Sometimes, revisiting a dream can be more satisfying than the original experience. You're in familiar terrain this time, albeit one shaped according to the predilections of your misshapen psyche. But even if it's one of those high-anxiety nightmares where it's final-exam day for a required class that you forgot to attend all year—and your pants are mysteriously missing, along with your underwear—you know this is a dream you've already figured out. You can anticipate what's coming next, no matter how horrible, and you can navigate the storyline, maybe even change things for the better this time around. It becomes a test: Can you outsmart your own unrestrained imagination?
Sadly, there are few such mental challenges in the nightmare world of Borderlands 2. It is the exact same nightmare world of the first Borderlands from 2009, and nothing you can do will change the sequence of events unfurling beneath your trigger fingers. You're stuck in the same game you already played before, the one you beat years ago. This is not a dreadful fate, exactly, but it's certainly not what was promised by a couple years' worth of hype and near-universal acclaim upon release. Rather than transcending the original Borderlands with a new story, new challenges, and new gameplay—or at least some variations, which is pretty much the baseline requirement for sequel success—Borderlands 2 serves up nearly the exact same story, same challenges, and same gameplay. Consider it the largest and most expensive DLC add-on you'll ever buy.
Of course, the gaming universe is overrun with disappointing sequels. What makes this one especially noteworthy is that the first Borderlands was such a surprisingly fresh experience—you got the sense that the game designers were just grazing its potential on their first outing. Developer Gearbox Software combined the slow-burn character building of an RPG (you choose your character from four different types, then add abilities as you level up), the immediate action of a first-person shooter, and the loot-acquiring fervor of a hack-and-slash dungeon crawl—and it all worked together well. Although set in the arid desert world of Pandora (and arid desert worlds all pretty much look the same), it nevertheless felt like someplace new due to its cartoon visual style and eminently death-worthy foes.
If Borderlands had a particular weakness, it was that the guns were more interesting than the characters—even your character. Or maybe that was its strength? With a reputed 17 million-plus different gun combinations randomly available, the game became an endless quest to find improved firepower. To heck with such subtleties as a "story" or even "scenarios"—let's just open every damn crate on the planet until we find a missile launcher with a faster reload time. Tedious? Sure. But oh, the satisfaction of finally attaining serious weaponry to lay waste to those annoying desert mutants.
So, just imagine if the game developers took this promising start and evolved it into a truly interactive adventure tale. What if there were terrains to explore other than barren desertscape? What if there were distinct alien cultures to examine? What if there were characters you could converse with and unlock an involving story? What if there were things at stake that you could actually care about as a player—things bigger than simply "destroy psychos base camp #243 and retrieve item #162"? Well, that's what we were assured in an untold number of preview articles. But I have yet to discover any such advancements as I play through Borderlands 2.
The storyline is pretty much the same: You are a Vault Hunter newly landed on the lawless world of Pandora and you are there to hunt down a secret vault. (No, not the same vault from the original game—this one contains a super warrior, not a super weapon.) Your nemesis is Handsome Jack of the Hyperion Corporation—not the Atlas Corporation like before, but is there a difference? Well, Handsome Jack is a lot more sarcastic and makes funnier threats over your communication device. Jack wants to find the vault first and control its warrior, so he is constantly trying to kill off his competition, which includes you. This time there is a resistance force that you can join, though they mostly just tell you to fetch things.
Admittedly, I haven't had the spare 30 hours required to complete Borderlands 2. Perhaps loads of new content will be unleashed near the end, but I have yet to experience any material differences from the original. There are some new enemies that are fun, and overall their AI is smarter than before—and some of them fly helicopters, which is cool. We've got more NPCs with the good-guy Crimson Raiders at their home base of Sanctuary, but they don't really have much to say. Some of the battle settings are more elaborate, but the overall graphics quality appears unchanged. (It was high to begin with.) Claptrap the robot is still very silly.
So what are you getting for your $60? The chance to revisit Pandora and engage in slightly different, slightly better missions. For absolute fans of the original, that may be satisfactory. For the rest of us, it's yet another familiar sequel with a familiar sense of disappointment.
Corrected: The villain's name is "Handsome Jack," not "Captain Jack." Oy!