Borderlands 2 review: Huge scale and loot addiction papers over the cracks
18th Sep 2012 | 04:00
And it turns out that Texas is great fun to play. The basic format hasn't changed since the first
As before, what makes the co-op particularly significant is the class system. There are four playable characters with different heard-it-before skills: Salvadore the Gunzerker (a square man who can dual-wield guns), Maya the Siren (an elemental mage lady who does big damage, goes invisible), Axton the commando (who can deploy turrets and heal like Roland from the first game) and a sneaky, critting assassin called Zer0. There is a story, about a villain called Handsome Jack who's racing a small faction of rebel forces (including the first game's Roland and Lilith in non-playable form) to open a new vault, which you obviously want to stop him doing (it's full of power, or chocolates, or something). But at no point does this feel like a particularly urgent mission.
Basically, Borderlands 2's spidering quest system and increased size make for meandering and digression, with non-essential side jobs sending you criss-crossing several pages of the new joined-up world map in a dune buggy to hunt down items (everything from animal skins to small, combustible cultists) and hand in completed tasks.
And of course you'll get distracted along the way, by packs of wild animals and hideouts full of bandits, and wondering if you can get to that weapons box up there, on that high roof, if you spend enough time looking for a ladder. And the reason you want to do that is because, underneath the surprisingly sharp dialogue, (Claptrap returns and says three genuinely funny things in the first five minutes) and smooth first-person shooting, Borderlands 2 is a greedy conveyor belt of power, guns and things, a sort of consumerist Eden - or a den of aggressive, extremist capitalism. (We did mention it was made in Texas, right?)
This is what the cynically-received 'gazillions of guns' line in the trailer is essentially referring to - that given the loosely tied narrative thread and repetitive dungeon crawling gameplay, what you become focused on isn't the next story beat - that could be hours away - but the next time you open a box that has something you want inside. And those boxes are absolutely bloody everywhere, stacked in every room and corridor, with bigger, meatier ones hidden on high ledges and behind simple puzzles.
Mostly they're just full of ammo, because unless you're revisiting an area after you've levelled significantly higher than its inhabitants you'll pretty much be firing an endless stream of bullets. But occasionally they contain things that make you better at killing and staying alive: a new sniper rifle, a tougher shield, a class-specific stat boost, a grenade mod, and so on. These loot drops are ruled by random generation - no two runs through the same area, with the same boxes and the same bosses, will yield the same items. Not that they'll be that different, either - they'll be roughly the same level, with some variation in stats and bonuses, like a grenade mod with corrosive effects (good against robot enemies) rather than fire damage (handy against puny flesh), or two shields with minor variations.
At first this endless (gazillions!) store of equipment is dizzying, and you'll likely spend a good few hours trying out different combinations of weapons and elemental effects before getting any kind of grip on the game's possibilities, and another few before you develop a sense of which particular combination suits you best.
After this period of experimentation it'll take a major item drop, usually a quest reward or the spoils of a successful boss battle, to change your loadout beyond iterative upgrades. And this becomes the de facto narrative path of the game, unless you're really paying extra attention - not how you and Roland are going to beat Handsome Jack and save the world, but how you're going to get your next purple item, and which gibbering bandits are you going to try it out on first?
The benefits of actually playing together are also significant. Hewing through waves of tooled-up grunts and big-toothed wildlife is always more fun when you have someone to chat to, and the classes are designed to work together - everything's easier with a Commando to heal the group, a Siren to deal damage, and an Assassin to have a stupid bloody name (the Gunzerker is good for being shot). It means a lot less waiting behind a rock for your shield to recharge, and more killing stuff and (competitively racing to be the first to collect the) loot.
Enemy difficultly scales up when you're playing with a group, and so does the value of their item drops. That provides a double incentive to play together - and play repeatedly - if you're serious about finding the one triple-barreled shotgun that fires electrifying shells and explodes on reload. The only problem is if you ever pause to wonder what end-goal you're racing towards. Better guns, bigger shields, more inventive and Willy Wonka-esque grenades - all well and good. But what are they for, past defeating the big bad guy who'll barely appear in your thoughts for the majority of your play time? It's the same problem Skyrim's story faced, to an extent.
There's no easy answer to this thought, and once it appears there'll likely be a struggle in your mind between this looming pointlessness and the urgent, nagging gratification of opening boxes and finding things inside that you like. The good news is that