Seldom am I reminded more strongly of the great joy of well realised co-op than when I boot up Borderlands (be that 1 or 2).
Equally, however, I’m simultaneously reminded of the restrictions a full co-op experience can place on story elements of a game.
Anyway, as ever, I’ll be avoiding ANYTHING approaching a spoiler so you may have to forgive the textual gymnastics I may employ to do so.
Where to start? Well maybe with… Borderlands 2 is, in every way, Borderlands… 2… If you didn’t like Borderlands, you will certainly not enjoy Borderlands 2. Having said that, if you loved the first game then Gearbox have a rare treat in store for you my dear friend!
Much has been made of the original’s distinctive graphic style (distinctive yes, but not original, “XIII” takes that title, lest we forget) and it’s very much in evidence here again. I happen to really like it and welcome this installment’s continued adherence to the franchise’s graphic style. A few tweaks and some polish are clearly evident, but it’s not a radical overhaul by any means.
The other side of the presentation coin is sound, which also delivers in this case, with a particular mention to two areas; Voice acting, which is excellent and offers an improved characterisation and with it deeper engagement in the game world, and weapon sound, which benefits from a similar uplift in both variety and impact. Both player character and non-player character one liners are fun too, even if they eventually start to wear thin. Overall presentation remains strong, rather than revolutionary, but what about the plot that uses all this?
Borderlands can not be accused of being plot heavy. In fact for much of the game I was frankly slightly confused about both what I was supposed to be doing and, perhaps more importantly, why I was supposed to be doing it. Not that that mattered enormously: I just cracked on enjoying its excellent co-op regardless! Thankfully Borderlands 2 feels far more rounded. You now feel that events are moving forward logically and definitively. A fact that is supported by some impressive set pieces, character introductions, and some dramatically improved in-game narration and dialog.
Borderlands 2 has achieved a striking balance between developing plot and characters and “not getting in the way of the action” to the point, in fact, that other FPS games could do well to take note of some of the clever techniques it employs in doing so. No more; Kill Stuff -> Cut-scene -> Kill Stuff -> Cut-scene… etc. You now get plot advancement within combat and travel, a point I won’t labour, but merits both mention and indeed praise.
So it looks and sounds good and story and characters are actually pretty well developed. But how about that most valuable of assets; gameplay?
Well, it would have required a frankly disastrous effort to deliver poor co-op with the original game as a starting point, and Gearbox don’t really deal in disastrous (unless you count Duke Nukem Forever – ed). So it will come as no surprise to note that they have delivered an industry leading co-op experience yet again. Using the original co-op dynamic as a jumping off point Gearbox have tweaked, polished and embellished Borderlands 2 to the point of high art.
The real standout continues to be, even more so with the tweaks, the controlled chaos the team have delivered. No one does “escapable pandemonium” like Borderlands. What I mean by this is that Gearbox know exactly how to scale the AI threat in line with number of players, so you are more often than not just scraping through encounters whether you have one, two, three or a indeed a full set of four players in play. This is no mean feat and Gearbox deserve some big credit here. This is such an important facet of the game it’s easy to take it for granted, but not only have they nailed it, they have delivered it seamlessly to the point that AI difficulty scales the instant a player “leaves your struggle”: a sophisticated bit of design if ever I saw one. Well done developers and play-testers, and thank you on behalf of all casual co-opers!
It’s worth further breaking down the gameplay into 3 “types” in Borderlands: Solo, PUG (Pick Up Group; A random team built by the matchmaking engine) and Team (An organised team built of your friends).
If I were to award medals to Borderlands 2 it would get: Solo = Bronze, PUG = Silver, Team = Gold.
Let’s be clear, you will enjoy Borderlands 2 solo, but you’ll only be getting 25% of the intended experience. You really do need a team of 3 or 4, and you’re far better off if these are chums with headsets.
Key to all this co-op goodness are the classes and their interplay. With 5 classes to choose from (if you pre-ordered or upgraded) we have increased variety here. (Would anyone else have loved a “Party of 5″ upgrade in Borderlands 2, come on Gearbox! 5 classes but still only 4 player teams? Seriously? Throw us a bone here!) Furthermore each class is a more complete and defined beast. Not only capable of being tailored to your personal play style via relevant skill choices, but also bringing something even more unique, and powerful, to the team than it did in the original.
Importantly there is no “required” class. A team of 4 Commandos or Sirens works very nearly as well as, and in some cases actually better than, a fully mixed team. If everyone knows their class and how to maximise its impact (mainly by spamming your class skill to be honest!) then you are in for a huge heap of fun regardless of the mix of classes you end up with. As is so often the case in co-op, it’s far more important that people play classes they enjoy, and can play well, than it is to have one of each class in your squad of 4.
This isn’t a player guide, more on that later, (see our excellent Borderlands 2 etiquette piece right here for starters!) so I’ll curtail my detailing of classes here, suffice to say that the combination of 3 different skill trees for each class and every weapon being usable by every class gives you a real plethora of options both individually and as a team. Most welcome perhaps in this regard is the ability to easily and cheaply respec your character’s skills, a brilliant decision on Gearbox’s part. (For a recommended in-depth look at this why not checkout Gearbox’s own interactive skill tree builders for: Siren, Commando, Gunzerker, Assassin and Mechromancer. I loved playing with these experimenters and thus highly recommend them).
It would be churlish in the extreme to end this review without discussing the weapons. Oh the many, MANY glorious weapons! Frankly I feel like, in this regard most specifically, Borderlands 2 has spoilt every other FPS for me. I mean 9 weapons? Seriously? Are you joking? OK, a couple of mods and alternate fire modes but 9 weapons? Sigh… most other games simply cannot hope to compete against Borderlands 2 which has, we know for a fact, considerably more than 18 MILLION weapon variations. In fact I suspect the number is much, MUCH higher than that based on the new weapon types and attributes provided by Borderlands 2.
What this boils down to is a part of the game I delight in. Setting up your inventory. Yes space is limited, but this is what actually improves the experience. You have to choose a set of weapons and equipment that will get the job done. You need Slag, Electrical, Corrosive and Burning damage, Explosive is also effective. But damage needs to be high, and how about % chance to inflict elemental damage? Or elemental damage per second once inflicted? What about number of rounds fired per shot? And reload time? Magazine size? Then again which shield should I use? Explosive? Absorbing? Shocking Oh, and which grenade should I equip? Vampiric? Homing? Singularity?
The options are actually endless and that is what brings such thrilling flexibility to the game, such value to the player, and such enjoyment to a team. I really can’t emphasise enough how much this mechanic adds to the game. You can never know you have the “best” equipment. There is always the chance you’ll find better kit in your next mission… brilliant design by Gearbox again.
It’s obvious I love the game, but at this point I feel its only fair I raise two frustrations I personally have with Borderlands 2. Firstly no loot locking, or even timeout. This leaves the team’s sniper / support player(s) often missing out on the best loot. Why not allocate loot to players and lock it down for them for 30 seconds after combat? I just can’t see a downside. After this anyone can take it, but make drops player exclusive for a limited time. Many games do this already, successfully, and it eliminates the major problem with PUGs in the game right now.
Secondly, I have to ask why you canβt always have a team of 4, staffed by AI when necessary? Some of the enemy AI now demonstrates reasonably sophisticated team play, so why not deliver a couple of sharp AI teammates to fill out your squad of 4 when your buddies are AFK / AFC? I can guarantee AI would work better together than a number of PUGs I’ve been in recently! This would certainly improve solo players overall experience of the game. Maybe don’t deliver the same degree of increased reward you get for 4 actual players, but at least let solo players experience some of the excitement of a full 4-player team?
Anyway, perhaps I’m being picky here, but that’s only because I love it so. The Space-Western FPS Co-op genre only has one game, and frankly it doesn’t need any others. It’s just fine as a lone wolf. A vicious, beautiful, thrilling, brutal, amusing and perfectly balanced lone wolf. Anyway I hear that Gaige, our friendly new Mechromancer, arrives early, so I’m off to tend my very own Deathtrap!
You’ll love it because;
– Improved clarity of character roles adds to co-op
– Addition of “Slag” further rewards smart squad play
– More grenade types are both fun and effective
– New shield types also add to the variety and tactics
– New Eridium character upgrade mechanic works well
– Plot is lively and well-paced with colourfully realised NPCs
– Skill upgrade choices are more differentiated
– Goal of game and antagonist are clearer and the better for it
– Badass Rank works well without unbalancing game
– Enemy variety improved, if still not stellar
– Increased class skills variety and depth adds to progression
But you might not like it as;
– More of the same in many ways. Particularly visually
– Inventory management will still be a curse for some
– “RPG” elements not really developed at all
– Environments don’t quite feel different enough
– Playing solo only delivers a fraction of the enjoyment
– Re-use of areas combined with unused zones is odd
Graphics: 4/5 β You either love or hate cell-shading. I love it and I think you should too. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.
Sound: 4/5 β Much stronger voice acting all round and continued strength in weapon and combat sounds.
Gameplay: 5/5 β Some of the greatest 4-player co-op currently available. Not quite so hot solo. But then that’s not really the point.
Longevity: 4/5 β Complete it with Axton, complete it with Maya, and you’ve still got 3 more run throughs to go. Value-much?
Overall: 4.5 out of 5
If you like co-op it’s a no-brainer, buy it now. If you don’t like co-op maybe you should think more carefully. But I’d prefer to encourage you to buy it and learn to love co-op. In Borderlands 2 this should take you all of 5 minutes once you’ve got either 3 chums available or have used the excellent inbuilt matchmaking options to form a full party of 4.