Borderlands 2 review: Jack of all trades

Our look at the shoot-and-loot game Borderlands 2 from Gearbox.

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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.

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.

Editor-In-Chief
From The Chatty
  • reply
    September 17, 2012 9:00 PM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, Borderlands 2 review: Jack of all trades.

    Our look at the shoot-and-loot game Borderlands 2 from Gearbox.

    • reply
      September 17, 2012 9:51 PM

      Good review, Steve. Probably not gonna be able to pick this up for quite a while, but I look forward to it.

    • reply
      September 18, 2012 5:54 AM

      Gotta wait three more days, because it's released on the 21st over here. :(

      • reply
        September 18, 2012 6:07 AM

        Thinking about stopping by the local GameStop and giving them crap over this shit.

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          September 18, 2012 10:32 AM

          Lol, Gamestop.

          • reply
            September 18, 2012 10:54 AM

            lol who shops at gameslop anymore (hint: not me)

    • reply
      September 18, 2012 6:23 AM

      Sometimes, the game was a little too geared toward multiplayer, to the point of feeling penalized for going it alone.

      More or less so than the original? I will most likely be playing this solo ...

      • reply
        September 18, 2012 6:29 AM

        Personally I wouldn't even have bought it if I didn't have co-op players available. Probably marginally more fun to solo than Serious Sam.

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          September 18, 2012 6:30 AM

          I really enjoyed the first game solo, so you are incorrect :)

          • reply
            September 18, 2012 6:34 AM

            I can buy that it's more of a relative thing. So it's not that it's necessarily un-fun but rather knowing what I'd be missing out on. So much banter and stupid/hilarious events that don't occur without co-op.

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              September 18, 2012 6:56 AM

              while i agree with stupid fun with friends, it still like to play through the game at least once sole, listen to every joke they have for me and watch every video i get... i think this game is very good for a single player as well...

      • reply
        September 18, 2012 6:39 AM

        That's my main concern too. I have zero interest in the co-op aspect as I just don't have time or the inclination to get that kind of thing going...

      • reply
        September 18, 2012 7:38 AM

        It does feel a little lonely without co-op buddies to play with and it's just more fun to have folks to revive you when you go down and stuff like that. Plus with only two weapon slots in the beginning, co-op gives your group flexibility with weapon choices that you just don't have when playing solo.

      • reply
        September 18, 2012 9:02 AM

        I played about 4 hours of it last night, and it feels pretty much exactly like playing the first game to me (with the exception that everything has an extra layer of polish on top of it). If you enjoyed the first game solo, I see no reason why you won't enjoy the second solo.

        Obviously, yes, I've only played 4 hours, but I'm not sure how the game mechanics could change in the remaining 56 hours that would reverse this.

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        September 18, 2012 9:12 AM

        Another note, the downed mechanic has been re-balanced slightly. It's a little harder to shoot stuff in downed (accuracy regenerates slower) but they give you way more time in downed state. You can also slowly move while downed in case you go down behind cover or something. Overall it's a huge improvement IMO.

    • reply
      September 18, 2012 11:08 AM

      Kinda wished i would have ordered overnight for my copy, but i still haven't gotten any of my Bonus E-mails yet so I guess that's Bright Side of it.

    • reply
      September 18, 2012 1:00 PM

      Any advantage to buying this on PC instead of the PS3? Graphics I assume would be slightly better with a fairly new system (GTX 680 here), but not sure I care that much.

      Can I just hop into public games easily on the PS3 version if I wanted to play multiplayer? Is the PC version any better if I wanted to play multiplayer with random people? I have no friends playing this or any console games for that matter lately.

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        September 18, 2012 1:38 PM

        Playing any FPS on a console is tantamount to heresy! Mouse + Keyboard are SUCH a superior control method.

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          September 18, 2012 1:57 PM

          Nice opinions champ. Both work just fine.

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            September 18, 2012 9:04 PM

            Great thing about pc is that you can use either one.

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            September 18, 2012 11:54 PM

            They might both "work" , but I think you'll find you can't even come close to doing the things you can do with a keyboard/mouse, on a controller. Consoles are the bane of gaming, they're holding back gaming graphics like nobodies business!

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              September 27, 2012 5:17 PM

              Sure, except for the fact that I absolutely can. And that would be lazy developers, not consoles. Nice try though dipshit.

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          September 18, 2012 5:03 PM

          I like the mouse and keyboard for pinpoint accuracy much better than a controller, but I like a controller better because all the controls are easy to get to without having to contort my fingers. It's really a trade off, but the older I get the more I appreciate a good controller, and with the way the menu layouts are simplified a controller cycles through menus just as easy as a keyboard/ mouse on the majority of today's games.
          I'd rather play Borderlands with a controller and Skyrim with a keyboard, the more complex games tend to lend themselves to keyboard/ mouse much better than the simpler ones.

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        September 18, 2012 4:55 PM

        Dude, PhysX, watch the videos. This thing would be incredible on your GTX 680.

      • reply
        September 20, 2012 8:31 AM

        Absolutely get this on the PC. The moment you see a Siren create a vortex that sucks up a puddle of blood and shrapnel, you will understand why.

    • reply
      September 18, 2012 6:05 PM

      The PC crowd should be pleased with how much it's been optimized this time around. FOV defaults at 90 and can be brought all the way up to 110 with a slider. The HUD is scalable and can be moved closer or further away to the screen edges. The game can be capped at 120hz without having to turn vsync on, as well as some odd refresh rates in between 60 to 120. You can use the mouse on the character menu. Mouse smoothing is off by default. For those with nVidia cards, the game makes good use of PhysX. All of this and more can be adjusted without ever having to open up an ini file. I'm not really sure what the game has in the way of cheat protection though. My guess: pretty much nothing.

    • reply
      September 20, 2012 8:35 AM

      So I've put in about 15 hours so far after taking yesterday off with my brother to play. Here's my biased opinion:

      If you loved the first one, you'll love this one.
      If you think you need to play the first one first, don't. Play this one, it's superior in every way.
      It's gorgeous.
      The physics are worth having a dedicated card for.
      Co-op rules.
      Silky smooth on a 570gtx/470gtx combo.
      All the guns are way better, especially pistols. No more peashooters.
      The interface is still a confusing mess.
      Claptrap is still a prominent character. My brother referred to him as the Jar Jar Binks of Borderlands.
      Still a better love story than Twilight.

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      September 20, 2012 1:09 PM

      Gotta agree on Handsome Jack. He's just done so well, you hate him for sticking it to you so hard but love the dialog he runs through. Only about 8 hours in single player as a Siren (phase lock is incredible!) but I'm loving it.
      Between Him and the Claptrop you'll be laughing your arse off constantly.
      I got a few chuckles of of the psychos telling me I was going to be their new meat bicycles and other assorted phrases.
      There's a lot of humor there, if you liked the first you'll love the second and if you loved the first the second is even harder to put down.
      So far my only gripe is revolvers seem to have been merged into repeaters, so where in Borderlands you had one fast firing full auto hand gun and one slow firing single shot now repeaters act like revolvers did. Not really a big deal, because you already have smgs and machine guns, but it would have been nice if they added more scopes considering the dramatically reduced rate of fire coupled with current lack of accuracy.
      AND... I'm digging the new way sniper rifles are being handles, MASSIVE damage on headshots but very little damage anywhere else.
      And remember how frustrating it was to hide behind something and still get hit by a throwing ax? No more! you can duck and cover rather effectively and bandits' ranged attacks with guns accuracy really went down, so standing way back in cover and sniping is a VERY viable strategy this time around.
      It really is a lot more polished and refined over the first and most all of the small things that bugged me are gone.
      I've died a few times so far because of enemies running away where I can't get my second wind, but that seems to happen more with the animals than the bandits. And the animals seem to be able to run me down a lot better than the bandits can, so you might want to keep a shotgun handy.
      Two thumbs up!

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