Game Review: Borderlands 2

There seems to be an unfortunate trend in first person shooter games these days. Namely, they all seem to be trending towards the hyper-realistic military shooter. Like the Call of Duty series or Medal of Honor or Battlefield 3 or…I could go on, but I think you get the point. The big names all, at some point, have you shooting at people with an M4. Which is why I loved the original Borderlands so much, because it fit none of those tropes whatsoever . . .

Yes, I’m reviewing a video game. If you haven’t progressed any further than solitaire, this might be a good time to grab a cup of coffee while the next article warms up. BTW, the only spoilers here will be about side quests.

When the original Borderlands came out, it was absolutely perfect. In a field where realism was the name of the game, Gearbox decided to give everyone the middle finger and go for an exceptionally stylized look and feel and basically throw everything out the window. The art style is called “cel shading” and gives the game a comic book look and feel, which goes right along with the characters and storyline. The game was a hilariously dark, futuristic shooter that had everything you could possibly want in a game. Unless you were looking to kill some Taliban, that is. It didn’t have that.

The overall style is one familiar to Cowboy Bebop fans, specifically that of the Space Western. Like getting peanut butter on your chocolate, its a combination that leads to some amazing story lines and visuals and gives the game a look and feel that you just can’t beat. Unless you hated Cowboy Bebop, in which case you won’t like this either and probably don’t like nice things.

When I heard about Borderlands 2 coming out, I was cautiously optimistic. The first game was so brilliant that I was worried they were going to have trouble staying true to the formula with a sequel. There’s been a wave of disappointing sequels recently (Valve, I’m looking at you…) and I was worried that this would be yet another one. But from the moment the game opened, I realized my fears were unfounded.

The plot itself would be compelling even if it were done in a straight and conventional game; bad guy and evil corporation take over planet, inhabitants irked, need to free themselves and kill bad guy. I know, it sounds damn near Avatar-esque, even down to the planet name (Pandora), but the distinct lack of blue elves and touchy-feely morals does a fine job of distancing the two stories. Plus the fact that Borderlands (1)’s Pandora came first.

Building off that solid plot, the game designers shoveled in just the right amount of dark humor to keep the player laughing while they were blowing their enemies’ faces off. The best example is a side quest in Borderlands 2 from Tiny Tina, a 13 year old with a penchant for explosives. Her mission (“You are Cordially Invited”) asks you to round up a “guest” for her tea party, who turns out to be the bad guy that killed her parents and left her an orphan in an unforgiving wasteland. You then defend her from his buddies while she tortures and eventually kills him. And while that all sounds grisly and terrible, the writing hits just the right note that you’re simultaneously getting a glimpse into the deep backstory of a relatively minor character and laughing at the absurdity of the conversation. Its like a modern day Pulp Fiction, but without the boring parts. And better guns.

Speaking of guns, did I mention yet that the guns in this game are PROCEDURALLY GENERATED? Oh, yes.

For those who aren’t aware of how awesome that statement is, let me explain. Most games simply design all of their guns ahead of time (with some minor changes based on chance, like attachments in Call of Duty). You get twenty, maybe thirty guns tops. But Gearbox decided to simply list a database of features, and let the computer choose how to put those features together into a gun based on random chance. For the first Borderlands the count of possible combinations was somewhere north of 17,750,000 — that’s seventeen million unique firearms. for the sequel, they added more. exactly how many they’re not saying, but one of their employees was quoted saying “there are enough where it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter. If you imagine there’s a lot more, but you also see the variety is wilder than Borderlands 1.”

See, RF? Guns! Relevant! Moving on…

While there is a definite linear story to the game, the side quests really make it enjoyable. Those familiar with Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas will instantly recognize the mechanics. Also like Fallout, the game truly is an “open world” for the player to enjoy, providing wide open spaces to explore at the player’s leisure instead of being funneled down the traditional “long hallway” that most first person shooters employ. It makes the game feel much more open, especially when you realize that there’s a fast travel station near the arena for the final boss that allows you to change your mind and go do some more quests before the big showdown. Even at the end you have the option to roam around more.

The gameplay is fantastic. The art is beautiful. The guns are insane. And the characters and dialogue is well written. But the real yardstick for how well a game is designed is how long it holds the player’s attention. Half-Life (the original) was an 8 hour game for me. So was Half-Life 2. Medal of Honor (the latest installment) was only a 4 hour game. Sniper Elite V2 was only 3. But Borderlands 2? So far, 30 hours. Beaten only by Fallout New Vegas at 33 hours, but I haven’t finished all the side quests yet in B2. Add on top of that the downloadable content that’s coming and you’ve easily got yourself 40 solid hours of gameplay.

I loved this game. It was an excellent sequel to an already excellent game, with many improvements and an all-star cast. My only regret was that it had to end. For now. Until they release the “downloadable content” that will extend the game yet further.

Borderlands 2
Price: $60
Available on: PC (Steam), Xbox 360, PS3

Overall Rating: * * * * *
Can’t wait for the DLC to start flowing…