Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Borderlands 2

Post-Launch Review
Borderlands 2 (PC)
Developer: Gearbox Software
Released: September 2012

Note before we get started: links to DLC reviews are in the "Post Launch" section.


A follow-up to the first action-RPG FPS, Borderlands 2 is set five years after the opening of the Vault. A mysterious and powerful element called eridium appeared after the vault opened, and Handsome Jack took advantage and struck it rich, buying out the Hyperion weapons corporation. Now Jack rules Pandora, seeking to open a new Vault that will give him ultimate power, and destroying anyone that gets in his way... like you, a new vault hunter, teaming up with the original crew to stop Jack.

At Launch

Borderlands 2 received average review scores of 90%. The game's RPG systems (loot and levelling) were praised, as were the humour and visual style. Some critics were disappointed in the relative lack of visual customization and item trading.

Post Launch

The game has been updated with bug fixes and patches, and there have been many add-ons for Borderlands 2, likely with more to come. I'll have a review of DLC up hopefully next week; only had time to make it through the main game for this post.
  • Currently 2 additional playable characters have been released: Gaige the mechromancer and Krieg the psycho. 
  • There are also 4 major story mission packs: Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt, Mr Torgue's Campaign of Carnage (review of those two here) Captain Scarlett and her Pirate's Booty, and Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep (both reviewed here). 
  • The Creature Slaughterdome adds an arena
  • The Collector's Edition Pack adds customization and a grenade
  • The Ultimate Vault Hunter's Upgrade Pack allows you to level up 11 more times
  • There are a bunch of inexpensive cosmetic packs that add character customization options
  • The Season Pass contains the four currently released add-on mission packs as well as the Vault Hunter Upgrade.

The Good

Art Direction
Like its predecessor, Borderlands 2 makes use of a very comic-book-like visual style: heavy black borders and lines with very colourful, well-defined but cartoony textures and details. There are a lot more environments in the sequel, and that really helps the visuals in terms of variety and colour. The first game took place almost entirely in arid desert areas, so there was a lot of tan and brown. It helped the characters and enemies stand out, but got repetitive. Borderlands 2 has glaciers, tundra, and alpine areas in addition to the dusty zones, so there's a lot of blue, white, and green added to the palette. This is one of those games that will look great long after its time for its emphasis on style over realism.
This game is hilarious in that off-the-wall ridiculous kind of way - one of my favourite kinds of humour if done well, and Borderlands 2 certainly does it well. It's hard to summarize so I'll just drop some examples:
  • When you're introduced to the new vault hunters, the game shows you splash screens for Axton as the commando, Maya as the siren, Salvador as the gunzerker, and Zer0 as ...a number.
  • Claptrap cheerfully tells you that he's actually very depressed and only sounds happy because it's his default voice program.
  • Moxxi has you retrieve some rather saucy photos of her... so she can put them on the internet
  • Lilith accidentally melts a bunch of guys with her brain and she freaks out... because it's so awesome
  • To show you how rich he is, Handsome Jack impulse-buys a diamond pony and names it Buttstallion
  • Doctor Zed wants you to research the mysterious bullet wounds left by a new weapon by making more bullet wounds with said weapon
  • Marcus, when you leave his vending machines: "Goodbye friend! If you shop anywhere else I'll have you killed!"
Guns & Loot
Borderlands combines FPS action with the loot drops and levelling of an action RPG, to excellent effect. The ridiculous variety of guns is amazing. Almost all loot is generated at random, assigning various attributes and abilities, with rarer guns getting better stats and bonuses. As an example of how crazy it can get, I'm currently using an assault rifle that shoots grenades, one that holds a clip of 360 fire lasers, and an SMG that shoots bouncy purple energy balls that increase how much damage the target takes. 
One downside of the first game is that a lot of weapons were kind of useless - a lot of stat combinations were just garbage. Borderlands 2 does it better. Not sure exactly how they tweaked the distribution, but one thing I definitely noticed: in the first game the guns of each weapons manufacturer had their own little quirks or bonuses, which were mostly some added percentage points to an attribute or two. In the sequel the different manufacturers all provide a unique ability to their guns: Hyperion guns get more accurate as you hold down the trigger, Maliwan guns always have an elemental effect, and a better one than usual; and Tediore guns... well, they're awesome: when you reload, you throw the gun and it explodes like a grenade. But somehow you still have the gun. I don't know how that works, but it's awesome.
There wasn't much to the story in the first Borderlands, where pretty much the entire plot was "you're treasure hunters searching for the Vault". In fact, I felt like some of the DLC packs had a stronger plot than the full game. But Borderlands 2 does better - even the setup is more in-depth. Handsome Jack has bought the Hyperion weapons corporation after getting rich off the eridium that came out of the Vault, and he's discovered that there are in fact more vaults. A new wave of vault hunters has arrived on Pandora... but Jack is having all of them killed. You manage to escape, and discover that Jack is trying to release and control a "warrior" (counterpart to the destroyer from the first game) that will basically make him the most powerful man in the universe. Jack is a giant asshole, so it's up to you and the original vault hunter crew to stop Jack. With that different framework, it feels more like you're actually progressing towards a goal, where in comparison most of the story steps in the first game were "find another vault clue" or something. Also, the best characters from the first game return and all show up in one place (Sanctuary).
The playable characters each have their own distinct personality and visual style, and play very differently from each other. My first playthrough is as Salvador, the gunzerker, but I want to replay the game to try some of the other characters (especially the mechromancer and the psycho). The skill trees have some awesome stuff in them - for example, I've built my gunzerker to use assault rifles and SMGs with massive clip and reserve ammo bonuses, and to never run out of ammo. But you could also build him for pistols or as a crazy tank, or some combination of those.
Handsome Jack
Jack is hilarious and awesome. A lot of the time he comes across as a megalomaniacal psychopath caricature, but in a really funny way - for example, showing you how rich he is by buying a diamond pony and naming it Buttstallion (not a pony statue made of diamonds, but a living diamond pony. What.). But he's also got some nuance to him. Sometimes he gets deadly serious and sounds actually quite dangerous. Anyway, he harasses you over the radio for the entire game. Unable to get a fix on your position most of the time, he constantly calls you up to talk about how stupid you are or how awesome he is. Every line is great, and the voice acting is fantastic.
Golden Keys
You start the game with a handful of golden keys. These unlock a special golden chest in Sanctuary that gives you very rare and powerful loot, scaled to your level at the time you open the chest. That's cool. But the clever part is that you can obtain codes for more keys by following Gearbox's social media accounts. It's a sneaky way to increase their social media penetration while simultaneously awarding awesome weapons. Check out this site for an archive of codes that still work, which is updated as new ones come out - I got something like 40 keys just copy/pasting these codes.

Borderlands 2 has some very nice environmental music. It's very atmospheric without needing to be epic or melodic. It's nice.
Performance & Optimization
Like with most PC games, I had to fiddle with the settings of the original Borderlands to balance appearance and frame rate. But it looks like Gearbox put in some serious work to optimize Borderlands 2 for PC - when I booted up the game the first time it autodetected to max settings, so I worried I'd have to fiddle and turn things down. When I tried it out, though it ran perfectly. Awesome.
What's better than all of this cool stuff? Doing it with friends! Borderlands is a perfect fit for co-op, and it's a lot of fun to play with friends who are running different characters and builds, comparing loot and play style. The one downside to co-op is that playing with strangers isn't great. You're basically just dropped into the same world with no obligation or motivation to actually play together. If you leave the map, you're matched with new people on the map you went to. In that sense it's kind of like an MMO that only allows 4 people to be in the same map. Co-op with strangers tends to be less fun in a game where you all share a single objective (like Left 4 Dead, as one example).

The Bad

Lonely Last Stand
I like Borderlands' last stand mechanic - lose all your health and you drop to your knees, unable to zoom your weapon, throw grenades, or move quickly... but if you get a kill you're back on your feet. However, it's super stupid in one specific scenario: when an enemy kills you after you've killed him. Usually this means you kill a guy, get hit by a grenade, and enter last stand, though with unlucky timing it can also be caused by bullet/projectile travel time. The problem is that if you're in last stand and there's no one to kill, you can't get up - which is incredibly frustrating when you drop after clearing the area. I feel like it should be the opposite - if you're in last stand and the area is clear, you get up.
Massive Gaping Plot Hole
Handsome Jack wants you dead. That's cool. Here's the problem: his own company is constantly resurrecting you. Hyperion runs the New-U stations that serve as respawn points that eat money when they bring you back. Early on, this makes sense: you're just an annoyance and Hyperion might as well profit by killing you over and over. However, as Jack gets more and more angry at you, frustrated at his inability to kill you... why doesn't he just turn off the New-U stations? He owns them. I mean, maybe canonically you're never supposed to die, but that's completely unrealistic for just about every person who will ever play this game.

The Verdict

Recommendation: play it.
The first Borderlands combined two of my favourite game elements - shooting and character building - and threw in a healthy dose of crazy humour and visual style. Borderlands 2 is the same thing except more and better. This game is crazy all the time and it's a lot of fun to play. Also, with how different the playable characters are from each other, it's one of the few games that makes me want to play it again.

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