'Borderlands 2' Revisits the Gun-Filled World of 'Borderlands.' Is That Really Enough?

HERE WE GO AGAIN: Gearbox Software’s long-awaited RPG-shooter Borderlands 2 fails to really explore any new territory, either in the desert world of Pandora or in its own gameplay.

HERE WE GO AGAIN: Gearbox Software’s long-awaited RPG-shooter Borderlands 2 fails to really explore any new territory, either in the desert world of Pandora or in its own gameplay.

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!

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Comments » 6

Mantis123 writes:

To be honest, I'm not even sure that you've played the game at all from the looks of it. There are tons of improvements made in this sequel that are worth mentioning. As an RPG, you would very obviously need to play for an extended period of time to even attempt to make a judgement like this. In my experience the game is vastly superior to the original and is probably one of the best (and most addictive) games I have ever played.

cturczyn (staff) writes:

in response to Mantis123:

To be honest, I'm not even sure that you've played the game at all from the looks of it. There are tons of improvements made in this sequel that are worth mentioning. As an RPG, you would very obviously need to play for an extended period of time to even attempt to make a judgement like this. In my experience the game is vastly superior to the original and is probably one of the best (and most addictive) games I have ever played.

I'll be happy to recant if the game injects new ideas/gameplay as I finish it (though I wonder why the developers didn't just throw us some fresh bones right at the start). I do think it's an improvement on the original -- and it is certainly addictive, especially for those who didn't play the first game -- but I don't think the changes go very far. In your opinion, what are the major new elements that have made the game vastly superior?

MrNomer writes:

1.The antagonist’s name is Handsome Jack, not Captain Jack. Captain Jack would be from Pirates of the Caribbean. You would know that if you had played more of the game.

2.The evil corporation in the first game is the Atlas Corporation, not Hyperion.

3.The stories in Borderlands and Borderlands 2 are quite different. I will admit that at the end the journey you do fight something that emerges from the Vault, but the paths you take to get there are very different. Handsome Jack’s motivation for sending countless waves of robots changes radically approximately halfway into the game, as does the original Vault Hunters' motivation for fighting Hyperion. I would say more, but I don’t want to spoil the game for you.

4.How can you review a game with accuracy if you have not completed it? That’s like saying Citizen Kane is a terrible movie after watching the first two minutes. Frankly, it’s bad journalism.

cturczyn (staff) writes:

in response to MrNomer:

1.The antagonist’s name is Handsome Jack, not Captain Jack. Captain Jack would be from Pirates of the Caribbean. You would know that if you had played more of the game.

2.The evil corporation in the first game is the Atlas Corporation, not Hyperion.

3.The stories in Borderlands and Borderlands 2 are quite different. I will admit that at the end the journey you do fight something that emerges from the Vault, but the paths you take to get there are very different. Handsome Jack’s motivation for sending countless waves of robots changes radically approximately halfway into the game, as does the original Vault Hunters' motivation for fighting Hyperion. I would say more, but I don’t want to spoil the game for you.

4.How can you review a game with accuracy if you have not completed it? That’s like saying Citizen Kane is a terrible movie after watching the first two minutes. Frankly, it’s bad journalism.

Yikes -- that's a complete brain lapse on my part; thanks for the correction on the names.

But whether Atlas or Hyperion, there doesn't seem to be much of a difference between them, storywise. Which I think is part of the problem I was trying to describe.

Certainly, I would have preferred to finish the game entirely before reviewing it, but it wasn't physically possible. (I'm willing to bet a lot of reviewers of 30+ hour games don't either, but they're not so willing to admit it.) Despite those motivational changes you note in the storyline, I don't believe they make for a substantial difference in overall gameplay.

But that's just my opinion—not "journalism," per se. If you prefer to discount that opinion because I haven't completed the game to the very end, that's certainly understandable. However, I don't think the game mechanics will be much different at the end, (minus the leveled-up character skills).

Mantis123 writes:

Some of the more prominent changes in the sequel are:
1.) Greater variation between weapon manufacturers and overall feel.
2.) More interesting and enjoyable use of comedy in dialogue
3.) More diverse environments (less of a desert feel)
4.) Better character classes and more diverse skill choices, making co-op more interesting and rewarding.
5.) More diverse and interesting enemies, with more intelligent AI and unique qualities
6.) A refined inventory and menu system
7.) Better emphasis on story (although not massively so)

I don't feel that the game truly needs to be finished to review it correctly...but at least nearing the end game will give you a fuller understanding of the benefits each skill tree may offer and how the guns and accessories (relics, class mods, grenades etc.) have changed to make the game a much more rewarding experience. Many of the new features in the game aren't even mentioned in my list, such as the golden keys, the hidden bosses, frequency of DLC content, and more I'm fairly certain I'm missing. No-one can dispute that the addition of new character classes makes the game a lot more interesting as well, and considering that Bad*** points apply to all you characters...it encourages multiple playthroughs with different characters. Also, the addition of Slag (a new element that acts as a damage multiplier) makes things a lot more interesting.

Mantis123 writes:

Also, Borderlands 2 has definitely improved on sidequests. What might originally appear to be a standard "fetch quest" often turns into something more interesting and unique. I never really felt I was mindlessly grinding as I played through it the first time. The second playthrough "True Vault hunter mode" is increasingly challenging and interesting as you go, and I'm contstantly finding new ways that I appreciate the game further. Little easter eggs like a section where you fight "Rakkman" (a reference to batman), a section structured like Minecraft (complete with breakable blocks, Endermen and new unlockable skins and heads as loot based on Minecraft), talking guns, guns that make your controller vibrate, and many others make the game unique. Raid bosses designed for level 50 co-op play and insane arena sections with waves of enemies keep the game fresh.

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