Rarely in my video game reviewing do I get the popular game. I seem to gravitate more towards the forgotten gem or the niche cult hit. I do not mind it of course, it has lead me to discover many awesome smaller games such as the Darkness or Mafia II. However, today the story is different. In my hands is a contender for the game of the year. A game that blends first person shooters with role playing and enough loot to make a Diablo player blush. The game happens to be the Gearbox Software smash, Borderlands 2.
The first thing you will notice dropping into the world of Pandora is the cell-shaded environment. Admittedly, I was not in love with the graphics on first sight. I thought that the frozen wastelands was not all that impressive. However, once I found my way out of the ice and the snow, like Sanctuary for example, I noticed a more lush world full of color and details. It almost acted as a reward for those who finally worked their way out of the starting zone.
The actual look and feel of the characters is something that also takes some getting used to. The odd ball and zany npcs are not always the prettiest to look at (well except for Moxxi of course, something about an insane chick in a red corset) but they really fit in and are completely appropriate to everything else you will see here. Even when many of the characters are crowded into the same space, you rarely see any clipping or graphic overlap.
However, I do have an issue or two with the monsters of Borderlands. Sometimes the results are simply fantastic like a Varkid (large winged insect often with pretty colors) or the wonderfully disgusting Stalkers (fast, reptilian creatures who can fly). But often, the creatures will seem like they almost forgot a coat of definition. Go check out Knuckle Dragger (king of the Bullymongs) or the infamous King Mong. It almost seems like somebody took a primary color and decided to go hog wild. There is a sharp contrast and this remains the major blemish to this largely wonderful graphic palette.
For a game to succeed in today’s audio department, it needs to have big bad ass sounds. Borderlands 2 certainly provides that with guns, bullets and bigger guns with bigger bullets. Sounds blaze by with the greatest of volume but not too much to make one think that they are in a war field. Environment sounds do exist but often I would find myself running up the stairs and finding somebody standing right there. Luckily most of the time, they didn’t really care until I opened fire. Oh, by the way, was it really necessary to make the “Port-a-John” treasure chests sound more realistic?
The biggest selling point of this game in the audio arena is dialogue. This game gets a ton of it and it is actually quite funny. Better than that, even though I always turn on subtitles, this is one of the few games that I did not recognize myself looking down near the bottom of the screen every so often. Even with Claptrap, your occasional robot companion. I also enjoyed the fact that many of the enemies had familiar sounds especially the psychos and midgets (and the midget psycho’s dying voice of “So Cold” “So Cold” was amazing). It helped the player to know what they were up against.
Five years ago, a band of vault hunters were lured to Pandora to find the sacred vault, a secret area that was to contain precious gems, valuables and all sorts of treasure. What they found there were just some huge and slimly tentacles. However, after they left, a character named Handsome Jack found something more precious than slime, he found a material called Eridium. Alien in nature and worth a whole lot of coin, Jack basically took over Pandora and made it his own. Well, in the present there is rumor of another vault and that is where your character starts to step in.
Lured by posters promising that there is another vault, four vault hunters make their way to Pandora. Traveling, their vehicle is ambushed and destroyed by ole Jack leaving the player out in the frozen tundra. Luckily, you are found by a Claptrap (a robot you might remember from the first adventure) and he takes you to his home. From there, he will lead you on your first adventure and many more through the land of Pandora in search of Jack, in search of a vault that will hopefully leave you with more riches than you could ever imagine.
So as mentioned, you start out as one of four characters. The names (Salvador, Maya, Axton, and Zer0) are not really unimportant, it is what they can do. Axton is the all-around Commando whose super skill is that he can deploy a huge customizable turret which will allow him to kick some major butt. Maya is a Siren who can hold her enemies in mid air and then crush them to death with her mind. Salvador is what’s known as a Gunzerker who can hold two weapons at once of any size. Finally, there is Zer0, an Assassin who sticks to the shadows and loves the art of the silent kill. In other words, Snake Eyes.
All of these classes have a skill tree (for those who have played World of Warcraft, it is extremely similar in concept and look). A commando can be able to deploy two turrets at once or set off a small nuclear blast while an assassin can go Critical Hit crazy or stick in Deception (a stealth like power) almost forever as long as he is killing enemies. It is all about how you spend your points. Often you will find a tree where you still want to spend a few points even if you are concentrating on another. For example, a Siren might spend points in Ward which helps with shields even though they are sticking with Cataclysm.
The next thing to explore is the massive amount of guns at your disposal. There are the standard pistols, shotguns, assault & sniper rifles, machine guns, and many more. Furthermore, many of them do explosive, corrosion, and electrocution damage. Heck, you can reload a weapon and the empty clip turns into a small grenade. Which brings us to grenades, basically you have your basic grenade and then get what’s known as grenade mods which turn that grenade into one that will have more damage or possibly different characteristics such as a grenade that splits into many tiny ones.
There are also various class mods which will further increase your character’s skills. Speaking of which, this game is full of loot, from guns to shields to mods to customization items that change the appearance of your character or vehicle. Ammunition does not really matter much since there are clips of all types everywhere and anywhere. It might only become low in the middle of a firefight with your favorite gun. But loot is everywhere and inside everything.
Furthermore, the player will spend in an inordinate amount of time trying to decide what to keep in their limited starting inventory (12 slots but can be increased with modifications) which never seems to be enough. Of course there is in-game currency too which amounts to dollars and Eridium which can be used as money on the black market for even cooler items. But again there never seems to be enough space in your inventory to combat the oodles of things you will find. Where the heck is a bag of holding when you need it?
There are a few minor troublesome items in the land of Pandora. The first being vehicles, sure there are about a million combinations of neutral colors (I kid, there is a nice ice blue) but the selection is very limited and furthermore are extremely difficult to maneuver. This would be okay if the vehicles weren’t required for nasty little things called timed quests. Trust me when I say this, timed quests have no business in Borderlands and will only infuriate the player trying to complete them.
Difficulty is also quite daunting especially in the earlier levels. The character will die many many times and often it will not be because of foolishness. Enemies come in packs and hit you hard. What is worse is that the enemies level up with you (to a certain point depending on area) and they respawn. Yes, you heard me correctly. They respawn whenever you turn off the game and they also respawn after certain time limits.
Here is an example scenario, but say you work your way through two or three areas being careful and getting rid of enemies. You make your way to a boss or mini-boss and unfortunately die. Well, first you will be thrown back to your last save point (there are save beacons but they don’t seem to be plentiful enough) and then there is the possibility that you will have to fight through at least the first wave of enemies again. On, one hand it helps to level your character but on the other , it is a little painful to keep attacking the same areas again and again.
The single player campaign will last about thirty hours depending on how slow you like to take things. Furthermore there are four classes (and 3 individual class combinations if you don’t mix things up) that have enough variety to at least give them a shot once you find your favorite. In addition, there are tons of optional type quests that will help you level up and increase your playing time. Thanks to its addictive personality, this is one game you will not drop anytime soon once you pick it up.
Another addictive quality of this game that adds to replay is what’s known as badass ranks. By completing various challenges (shooting a type of creature a certain number of times or killing people in a certain fashion among many other dozens of challenges), you gain badass tokens. Redeeming a badass token will allow you to increase a talent such as melee damage or shield recharge rate. In addition to that, it will apply to all characters you play, not just the one you are currently working with.
Multiplayer or co-op allows for up to four players allows for two things, the ability to find more (and better) loot and also a whole lot tougher enemies to fight through. Obviously, there is a plus and minus here in the idea that co-op play is strongly encouraged to get the best gear but single player is somewhat discouraged which is a little disheartening because that’s the way I go most of the time. However, one neat feature for co-op is that you can trade items between players which I like a lot. Too bad Borderlands has not come up with an auction house concept (For Eridium or dollars but NO real money).
The game also features fifty achievements for the standard one thousand points. A good portion of the achievements are considered secret until they are revealed. That is because those particular achievements are story related and Gearbox would like to keep that panel spoiler free. The rest of the achievements fall into groups such as explorer achievements (finding all named locations in a group of regions), class achievements (achieving something specific with each of the classes),and level achievements (level 5,10, 25 and 50).
There are several inspired achievements that are not the simple collection or story related conquest. Goliath, Meet David requires the player to allow a creature to grow to epic proportions by fighting other enemies before finally launching the killing blow themselves. Sugar Daddy requires you to tip Moxxi $10,000. This serves two purposes, the achievement points and favors from Moxxi herself (not the favors I might hope for though). Those favors come in the form of guns and other items.
One achievement that deserves special recognition is Tribute to a Vault Hunter. It involves getting an item from Michael Mamaril, an NPC in Sanctuary. It is seemingly innocent enough, but the NPC is actually a tribute to a Borderlands 1 fan who was terminally ill. When that player unfortunately passed away, his best friend (who he played Borderlands with)wrote to Gearbox hoping for them to do a eulogy by Claptrap. They not only got just that but a NPC and achievement in Borderlands 2 as well. Rarely does one see fan service such as this, and it deserves to be commended.
Note: Before going over my final thoughts, I did want to touch base with the rather poor manual. It’s only six pages long (and only four actually contain information). They even include a rather weak warning explaining that paper is expensive and print is a dead medium. Seriously? Come on, I’m not asking for the world but when you pay $60 for a game, the player does deserve to get a solid manual, not a weak warning telling the player tough luck. Anyhow, there is an online manual that is very detailed and actually taught me a couple of new things that the game and very tiny manual did not. It’s at www.2kgames.com/manual/borderlands2 if you would like to take a look.
Downloadable content will be available for this game including a premium club pass which gives the player access to a golden gun, relic, golden key (to open up awesome chests in Sanctuary), and a fifth class known as Mechromancer (think chick with a mech robot). There will also be four packs bundled together (known as a Season Pass) or purchased separately. Dedicated players will be eager to spend the points but some might wait for the inevitable Game of the Year package.
Borderlands 2 is the best game I have seen released this year. It’s addictive and engaging qualities make you want to play the game again and again while testing new characters and combinations of skill trees. The amount of loot will make many players happy but also sad when they realize they do not have enough space in their backpack to carry it all (even if they are just heading back to a vendor to sell it). It can also be difficult, but the rewards are quite worth it.
The story is also top notch and will engage you from an adventure and humor standpoint. The only negatives in my opinion really revolve around the vehicles and a few assorted graphical limitations. I give this game a very high recommendation and a slight warning. It will be difficult at first, and many times along the way. However, if you give it a chance, you will love the experience. Have fun Vault Hunters.