game.
Given the first game's lackluster plot, the story had the most room to grow. While Borderlands was a loosely connected series of quest dialogue, its sequel creates a strong, despicable villain from the start. From the moment he tries to murder you, Handsome Jack is carried by sharp writing and a spot-on voice performance, making him perfectly unlikable even as I laughed at his snide running commentary. He slowly became one of my favorite antagonists in recent memory, taking clear cues from all-time bests like GLaDOS. The original four Vault Hunters return as well, sometimes in unexpected ways that should serve as a treat for fans without seeming too confounding to newcomers.
The side-quests offer additional context to the main story, or their own short vignettes that flesh out the world. The writing ranges from dark and morbid to scatological, but never without an edge of sharpness. Most of the missions are littered with anachronistic but amusing pop culture references. However, some serious plot moments fall flat, due in part to the fanciful nature of the game's world. The threat of death, for example, loses a lot of its dramatic punch when you're regularly revived for a small percentage of your current savings.
When I think back to the original Borderlands, I fondly remember the feeling of empowerment that took hold near the end. Rolling into an area full of enemies I once struggled with, and taking them all down with ease, made it the most satisfying of its type in a long while. What I usually overlook in my memories are the moments of struggle, dying repeatedly to get to that point. Borderlands 2 carries the same arc, from struggle to triumph, and then back to struggle as a raid boss and New Game Plus (aka "Vault Hunter") mode opens. The journey could be frustrating, especially when I was foolish enough to go off the beaten path and try quests listed above my current rank.
The feeling of empowerment is strengthened by the new "Badass Points" system. Instead of leveling individual gun types, the game presents dozens of stacking mini-achievements for almost every criteria under the sun. I caught these mini-objectives constantly, upgrading my rank and gaining more points to spend on micro-boosts to stats like Gun Accuracy, Elemental Chance, or Shield Regeneration Rate. The smartest element of this system is that it works across all saves, so I can start another game as another class, confident that my work so far will give me a slight leg up.
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Sometimes, the game was a little too geared toward multiplayer, to the point of feeling penalized for going it alone. The "Second Wind" mechanic returns, letting you come back to life if you fell one more enemy. This can be used strategically, in cases of leaving one enemy at death's door to serve as an emergency revive. But the enemy A.I. is also smarter, and has the ugly tendency to run away when you’re downed. I can't count the number of times I was close to a revival, but ended up bleeding out because an enemy turned tail and ran the moment I went down.
In fact, the enemies are smarter in general. Some will roll or dodge a shot, others will take cover, and occasionally I even felt flanked and surrounded. Boss encounters were appropriately difficult and matched to the mission's suggested level, but sometimes would be broken. A boss might get stuck in an animation, or be easily exploitable by hanging back in a safer area.
Borderlands 2 shares a lot in common with its predecessor. It's a jack of all trades, but that also makes it a master of none. The shooting mechanics, enemy AI, loot differentiation, and story beats are all notably refined from the first game, but none of them to the point that they could individually go toe-to-toe with the best of their respective genres. What makes the series special is how those elements coalesce to form a game that's more than the sum of its parts. It's not quite like anything else on the market, giving a unique way to scratch the loot-lust and shooter itch at once.
This Borderlands 2 review was based on a retail Xbox 360 version of the game provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PlayStation 3 and PC.