Borderlands 2 is abounding in environmental diversity, presentation marking one of its greatest strengths. One moment, chilly tundra are explored, characterized by sheets of ice, some spanning frigid waters, others literally clinging to walls, forming an almost crystal like substance, while everything is tinged in an inviting shade of blue. An expansive draw distance helps convey the magnanimity of these environments, even as that magnanimity is sometimes illusory, with a fair degree of invisible walls present. The mentioned diversity only elevates the presentation further; just as soon as those tundra explored, next made available are wildly different desertscapes, a shining sun blazing brightly overhead, in stark contrast to what immediately came before. In a remarkable stroke, this diversity coalesces into one compelling whole, rather than clashing in dissonance, speaking much of Pandora, the planet explored, inviting and beautiful in some places, oppressive and hostile in others. So excellent are these environments, a sense of giddiness arises, constant excitement over precisely what environments will be explored next. Interior environments – typically highly detailed – help stave off the repetitious, breaking from the sprawling nature of the game’s principal maps. In an odd stroke, though, many of these environments are not visited in the campaign proper – the developers’ bolder displays of creativity and whimsicality are entirely optional, a frustrating admission. Lakes of acid dominate one environment, another serving as a derelict mining town, picture of Pandora’s relative decline. Exploring these environments contribute to the game’s sense of world-building; to obtain a total picture of Pandora, such environments must be explored.
The motivations for such exploration are presented from the first, with the prompt introduction of primary antagonist, the bizarre Handsome Jack, his introduction grounding the game, providing it a calculated sense of focus. While not menacing in the traditional sense, instead gravitating towards the humorous and obnoxious, something enigmatically appealing is attached to his figure, reflecting its possible depth, as if that obnoxiousness is a façade to conceal an internal pain – Jack is not completely one-dimensional, even as his motivations are cliched. Driving him is access to the mythical vault, containing wealth and power, a power he personally seeks to exploit for his own warped means, that Vault being home to a ferocious creature – the Warrior. Already abounding in wealth, this lust for power shows a certain greediness, Handsome Jack displaying his villainy even here, devoted to obtaining power solely for power’s sake, this pettiness of motivation being detrimental to his character. Despite his fearsome presence, which he consistently asserts as the narrative progresses onward, it seems impossible for him to ever surmount that pettiness, existing as the villain because all effective fiction needs a villain.
To combat Jack and his swelling power, a resistance group is gradually assembled – or reassembled, the principal members being characters from the prior game, introduced here and provided with considerable depth, depth which was lacking in Borderlands, great likability accompanying that depth, their bantering compelling, while all receive excellent voice acting. Lilith the Siren is recruited first, her true powers having awakened upon the opening of the first Vault. Fighting alongside her is a glorious affair, overflowing with power as she is; droves and droves of enemies spawn, and her power – coupled with the current Vault Hunter’s – results in an easily won victory – her strength is immense, a useful ally, a natural leader. The true leader of the Crimson Raiders, though, is Roland the Solider; initially presented as trapped in a prison cell, his escape is orchestrated by Lilith and the Vault Hunter. Once recruited, the Resistance begins to gain in strength. A strong if implicit statement is here made – the necessity of recruiting such figures indirectly conveys the extent of Jack’s power; victory over that villain can only arise by unity; and so unity is sought, a group of five individuals needed to best one man.
Lending their own strengths to the cause are Mordecai and his pet, Bloodwing, the latter warped and ultimately destroyed by Jack’s machinations, another illustration of his vileness, indifferent to the relationship forged between man and bird. The final recruit is Brick, a hulking mass of flesh, with somewhat exaggerated voice acting and gruffness, though he is made likable from that exaggeration, looking at matters violently, determined to settle things by effective employment of the fist. Seeing this team assembled is remarkably satisfying, reflecting the growing nature of the game’s hub world, Sanctuary. Visited very early in the campaign, it is peopled by other central figures from the prior game – Marcus the greedy merchant is here, as is the erratic Doctor Zed and the sultry Moxxi. These figures are not abounding in dialogue, but their presence is still appreciated, attempts made at painting Sanctuary as a thriving city; this quickly proves flawed, even as the resistance is morphable, growing always. This failing arises when regarding the namelessness of many other NPC’s, with nothing substantial to contribute, merely serving to flesh out the city, a rather great failing; here is no intimate relationship between the Vault Hunters and the common man. But when regarding the swelling size of the Crimson Raiders, a sense of compelling progression emerges, that with every recruit, Jack’s defeat become more and more tangible – victory is achievable, after the mass has been assembled and strengthened.
This commanding sense of progression characterizes greatly the gameplay, character advancements made always. As player character, I chose Maya the Siren, her action skill being the useful Phaselock. Powerful from the first, its strengths and flexibilities are only heightened as the narrative progresses, becoming central tool to eventual success. In a traditional manner, level ups confer skill points, to be expended in the game’s many skill trees, separated into three key branches, each offering wildly different perks and bonuses, some plain and mundane passives, others highly useful, changing the gameplay in fundamental ways. I elected to spend the entirety of my skills into one tree, greatly bolstering Phaselock’s effectiveness in combat, by extending its duration and decreasing its cooldowns. More dramatic, though, are certain purchaseable abilities, one upgrade pulling opponents to the original target, another causing the Phaselock to latch on to another opponent if the original is defeated; the synergy of these abilities is immensely satisfying, the Maya of the early game being decidedly different from the Maya at the conclusion, she being greatly empowered. Profound if subtle depth is present here, and other players could achieve wildly different results in their character building.
Very tempting and compelling are the game’s loot systems, existing in various forms – guns are perhaps the most desired objects, though shield, grenade mods, and even class mods can be obtained, granting further player freedom, some of these objects having their own substantial alterations to gameplay. Spotting a gun in the distance, or some weapons chest, crimson in coloration, was a richly rewarding affair, something tantalizing existing around every corner, the greatest draw being the game’s “legendary weapons,” oftentimes characterized by considerable strength, though occasionally let down by gimmicky features, lessening their effectiveness. Something compelling exists when regarding such loot, an eagerness to seize upon the gun, experiment with, and see its effectiveness in combat; it is inherently engaging by nature. A major gripe is here present, though, as the drop rates for these weapons – and even the purple rarity weapons which exist just below them – are painfully low, that sense of tantalization infrequently fulfilled. Having adjusted to this poor drop rate, the excitement accompanying the approaching of such chests is dashed, an expectation arising – all that awaits the opening of these chests is weak, totally useless guns, existing in unfair overabundance. A bit more generosity here would better the game in considerable ways, fostering a continued sense of novelty, which is gradually eroded as the campaign progresses onward.
Whether shooting an ineffective weapon or one of great power, gunplay is solid across the board – solid but not revolutionary. Weapon modelling is highly detailed, some guns being literal works of art; the developers’ immense creativity is on full display here. No lazy reskins are present, as was the case in Borderlands, where a few key weapon models were merely retextured, aesthetic variation lacking. Gun aesthetics in this title seem directly attached to rarity, a purple Jakobs weapon being completely detached from one at a lower rarity, guns which are often far less ornate or imaginative. The nature and abundance of this weapon diversity conveys the largeness of the armory proper, likely numbering in the hundreds of thousands when considering the procedural generation systems at work. Weapons are snappy, some having considerable recoil, though even the most powerful of weapons often have drawbacks. Still, they remain enjoyable to shoot, particularly the sniper rifles. Lining up a scope on a distant target, promptly firing then seeing him collapse to the floor in a pool of blood, screams made – it is richly satisfying, though never distressing, as the game mostly shies away from violence, everything being rather tame and juvenile. Still, the diversity of these weapons results in considerable player freedoms, even as certain characters gravitate to particular weapons manufacturers or types, some favoring sniper rifles, others masterful with shotguns. Grenade mods are present, their powers and effectiveness highly mutable, while four weapons are equipable at any one moment, providing options for manifold different combat scenarios.
As familiarity with the gunplay and gameplay systems progresses, much of the game’s depth is illusory. An admirable abundance of enemy diversity is present, each requiring different tactics to defeat – feral, dog-like skags must be shot while their gaping maws are open, while humanoid enemies are susceptible to headshots. More exotic enemies similarly require unique tactics to progress, while even in the human opposition diversity is present, in terms of design and function, some bold in advancement, others protected by shields, slow in advancement. Goliaths can be manipulated, turning upon their former allies, while some enemies are imbued with elemental technology. On the surface, then, the gameplay is highly complex, this title introducing many enemies absent in Borderlands, such as the insectoid varkids and snake-like threshers. In practice, though, relative failings emerge, the game gradually devolving into mindlessness, as roughly seventy-five to eighty percent of the gameplay is spent in open combat, where the same foes are combatted and defeated ad nauseum; rare is the reprieve from combat, the game bombastic always. Quieter, more tranquil moments would cause the game’s narrative and gameplay to soar, even if such moments were sparsely delivered. Partially realized while exploring Sanctuary and completing certain secondary combat, traditionally such moments are spurned. In further facades of gameplay systems, elemental weapons are present, each type seemingly effective against a unique form of opposition, corrosion destroying armor, electricity shields. In practice, such weapons are never needed for success – merely pepper the enemy with gunfire and call it a day; a major missed opportunity is here present.
Environments are diverse, dazzlingly beautiful; progression systems are engaging from the first, only becoming more satisfying as the narrative advances onwards; gunplay is similarly engaging, certain weapons joyous to shoot and experiment with; but the game’s greatest failing is related to its pacing and quest distribution. The principal narrative, as has been said, revolves around Jack’s desire to open the Vault, and seize upon and exploit the power contained therein, manifest in the enigmatic Warrior. Should Jack remain unopposed and become eventually successful in his endeavors, catastrophe would grip Pandora; the lives of countless men are here at sake, destruction and subjection seemingly imminent. And yet, countless side quests are thrown at the player, many of them having little connection to the primary narrative, being almost completely detached – they are time wasters. True, they do serve somewhat of a world-building purpose, by nudging the player to explore more niche environments, a very welcome nudging. Similarly, the writing for these quests can be of occasionally high quality, often surpassing that found in the primary narrative. The greatest flaw, though, arises when considering further player agency. Jack is on the verge of victory; defeat seems looming just over the horizon. And yet, I am encouraged to arrange a tea party for an eccentric teenage girl? To gather together clothing for a robot who desires to be human? The oddness and sometimes trivial nature of these quests almost destroys the principal narrative, destroying its focus, which is otherwise tight. The distribution of these quests is another failing, as the completion of one primary quest can often unlock secondary content extending into the dozens. None of this side content is mandatory, true. But the structuring of the game only awakens obsessive-compulsive tendences; seeing a massive quantity of assignments in the mission log is almost distressing – so I play the content, even if the rewards are slight.
Some of this content is of considerable length and depth, one mission gradually splintering off into five. An investigation into a cult which worships Lillith as the “Firehawk,” can last a couple of hours, while another noteworthy mission strand sees the agitation of a long-standing feud between two rival factions, the Vault Hunter engaging in subterfuge to bring matters to a head, violence ultimately erupting as consequence of their actions. Getting to understand these factions does convey a certain humanity, that people outside of Sanctuary still exist – and struggle. Still, not all is bandits and skags. In these mission and others, writing is cleverly prioritized, and it is in writing where Borderlands 2 shows its commanding divisiveness, forced to walk the tightrope between the obnoxious and the endearing. Quite often, the obnoxiousness is embraced, as when considering Tiny Tina, a young girl with a penchant for explosives, who is understandably immature and manic in her actions, almost a caricature, too over the top. The mechanic Scooter is similarly immature, his sister being exaggeratingly plump. Towards the ending, though, repeated attempts at evoking pathos are present, as when regarding Roland – shot in the back and incapacitated, he promptly collapses to the ground, dead on the instant. The Crimson Raiders have lost their leader and greatest weapon, a tragic lost, Rolan being highly endearing. Matters of parent / child relationship are briefly advanced, while Lillith is captured and exploited. These occurrences seem out of place, every other facet of the game embracing humor. But it is that anomalous aspect that makes the moments so emotionally resonant; rather than failing, the actions soar, the game ending triumphal and hopeful.
As a title, Borderlands 2 is consistent and satisfying throughout, characterized by engaging progression systems, a pervasive sense of excitement existing, when regarding what new item will be dropped, though that excitement is often deflated by poor weapon and gear drop rates, Still, player investment is immense, even if truly effective weapons are oddities. Some behave conventionally; others are imaginative in function, the developers’ creativity showing through even here, with intriguing weapon modelling, some totally bizarre in nature. This creativity is manifest most strongly in the game’s various environments, universally compelling and arresting in their beauty and their scope. Sometimes too large, vehicles are required; in another flaw regarding this, vehicle controls are clunky and unintuitive, while combat here is basic and unrefined – the joys of exploration are here dampened. This frustration extends even to the traditional movement systems, which are similarly clunky, with no real options for locomotion or redirection; climbing, mantling, and everything of the sort are totally lacking. But an absurd amount of content is here present, astonishingly so; a New Game + feature is present, here titled “True Vault Hunter Mode,” seemingly seeing the carrying over of player statistics and weaponry; jump back into the fray and do it all over again. For an especially dedicated player, the inclusion of this mode is wonderful, hundreds upon hundreds of hours present. Only magnifying this scope is the variety of playable Vault Hunters, who would certainly result in vastly different player experiences.
I remember watching an interview around the release of the game, where Randy Pitchford said something to the effect of, “We really want Borderlands 2 to become a hobby. That is our ambition.” That one statement conveys much about this title, which has a massive amount of content on offer, providing much for the particularly ravenous in the audience. For most, though, one or two completions of the primary campaign will be enough; certainly, repetition would only worsen, distressing when considering the game was already abounding in repetition, matters becoming mindless and tedious across my roughly forty or so hour playtime. In a masterful stroke, much of that play time seemed to fly by, some engaging quest lying always just over the horizon, while some new environment is made accessible, joys of exploration being revived at the possibility of exploring a new land mass. In other instances, the game seemed to drag, especially as I approached the ending. All of those side quests which were once compelling were now chores to complete; I merely wanted to finish them off and return to the campaign proper. Pacing, then, marks the game’s greatest flaw. Occasionally exhausting to play, the game sometimes throwing droves of enemies at the player, I was relieved to see the title completed. As an experience, it is enjoyable, though no profound message is conveyed; Borderlands 2 merely involves the constant slaughtering of opposition. That is not an objectively bad motivation.