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- Borderlands 2
- CLR [rating:4.0]
Release Date: September 18th (US) – 21st (AU/EU), 2012
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Genre: Minimally Multiplayer Online RPG-FPS Loot Grab
ESRB: M for “Mature”
Campaign Running Time: 10 Hours (Story) to 80 (All Quests)
Auteurs Attached: Randy Pitchford, Mikey Neumann, Anthony Burch
A Deuxliciously Dangerous Titanic Anchored by Lunatic Antics
I can’t exactly say I was a fan of the first Borderlands.
While the premise of “Diablo meets Doom on Texattooine”, had promise, I’m just not the type who likes to grind away for hours beating at (as Tycho of Penny Arcade eloquently described the genre) “digital piñatas” in the hopes of finding a new piece of “uber loot” that has higher numbers than the numbers I already have. I find the constant pausing of the action to compare and contrast statistics in menus as tedious as DMV waiting lines, and the OCD collector mentality that the randomly generated “87 Bazillion” guns requires to find compelling is something I simply lack.
There were other problems too. Borderlands was balanced as well as a Jenga set on ship in a storm: half the status effects were useless, the enemy AI stopped at “A”, and the player characters were overpowered enough to be in the mid-nineties CCG bearing the same name (especially Lilith). It was so easy that taping your controller to a blind mongoose and shaking some maracas at it would beat the final boss given enough time.
Then there was the tone. Its particular brand of low brow, space western mischief suffered from a long development cycle, starting realistic and dark before morphing into an all too sane “zaniness” to muddled effect, complete with a sense of humor so forced it became obnoxious. Plus, the plot (threadbare as it was) tried being grandiose and mystical but culminated in a payoff so poor it should’ve come with a SNAP card.
Thus it comes as a bit of a shock that, fully expecting my low expectations for the sequel to stay low enough throughout to win a limbo contest, I actually like the game! Especially considering the core gameplay loop – shooting foes and collecting piles of random “loot” in huge maps within an archaic quest structure – is fundamentally unchanged. How is this possible?
Well, somewhere along the line Gearbox stopped making “real” games, and started parodying them instead – which might explain Duke Nukem Forever come to think of it – and in Borderlands 2 they flipped the tonal ratio. This is one of the few action comedies in gaming that not only succeeds at being hilarious, but thanks to the inclusion of a masterful villain (and the writer behind him), manages to craft just enough effective drama to be taken seriously without becoming maudlin in the process. Basically, if there’s a reason you should be playing Borderlands 2 right now, it isn’t for the loot, or the combat, or the co-op – it’s for Handsome Jack.
Set five years after the events of the original, Borderlands 2 opens similarly: with a flashy introductory music video showing off our “heroes.” I use the term loosely, as this new band of “vault hunters” seeking fortune on Pandora is composed of decidedly less than heroic killers. Coldblooded Assassin Zer0, hot blooded, rampaging “Gunzerker” Salvador, sharp tongued mercenary Commando Axton, and the self-righteous “Siren” (a Carrie-like psychic) Maya are all folks firmly in the gray category of a black and white morality scale, making the theme song, “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy all too fitting.
Even before the song finishes, our decidedly less-than-decent protagonists are rudely blown to kingdom come by the main man himself – Handsome Jack proves to be a force to be reckoned with right off the bat. This is just the beginning, as Jack continually traps you in dire situations over the course of the lengthy narrative, firmly establishing credibility as an effective villain. Yet the primary source of his antagonism aren’t these predictable attempts on your life, but rather his repeated heckling.
As with BioShock’s Andrew Ryan or Portal’s GLaDOS, Jack is an ever-present annoyance over the radio, constantly being an enormous trolling douchebag, but to uproarious effect. Whether bragging about his vast wealth while eating stale pretzels, giving five second lunch breaks to his punch clock goons, or actually bribing you to kill yourself, head writer Anthony Burch paints Jack as the definitive out of touch, yet dangerously intelligent corporate raider, tapping into a reserve of irreverent angst against the wealthy elite who control not only the far-flung future Borderlands resides in, but our modern world as well. Jack’s forceful, “love to hate him” personality makes for the perfect all too human monster to center the game’s black humor around; there’s nary a worthwhile moment that occurs over the narrative that doesn’t have the fingerprints of his lubricious machinations all over them.
Burch’s excellent writing is the game’s defining improvement over the first foray on Pandora, but Jack isn’t the sole example, he simply moors the game with an all-too valuable motivation to shoot a bad guy in the head. The rest of the game’s enormous secondary cast of new and surviving characters from the first game show up as NPCs and they’ve been given new life and (often violent) vitality. You’ll be chumming around with a 13-year old demolitions expert so hyperactive she gives Honey Boo Boo a run for her money, a cybernetic gentleman explorer with a penchant for childish name calling, and a malfunctioning robot attaching stolen limbs to his chassis in an attempt to become “a real boy” as you traipse around the planet trying to stop Jack, and the various tasks they send you on are manic dreams of pure lunacy.
At some point, perhaps in the middle of a gun battle against bandits protected by shields reinforced with angry midgets or while firing your talking sniper rifle that guilt-trips you whenever you fell any of your disposable foes out for your equally disposable head, you realize that sanity was thankfully left off of the “things to include in our game” checklist. Every other mission presents you with a ridiculous goal or scenario of utter parody – a favorite being a mission to shoot an evil sheriff without killing her deputy – and if you tried counting the myriad pop-culture references and shout outs in the quest text, throw away lines of dialogue, and background art alone, you’d end up with a number higher than the national debt.
While it’s a “throw everything at the wall” approach to what’s usually blacker than coal comedy, there are more hits than misses and the end result, when mixed with the occasional bits of pathos, is an impressively dense frivolity. This is a game with layers to it; most of them thin, but there’re just so many that you’re far more likely to end up grinning than facepalming.
At least if you can hold out long enough.
For a big problem with BL2, is that most of its best material doesn’t show up till about five to fifteen hours in (depending on sidequest completion). The initial icy tundra you start in is comparatively tame to the gonzo gratuitousness later on, and if you find the core “kill guys, grab loot, compare stats, repeat” gameplay loop, mostly unchanged from the first title, unsatisfying there’s a good chance that you’ll lose interest before things heat up. Especially since it’s this area – the actual shooting in this First-Person Shooter – that shows only minor improvement over the first.
Some of the major balance issues of BL1 are addressed, but there are still plenty of kinks. Thanks to improvements to both enemy AI and diversity and making status effects more relevant with the inclusion of armored foes and “slag” (a damage multiplier), BL2 is both more challenging and engaging when a firefight breaks out every forty six seconds. But while the new skill trees and combat roles are both better defined and aren’t as dominating, one character’s still much stronger than the rest (Salvador, the Gunzerker), and if you actually do most of the side quests as they appear it’s pretty easy to get over leveled to the point that the improved challenge factor is trivialized yet again.
This over leveling stems from uneven progression pacing and if it doesn’t occur in the first act it’s bound to happen in the second when the player gets drowned in an avalanche of side quests. Granted, a lot of these missions contain some of the best moments in the game humor-wise, but if you actually do most of them it drains their gameplay potency, turning them into padding. Enjoyable padding perhaps, like wearing a sumo-suit in a bounce house, but padding nonetheless.
Of course these balance problems are temporarily erased if you hop online with a buddy and the enemies are ramped up to remain competitive, but good luck with that. Without any system to even out level discrepancies, having a balanced session requires that you play characters relatively close to each other in experience, which really only occurs starting out or when you’ve maxed out at the limit after a second playthrough. For good or ill, there’s very little change from the first entry when it comes to online play.
Also unchanged is the core Borderlands philosophy.
At the end of the day, this is a game formed around the psychology of collection and hooking the player into an addiction for more of it. The miniscule chance to find “epic” randomized items spilling from the collapsed chest cavities of the foes you mow down, the sweet lull of “gambling with guns” essentially, is the focus. More so than the humorous tone, the murderous fun of the battles, or even Handsome Jack, these inconsequential digital inanimate objects are truly the stars of the show.
If you’re like my colleague Laura who, as displayed in her review of Diablo 3, finds such design, such a focus on reinforcing mindless consumer tendencies recklessly irresponsible, then you should stay clear before Gearbox gives you a rage aneurism. If you’re like me though, and have weathered enough games of this ilk to find the cynical mental manipulation as inviting as a cold shower on a January morning, but not dangerous, then you should probably check the game out. At least you’ll have the pleasantly nutty atmosphere and compellingly chaotic characters to hang your hat on.
For though the primary function of Pandora remains the same – being a virtual casino of violence – Borderlands 2 is such a massive improvement over its parent that it retroactively apologizes for many mistakes Gearbox or its CEO Randy Pitchford have made in the past, even that hissy fit he threw over Fallout 3, and makes one of the best cases for having good writers on a game that I’ve ever seen. While it’s by no means perfect, it’s still an adventure so rock solid, so clever, that it achieves what few sequels manage to do and elevates the original game’s importance, if only as a necessary stepping stone to its own greatness.
Besides, you wouldn’t want to miss out on Handsome Jack, who’s easily on the shortlist for year’s greatest villain, now would you?
What kind of person are you to let such an obliviously arrogant One Percenter with a disdain for the common man take over a free world using his vast riches and corporate power without at least trying to stop him?
Wait. Don’t answer that. I think I’m about to find out in a month.