Come join the party in the dust and the sand…Says a Borderlands 2 inspired song by Gavin Dunne from Escapist Magazine’s Miracle of Sound (which by the way, yes, that is also his stage name), and it sort of echoes the call the game gives out to its players, inviting them to come, newcomers and veterans, and play in Pandora once more, a planet where every inhabitant, the fauna and flora all go out of their way to try and kill you, overkilling you if possible.
Borderlands 2 is the sequel to the highly addictive and very successful Borderlands by Gearbox Software. Both games are First Person Shooter Action RPGs, which in other words means they’re first person Diablos. You control a “hero” (though thug is way more apt), kill monsters, grab loot, level up and spend points in skill trees. What makes it unique? A mix of fantastic gameplay, cell-shade styled visuals and fun and engaging writing, voice acting and story, even if the premise is quite simple.
For those that haven’t played Borderlands, let me give you a recap and background. Both games take place on the fictional world of Pandora, and not the nice Avatar Pandora, but instead it’s the world of Mad Max 3: Beyond the Thunderdome, just without Tina Turner (and yes, I’ve shown my age by making that comparison), though it does have its own Tina.
According to the series backstory, Pandora was settled due to its rich mining deposits and the belief of the existence of an ancient cache of alien technology, dubbed The Vault. The first settlers were workers and family from the Atlas Corporation. Sadly for them, they found nothing remotely close to The Vault and they’d also come during one of the planet’s winter cycles. When summer arrived, all the extremely dangerous and vicious wildlife came out to play. The company started to withdraw and in came another mega-corporation, Dahl. They brought in their equipment, personnel and off-world convicts for slave labour. So, nice guys. They set up a heavy duty mining operation on the planet, but when news of one of Dahl’s experts having found proof of The Vault’s existence reached Atlas Corps’s ears, they sent their private army to the planet, which forced Dahl to leave the world, in the process stranding their workers and their families in this hostile world, along with an army of enslaved convicts, which of course broke out and seized the damn world and making it the hostile Mad Max-world it is today.
An example of the vicious fauna in this cozy little planet
In come the first game’s characters: The Vault Hunters, soldiers, mercenaries and just plain psychos, all coming to Pandora for its mythical trove of treasures. These are your characters in this game: Roland – The Soldier, Lilith – The Siren (a psychic, sort of), Mordecai – The Hunter and Brick – The Berserker. They found the Vault, but it wasn’t so much a treasury as a prison for an intergalactic beast that looks like Cthulhu’s pet dog. That is, of course, the first game’s last boss.
The original Vault Hunters and your allies in Borderlands 2
Opening the vault had a secondary effect to releasing that behemoth. Eridium. A rare mineral only found on Pandora and which popped up, overflowing, as soon as the vault was opened. The Hyperion Corporation then came and settled in, with exclusive Eridium mining rights. News of more vaults also popped up, bringing yet another generation of Vault Hunters to play, while the first group settled around the world, and you meet them all over the course of the story. These new hunters, are your characters (and their “classes”): Axton – The Commando, Maya – The Siren (a psychic witch, sort of), Salvador – The Gunzerker and Zero – The Number (the assassin type character and who speaks in freaking Haiku). Each character offers distinct gameplay in the form of their particular skill trees and their Action Skill, the only active skill you get, all other skills you choose provide you with passive and triggered effects.
The new guys…and Claptrap. From left to right: Maya, Salvador, Zero, Claptrap, Axton and Gaige & Deathtrap
Axton’s skill will be the most familiar to Borderland veterans, the Sabre Turret, similar to Roland’s Scorpio Turret. Maya’s is Phaselock, which allows her to suspend a group of enemies in mid-air, providing crowd control. Zero’s is Deception, which turns him invisible for a short period of time and leaves a holographic double that draws enemy attention (i.e. taunts them) and the next shot you fire while Deception is active has its damage increased. Salvador’s skill is Gunzerking, which allows him to dual wield guns (each character has 4 gun slots, 1 & 2 become his 1st Gunzerking pair and 3 & 4 the 2nd), and there are no restrictions to the type of weapons you can Gunzerk with. The game even jokes about it during load screens “a rocket launcher and a sniper rifle? Sure why not?”
There is a 5th character, a DLC only character called Gaige – The Mechromancer and her Action Skill is Deathtrap, a summon-able pet robot.
Aside from the previous game’s main characters, other Borderland NPCs make a comeback, such as Scooter, the man behind the Catch-a-ride system, Dr. Zed, the unlicensed and highly psychotic doctor, Marcus, the greedy weapon dealer, Mad Moxxi, from the Borderlands DLC Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot, and of course the ever lovable or hateable robot, CL4P-TP, aka Claptrap. They are joined by a bunch of new characters, including the fun-loving and ever-present villain, Handsome Jack, and my favourite 13 year old demolitions expert: Tina.
Jack & Tina, just a couple of characters you’ll meet…and yeah, they’re all nuts.
Aside from the main quests, the story is told via the Pandora-wide communications system, the ECHOnet, with different NPCs guiding, instructing, commenting and even taunting you while you complete story objectives (and the same with side-quests from their quest-givers). Information on the world isn’t found in books on Pandora, but on ECHO recorders, little cassette-recorder-looking things. ECHOs give you background on places, events, characters, etc., and of course, fully voiced and more often than not, fully hilarious. For each character, player character that is, there’s also a Lost ECHO Challenge, which you complete by finding, in a given area, all ECHOS relating to that character’s past and how he got to Pandora. I highly recommend looking for Zero’s, they’re quite fun.
So far I’ve only played with Zero, chosen not for his Haiku antics or even Katana, but for having a Sniper Rifle oriented skill tree. You might think that like any other ARPG out there, playing with different characters only means slightly different gameplay, and while the story doesn’t change, the characters have so much personality oozing out of them every time they open their mouths, it makes up for a different experience altogether.
Remember the companies I mentioned in the background a few paragraphs before? They’re relevant for more than story. Every gun you use, like in the 1st game, has a manufacturer, and it’s one of those companies, and a few more (except Atlas, it went bankrupt in the five years between the 2 games); and each company has its own flaws and merits. For example, Hyperion weapons are usually quite inaccurate but their accuracy improves with each shot fired. Tediore weapons turn into explosives when you reload, and you see the character throwing the weapon away like a grenade, while another fully loaded one is “digistructed” (a process widely used in the Borderverse where a piece of technology is digitized, only materializing when drawn) in his hands. Maliwan weapons have the best elemental effects: fire, acid, explosive and electric.
Ah yes, the Elements. There’s a new element this time around, Slag. Slag is liquefied Eridium and a “slagged” opponent takes extra damage from all other elements. As for the other elements: Fire is good against soft targets (that is, people), and can leave a damage-over-time effect (DoT). Electric works wonders against shields and can also leave a DoT, but it’s not so useful against organics. Explosion is quite simple. Every projectile explodes, making every explosive gun AoE (Area of Effect) capable. Corrosion not only deals damage but is almost guaranteed to leave a DoT and is fantastic against armored opponents and also works wonders on organics. Oh and by the way, Elements aren’t limited to weaponry. Enemies can come in elemental varieties. You’ll remember me the first time you meet a Caustic Goliath or a Fire Thresher.
I mentioned there being four weapons for each character, that’s not exactly true. There is a 5th: Grenades, which deal explosive damage, but can be modified with Grenade Mods to provide not only a different elemental damage but different effects and functionality, such as a Singularity effect, which pulls all enemies to the grenade before it explodes and Transfusion, which heals you for the amount of damage it dealt to each enemy.
Other pieces of gear include Relics, which improve performance in a particular way, such as improved damage with weapons from a specific manufacturer, or increased health or even more Fight For your Life! time (more on that later). There’s also Shields of course, which, well, give you a shield, but as with everything else, shields can come with extra goodies, such as dealing damage to all around you when it’s reduced to 0. All shields recharge if you can avoid damage for enough time. Finally, your last piece of gear is the Class Mod. As their name suggests, they change your class, and each Class Mod is tied to a class, for example, there are Commando Class Mods and Siren Class Mods, and only characters of those classes can equip them. They change the name of your class while providing bonuses and extra ranks to your skills.
The game is particularly long. It will provide more than 50 hours of psychotic sociopathic fun and that’s not taking into account the myriad of side-quests you can do. They’re not endless in number. This isn’t Skyrim, and anyone who’s read this blog knows I mean it as a compliment. Those up the length considerably, as do the DLCs (more on those below) and the CHALLENGES. Challenges are achievements, of sorts, and completing each grants you Badass Ranks and every few ranks you get a Token, which you can exchange for increased stats for your character. Consider the tokens your points for improving your character’s attributes and you just need to work for them. There are kill challenges, weapon challenges, vehicle challenges and some weirder ones. As is usual with achievements, most of them have funny names, such as “Sidejacked” – Complete side-quests.
The maps are massive, and just like in the first game, you have “exit points” connecting to adjacent maps. This isn’t a continuous and expansive world. As is usual in games with different zones, there is a theme to each set of them, such as icy, barren, volcanic, etc.
The game also features no re-use or recycling of areas from the first game, with the exception of the 1st game’s starting area, the Arid Badlands, now renamed Arid Nexus – Badlands. That particular map is also much smaller than its original, as its only purpose is for a “main quest” mission, and a particularly nice boss.
Instead, Gearbox made sure to expand Pandora, to show off more of their crazy world, to build on what’s established, instead of focusing on revisiting. I’m sure there’s a lot more to show off, and if Borderlands 3 takes place on Pandora once again, we’ll see more areas, other continents, different stuff.
Speaking of enemies, as with many games, there are enemy-ranks. You have them in Normal, Badass and in the cases of the Goliath and Loader enemies, Super Badass. The Varkid enemy type can also be raised to a Supreme Badass rank, where it becomes a Named enemy: Vermivorous the Invincible, a raid boss.
This thing…it’s big as a house, can take a punishment and can squash you with little to no effort whatsoever
Raid bosses are a concept borrowed from the MMO world. They first showed up on the 3rd Borderlands DLC and is back in Borderlands 2. They are hard bosses, usually beyond the level cap (currently 50) and it’s recommended you kill them in a group. They all drop extremely rare loot, a few of them with sure-drop Legendaries (this is a loot-game after all).
As for enemy types, most, if not all, Borderlands enemies come back, such as the Skags, Bandits and Spiderants, but are joined by new ones and expansions to their types. Bandits get the Goliath, for example, a big guy with, usually, two guns and a bucket for a helmet, but if you dare to take a headshot at it, the helmet comes off and it gets really angry, attacking everything on sight and LEVELING UP each time he kills something, advancing ranks from normal to baddass to even greater levels. The Varkid enemies I already mentioned can morph, entering a cocoon of sorts and emerging a rank higher and allowing them to reach the highest rank is the only way of getting the big bug above.
Enemy AI is not amazingly sophisticate, but they will circle around you, user their environment and pretty much use any opportunity to screw with you. Of course, a lot of them will also stand still, firing, giving you plenty of opportunity to line up a shot with your sniper rifle, if your shields can take it. Of course, it also depends on the type of enemy. Psychos will run at your with little to no regard for their safety, while others will cover, provide cover fire for their allies, sound alarms, etc.
NPC AI is pretty good too, they actually help, providing good damage sources unlike many “companions” in other games, and they don’t get themselves killed, effectively becoming assets and not luggage.
The Stalkers, the only shielded animals you’ll find…oh, and while their shield is up, they can go invisible…so yeah, you’ll hate them.
As with all other characters, enemies have fun and interesting phrases, such as the Loaders’ “First Law disabled”, a funny little Asimov reference there; and the Zero-specific Goliath phrase used when fooled by the character’s Deception: “First there, now there!”
The Voice Acting is top notch as I’ve already mentioned. Every character feels unique, has its own personality and more importantly, never feels like a cardboard box. They’ll give you a piece of their mind and you’ll find yourself agreeing and disagreeing with them…and sometimes just wanting to run away from the madmen…Beasts have their own grunts, roars and all sound extremely convincing. Even the voiced and/or curse weapons have fantastic and annoying voice acting, such as the complaining Sniper Rifle, reminding you that if you were a better shot maybe you wouldn’t need to reload.
The sound, beyond the voices, keeps the same level of quality, weapons sound like weapons, explosions blast, you hear the crunch beneath your feet, etc., as well as all the tiny details like the hum of machinery, the sounds of steam blowing, the purr of engines and even the whizz of rockets as they fly. The music pieces fit each of their zones and range from the western type tunes to more modern pieces with drums, guitar riffs and even some techno in them. Boss fights have their own tracks of course and all, boss music or not, do what they’re supposed to, make you feel like you are there, in that zone, and pump you up for the next bit of questing, exploration or firefight.
Visually speaking, I mentioned Borderlands being cell-shaded, and it of course continues in its sequel. The first time you play you may think the graphics to be strange or maybe “not much”, but the more you play you realize it fits the game’s style and tone and by the end you can’t imagine this game looking any different, and it’s my firm belief that a photorealistic style wouldn’t do Pandora justice, and the more grotesque creatures in Pandora would look too disturbing, ruining the fun and cheekiness of the game. Pandora, its inhabitants, flora, fauna and locations are all over the top and insane, and the cartoon-like look helps sell it to you, the player, and ensures the immersion.
This is where you’ll start…isn’t it gorgeous?
The difficulty curve in this game isn’t steep and you slowly learn to deal with each type of enemy before going on to bigger challenges and playing smart will keep you alive. Even if it doesn’t, you always have the “Fight for your life” mechanic. The way it works is that when you “die”, it’s not Game Over. Instead you are dying, with a red bar on your screen counting down to your death, and you have until the bar disappears to kill an enemy and get a “Second Wind” popping up with close to 25% of your health and your shields full. If you fail, you just pop up at the nearest New-U station, which charges you a bit of money and says something random to you, such as “The Hyperion corporation: You don’t die, until we say so.”
As for replayability, this is a Diablo style game, so of course there is a “New Game Plus” on a harder difficulty and with better loot. And if you’ve finished the main story, there’s always the DLCs.
The first DLC is all about a pirate treasure and introduces new and engaging characters, most of which you kill on the way, but they deserve it…mostly. It provides many more hours of “psychotic sociopathic fun” and a new vehicle, a hovering boat called a Sand Skiff, which should be standard in every single freaking game and is sadly locked to the DLC areas.
I can’t speak for the rest of the DLCs sadly because I haven’t played them. I have them but I just haven’t played them yet.
If this review has in some way convinced you to try out this fantastic game, I recommend buying the season pass, which includes 4 content-expanding DLCs, of course including the two that have been released and the two to come. Unfortunately, Gaige isn’t included in the season pass and must be acquired separately. And if you think buying the DLCs doesn’t give you anything but the content, you’re wrong. Each DLC you acquire will give you a Golden Key, used to unlock a chest in the city (quest hub) of Sanctuary, which will give you one rare weapon of your current level, which is awesome.
Speaking of gear of your level, that reminds me. The people at Gearbox included a nice little tribute in their game. There is an NPC called Michael Mamaril and if you find him he gives you a nice item and you complete the “Tribute to A Vault Hunter” achievement. The NPC shares the name with a Borderlands fan that passed away in 2011. His friend sent a letter to Gearbox asking them for a eulogy for his friend read by Claptrap. Not only did they do that, but also promised to include him in Borderlands 2.
As a conclusion I wholeheartedly recommend Borderlands 2, even more so than I would recommend the first Borderlands. It’s bigger and better, improving on pre-established concepts and adding its own bits to the mix. Everything that worked before now works better. Everything that didn’t work, now does. This game is a clear example and guideline on how to build up your sequels, how to achieve that “bigger and better”.
I don’t give out points, don’t like them, I can just say: Buy the damn game. You’ll thank me later!
I leave you with the aforementioned Miracle of Sound song, Breaking Down the Borders and the Claptrap Eulogy.
- Become The Number One Badass In The New Borderlands 2 DLC (kotaku.com)
- Preview: Borderlands 2: Mr. Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage (destructoid.com)
- Borderlands 2 Review – IGN (pc.ign.com)
- Borderlands 2 Official Site
- Borderlands Wiki