Saturday, October 13, 2012

REVIEW - Borderlands 2.

Borderlands 2 is an open-world first-person shooter co-op RPG.  It's built from the ground up as a multiplayer experience - and I, weirdly, never felt a pressing need to get a co-op game going.  I like exploring and observing and reflecting at my own pace, so this is a review of Borderlands 2 from the perspective of someone who soloed it.  Which seems insane.  That said, I've heard nothing but good things about what happens to the game when you play it with other people, so you can just take this review and tack on the concept that "it gets even better with co-op!"

It's a beautiful idea - a wonderful idea - but there is a fundamental problem in the RPG+FPS hybrid equation.

RPGs are designed, in nearly all ways, to comfortably straddle the random number generators that lie at their core.  To drip-feed you items and enemies and challenges that are strictly reasonable or comfortably challenging at your current level, allowing you to continue having fun and progress through the story. To constantly warble along a path of under- or over-powered player characters, while still managing to feel engaging and fun through tactics and world-building.

First-person shooters, on the other hand, don't take kindly to random anything.  A really good first person shooter's rules are so comfortable and so infallible that you can find yourself leading a target, close your eyes and let a single bullet off the chain, and not have to look to see whether or not you hit anything.

You know you hit it, because its rules never change.  The combination of these two genres - a seemingly simple concept - is distressed, at its core.  To be looty RPG, you have to constantly drip-feed your players a series of weapons with a vast variety of attributes.  Meanwhile, in really great first-person shooter, there can be no question as to what happens when your reticle glides over an enemy's face and you pull the trigger.

Asking for a great FPS with random loot is like asking for a vegan sandwich with bacon.

Still, you have to hand it to Gearbox.  Borderlands 2, as a first-person shooter, feels much more comfortable and reasonable than its predecessor did.  That's not to say the crucial feel of a great FPS is a constant companion - merely that Borderlands 2 snaps in to that sensation with greater regularity than the original game did in 2009.

It doesn't - or, perhaps, can't - maintain it.  If a quest you really want to finish is five levels beneath you, you'll yawn your way through it, randomly spraying your bullets into the squishy torsos of your targets with little fear for your own safety.  If the best gun in your arsenal happens to be a bit long in the tooth though, you'll find even "normal" difficulty quests near-impossible to tolerate as you empty clips into undying foes.

It can be very boring and very frustrating - but still, it's less often boring and less regularly frustrating that Borderlands was three years ago.

So, kudos, Gearbox.  You're not there yet, but you're far closer than you were.

Beyond this troubled core conceit, there are a few nits to pick.  Borderlands 2 is useless at tracking multiple quests, comparing items and weapons isn't nearly as intuitive as it should be for a game with "bazillions of guns," the menus for keeping track of all your look are pretty terrible, and the driving still sucks.  All that being said... there's a ton to love, here.

While Borderlands' striking, cartoony/cell shaded aesthetic was added midway through development, in Borderlands 2 it really shows that this was the destination from the outset.  Everything looks crisper, bolder and - joyously - more colorful as you explore fifteen or twenty vastly different environments, from futuristic ultracities to poisonous swamps.

Pandora's rogues' gallery has also seen an upgrade with new enemy types - but it's near-impossible for familiarity not to set in after thirty or more hours with the title.  At the same time, each encounter distinguishes itself from the last via the different attributes each enemy can have - shielded, armored and fleshy foes each whispering for the use of particular weapons to drop their shields, corrode their armor or scorch their skin.

This is a blessing and a curse when things get really crazy (as things regularly do, in Borderlands 2), as you're perpetually opening menus to switch out your old-standby weapon for specific guns with the damage type you need.

I love the presentation.  Any game that begins with a track from The Heavy gets points, in my book, but Borderlands 2 ends up feeling like less and more than your run-of-the-mill big-budget action game thanks to its cheeky, winking attitude.

Where your Call of Duties, your Dragon Ages, your Halos are replete with soaring orchestral scores, super-serious, stalwart heroes handling super-serious emergencies, Borderlands 2 has the spirit of smaller, tongue-in-cheek games like Ratchet & Clank, WET, Lollipop Chainsaw or (cough) Duke Nukem.

When the next step in a quest chain is to slap a foul-mouthed thirteen year old's mortal enemy, or high-fiving an insanely cheerful robot, it's hard not to chuckle a bit.

Replete with gaming references and the infectious feeling that you and the developers are all in on the same joke, there's a kernel of lets-just-have-a-good-time joy at the center of the game, like the loading screen tip which reminds you "The Gunzerker's Sexual Tyrannosaurus skill heals you whenever you take damage, but hopefully you just saw the name and were like "I want that.""

This is at odds with the standard ambition of any first-person experience - immersion - but, counter-intuitively, it's not uncommon for the game to slip into That Perfect Place from time to time.  When you're vaguely aware of the reason for creeping into this dungeon, but your senses are honed to the point of your aiming reticle.  When the lovely cell-shading/comic aesthetic bleeds away and all you're seeing is a collection of potential threats, their weaknesses and the tactics that will win the day.

And that's where Borderlands achieves its ambition.  When you're dashing through a raider camp, throwing super-heated lead in all directions, dodging grenades, swapping out weapons to deliver a perfect smack to a psychopath's forehead, getting shot down, crawling along in Fight For Your Life mode (which is genius, by the way), pelting out a score of buckshot to rise from your grave and switch on your tide-turning action skill...  it nails it.

Sometimes, it nails it.  When you breathlessly fight tooth-and-nail through a grueling but balanced sequence and find yourself nudging the leftover loot with the toe of your boot, mentally comparing this gun to the standards in your inventory - like any gun-toting mercenary from beyond the stars would.

That idea - a sprawling, exploratory RPG viewed over the barrel of a slick, effective weapon - is a wonderful idea.  When it works - which isn't always, but more often than not - it's a wonderful thing.

DOOM married to an epic-length RPG.  That sounds scrumptious.

By halfway to the level cap you'll feel like a much more potent killing machine, replete with strategies and options, but each level gained is less about unlocking life-altering new skills than a zero-point-eight per cent increase in one stat or another.  Like the difference between Borderlands 2 and its predecessor, it's a success measured in inches - a teensy bit of a better story here, a wash of interesting, beautiful new locales there.

At its core there remains this frayed, distressed concept of marrying random loot with comfortable FPS mechanics, but all the aspects of the game surrounding that core have been refined and improved - even if it's not quite enough, here and there.

It's far from perfect, but it's still an open-world co-op loot-crazy first-person shooter RPG - and that's a helluva lot better than the one we didn't have before Borderlands came along.

  • an open-world co-op loot-crazy first-person shooter RPG  
  • a bazillion guns (but only about fifty you'll actually want to use)
  • Lots of character, from the NPCs to the player classes and
  • a cheeky, winking sense of humor that feels fresh and energetic.
  • space western!
  • overall presentation is significantly improved
  • I love Fight For Your Life mode
  • a huge world to explore with tons of environmental variety
  • tons of different enemies with their own AI and necessary strategies
  • what feels like around 100 quests
  • when it works it feels amazing - and a huge open-world FPS is a beautiful thing
  • it begins and ends with tracks from The Heavy and I frickin' love The Heavy
  • The whole random-loot RPG and FPS thing don't exactly mesh all the time.  I'd say about 45% of the time, on my playthrough - but friends have reported much less than that. 
  • In a game with a "bazillion" guns, you really need a better system for comparing them.
  • While I love most of the characters (particularly the guy who sells the deck upgrades, for some reason), and while the writing is worlds better than its predecessor, the story still feels profoundly meh.
  • The quest system kinda' sucks. 
  • No one likes your driving, Borderlands.
  • Pretty much the whole time I was playing it, I was thinking about how much better the presentation and gameplay were in Rage - which is a somewhat different genre, I know, but still.
  • I honestly can't tell if I actually warmed up to it, or if most of my good points are merely the result of Stockholm syndrome after thirty hours with the game.

Borderlands 2 is far from perfect, but an open-world space western lootfest RPG/FPS is still a beautiful thing.


  1. Well done review. I can tell, based on this review and my experiences with Borderlands 1 that I'll probably only "sort of" like it.

    I'll stick with Dead Island and Rage for now. Thanks for the words.

  2. So, Tiny Tina: did you want to shoot her and if so, how many times?

  3. Actually I'm a big fan of HAWP, so I really enjoyed Tiny Tina.

  4. Gah.

    HAWP is fine. Tiny Tina was tragic and annoying. And tragically annoying.

  5. The original Borderlands didn't click with me, even though I really wanted it to. The sequel sounds a lot like more Borderlands, albeit somewhat improved.

    Reading your review however, it doesn't sound like they still weren't quite able to execute on the premise.

  6. Glad to see you got something out of it.

    Boderlands isn't for everybody, but it feels like they made it just for me.

    god i love it.