Look, Gearbox, I think you’ve gone too far. Yes, we all want sequels to be better than the originals. We want them to take what we loved and spit out what we hated. We hope for everything to be bigger, better and more badass than it was before. But this is ridiculous. You’ve created some sort of monster. It has hundreds of metal arms, each one firing laser beams, smack-talking robots and ice-powered bullets into the air. Some of the gun arms are firing smaller guns. A huge mouth spews torrents of wit and critical hit percentages. The world looked up and shouted “Give us a better version of Borderlands!”… and you looked down and whispered “What about a bullet-riddled, pop culture-drenched, ear-thumping gun party?”
Borderlands was a bit rubbish. Fun in bursts, but prolonged play showed the cracks. The core concept was always an amazing idea: a first-person shooter grafted onto the twitching torso of an RPG, hundreds of thousands of different guns dropping from a plethora of enemies, levelling up to become the undisputed Sheriff of Bullet Town. But the environments were incredibly dull, the enemies weren’t varied enough, the classes all played kind of the same aside from their moderately cool special powers, and there were so few characters it felt like you were a lonely kid in a very big sandbox.
It seems Gearbox agreed, because Borderlands 2 fixes absolutely everything. The opening cinematic telegraphs the changes loud and clear. A skag (horribly annoying dog thing) is hit by a bandit buggy; then, just as you’re settling in for more of the same, everything gets hit by a goddamn magnet train. We pan from the boring, old desert to a snow-covered wasteland. Four new vault hunters, bristling with personality, ride the train. They are immediately attacked by funky, yellow robots. And a bomb shaped like the villain: Handsome Jack.
Left for dead in a snow dune, your fun begins. Far from the desolate, perfunctory opening of the first game, you’ll quickly be tasked with fighting small armies of space gorillas and liberating a small town so a British cyborg can perform eye surgery. Later, you’ll liberate political prisoners from enemy strongholds, hunt down car parts and uncover the deep, dark secrets of Pandora. All so you can get revenge on Handsome Jack, and stop him from doing very bad things in the name of the almighty space dollar. The main quest is legitimately interesting this time around rather than just acting as a dangling digital carrot. Even the sidequests are overflowing with variety, with chances to infiltrate cults, collect medical samples, track down telling audio recordings and take midgets from A to B for very important reasons. Borderlands is definitely still a game about guns and the gunning gunners who gun them, but it does an excellent of entertaining you in other ways while things die.
The first-person shooter part of this FPS-RPG-LOL-BFF is delightful. Guns feel appropriately meaty, chunky, spiked, powerful, or whatever else they’re supposed to be. Like the previous game, there are pistols, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and rocket launchers. But with “bazillions” of gun combinations on offer, that’s only the start of the story. Without playing for too long you’ll find pistols that shoot electric bullets, assault rifles which eject quickfire bursts of bouncing grenades and shotguns that – bizarrely and somewhat uselessly – have sniper scopes. Different manufacturers even have their own quirks, such as all Tediore weapons exploding when they reload.
Which neatly sums up the mad gameplay in Borderlands 2. It’s a game where you throw guns at the enemy so they can explode, then a new gun magically appears in your hands.
Along with the expanded selection of guns and bombs, there are new enemies all over the damn place. Bandits are back, along with the loveable psychos and midgets; but they’re joined by shield-bearing nomads, marauders and clown-faced goliaths. The latter are beefy characters that can suck up a lot of damage, and have the unfortunate habit of going into a berserker rage if you foolishly go for a headshot. On the even less human side of things there are yeti-like bullymongs, huge birds and gigantic flaming squid creatures. I’m choosing to ignore the dilution of the term when I say this game has some epic encounters. Not only are ridiculously massive brutes involved, a grand sense of adventure fills the soul when you fight – and eventually best – your foes.
It’s these larger battles which make me kind of like Borderlands 2’s respawn system. Leaving an area will generally make everything pop back in, living and well. In the first Borderlands this was an absolute nightmare, as respawns happened thick and fast. Any fun you were having was sucked out by moving back to the start of a map and having to fight eleventy thousand mooks for the third or fourth time.
Respawning of enemies happens a little more sparingly this time around, although it’s still a real bastard to be forced to fight through an area you just finished all over again. The upside, aside from more things to shoot, is the chance to go up against those bosses all over again without starting a whole new game.
Not that you won’t want to start over anyway. Far from the classes of Borderlands 1 (Soldier Guy, Sniper Guy, Big Guy and Magic Lady), the four possibilities this time around are brimming with both personality and playability. Having to replay a game multiple times is nothing new for a reviewer, but I can’t say I ever enjoyed it quite this much. I’ve played the first dozen or so hours five times now – thanks to newly released Mechromancer class – and I could happily do it another five times.
Each class has its own ups and downs, and I could recommend each to different players. The Commando is the replacement for the Soldier, and has a general high proficiency with all weapons. And he has a turret, which makes him great for players deciding to enter Pandora alone, or anyone like my lovely wife who isn’t so confident in their shooty-shoot-shoot skills. The Siren can execute a phaselock, which essentially freezes an enemy in place (or turns them against their allies at higher levels). I completed my solo run as a Siren sniper, and the combination of a freezing skill with a critical headshot wasn’t old even 40 hours on. The Assassin, Zer0 – otherwise known as the character everyone else always wants to play – is a load of fun either alone or in a group. He can create decoys and turn invisible, with his damage rate significantly rising while cloaked. You know, space ninja stuff.
The final main class, the Gunzerker, got a lot of press before release, but I was a little underwhelmed. The dual-wielding dwarf maniac is quite enjoyable in a group, as you charge in guns blazing with stacks of health and shield power. Alone, the Gunzerker becomes little more than a guy with a lot of guns, and I quickly got bored with his antics as I itched to switch back to turrets, psychic powers or badass assassin skills.
Each class does have a tonne of skills to unlock, and they’re all appropriately mental. Right from the start you’re given access to three unique tiers and abilities like bullet reflection, massive melee damage or creating barrages of rockets. No matter your style, you’re sure to find something to focus on. Unless you don’t like guns. The only issue with the skills is how damn long it takes to unlock them. You get one skill point for each level, but most skills take at least five upgrades before the next tier is unlocked. Which means you’re unlikely to mix and match if you want to get to the real meat.
I’d like to personally shake the hand of whoever made sure split-screen co-op stayed in the game on consoles. I have as many people on the internet that I pretend to be friends with as the next guy, but sometimes I do like to play with real humans on my real couch. When you do get online, things are pretty rosy. The game keeps track of where you’re up to and your level when evaluating the suitability of a co-op partner, making sure you don’t unknowingly get stuck with someone far ahead or behind. Loot gets better and battles get noticeably harder with one or more fellow hunters, to the point where it can feel like an entirely different game.
Oh, it’s not enough for you to have a bunch of guns and classes and numbers spurting from people’s necks like arcane blood mathematics? Does it help that Borderlands 2 is one of the most charming and witty games in a good while? While the original was occasionally worth a chuckle between long, long stretches of desert travel, Borderlands 2 rarely stops bombarding the player with genuinely hilarious lines. Characters randomly interject with their opinions on the situation, pop culture references ping this way and that and there are puns. Everywhere. Psychos run headlong at you, axe high, while screaming that they love you. Robots dance. One of the custom skins for the Gunzerker is called Red Dwarf – and the colours are actually the colours of Red Dwarf.
And it’s prettier than a bag of paint. Away from the old deserts and abandoned western towns, you’ll visit fire-breathing metal dragons on the top of snowy mountains. Sanctuary, a major hub and home to le resistance du jour, is quite a bustling metropolis, with all manner of people wandering around. This is a place I’d actually like to live, despite all the space bombardments and robot murder. I also just kind of want to bone Lilith. She might be the best character the game has, actually, with her social awkwardness and closet homicidal tendencies. Handsome Jack is another standout, styled as a villain for the times who is most certainly evil, but in the service of business.
Quite simply, it’s a bloody joy to play. I was far from a fan of the original Borderlands, but I could see what Gearbox were trying to do with it. Borderlands 2 is a glorious realisation of that potential; a game I could happily spend hundreds of hours inside and still be at the peak of excitement. The guns are ridiculous, the characters are adorably mad, the environments are flipping gorgeous and the action is explosive enough that I can’t really play it with my windows open, lest I get a call from the police. Borderlands 2 is the most fun I’ve ever had behind a trigger, and it’s set to suck away even more of my time in the future. Don’t miss it.