This article was first published in The Tampa Monocle 2012.
I’ve played a handful of cel-shaded games in my day, & adult themes coupled to abundant gratuitous violence easily made the first Borderlands my favorite... until now. Borderlands 2, the sequel to the 2009 Gearbox original, has seen great improvement in overall graphic quality & managed to preserve everything that gives the series its memorable visual aesthetic. The game’s art keeps from crossing the line into cartoon-y, & the many texture layers on the models & environments make for a unique, comic-book feel that continues to set BL apart from other similar games. It consistently manages to be gritty & colorful, & some of the vistas you get to see will make you forget you’re not looking at a realistic rendering of the planet. The designs for the world itself are befitting of a futuristic alien wasteland preyed upon by mining corporations, topped with the thematic overtone of a bizarre space-western. Since I played BL2 on a pc (with a Galaxy GTX660Ti) with nearly all settings at max & only lost framerate during intense combat that involved lots of explosions, I’m pretty sure I experienced the visuals in the best possible way.
BL2 is an RPG; it’s also a first-person shooter. Though I’ve never been much of an FPS-player, I found myself dumping many hours (36 to be exact) into obliterating enemies with shotgun blasts that catch fire, corrosive-sniping evil machines to watch them melt, or seeing my own robot rip bandits in half as my character laughed with disturbing glee. I mainly played a Mechromancer, the game’s signature pet-class that summons her own moderately-sized robot. I focused on amplifying my character’s elemental abilities, which included things like reloading to send out an electrical explosion, critical kills that cause electrical storms, & a final ability allowing on-the-fly alteration of the robot’s elemental damage type. Every character class offers 3 different skill trees with their own specific advantages, & being able to choose from any tree after leveling allows the game to conform to multiple play-styles. Since I never got to see what must be the glory of having four of the five classes together in online multi-player, I really liked the robot watching my back; sadly, I also missed out on getting better loot that spawns just by having other players present.
Pandora is a savage place, filled with all manner of strange enemies to slay with the game’s modular Diablo-style loot of standard & elemental guns (pistols, rifles, smgs, shotguns, rpgs, snipers, grenades... some melee weapons would have been nice though) but in the end, BL2 isn’t all about gun collection... it’s a game of numbers. You’ll be min-maxing the skill tree (which you can pay to re-spec at any time), managing account-wide Badass Rank points, permanently upgrading weapon ammo amounts, endlessly staring down sets of statistics while comparing weapons looking for new gear & making inventory space, all to be rewarded with a cathartic spray of numbers that pop out of enemies as you feed them a constant stream of bullets. The inventory system encourages all your secret gun-hoarding tendencies with a four-gun quick-load & a maximum of 27 backpack slots; it can be a little tricky to manage (like accidentally selling good items) & maneuvering the UI could have been a bit more intuitive... but mainly, it becomes obvious after a while that 27 slots are definitely not enough.
The dialog & text in BL2 is perforated with a mixture of self-aware humor referential of other video games, internet memes, & thirty year's-worth of pop-culture that draws a very defined box around its audience demographic & their maturity level. The personalities & behaviors of the characters & enemies are all extreme, with the jokes ranging from complete, pointless nonsense (like Shooty Face: a guy that really wants you to shoot him in the face) to social commentary (like Mal, the robot that wants to become human & spouts socially insensitive observations). The quests are on the same level of the jokes themselves, & Gearbox isn’t above putting you through a multi-leg slog on foot around an expansive area chasing after a reward that turns out to be something like a gun that screams instead of gunfire, or one that talks smack. There is a vast array of quests to choose from & so many huge maps to search for objectives & loot on that each playthrough will be distinct for every player, even on the subsequent harder mode available after completing the final objective. The size of some areas can prove frustrating when the game refuses to offer sufficient teleporting stations or Catch-a-rides (BL’s car-deployment system), forcing players to run across wide maps with respawning enemies too often; the addition of a town-portal ability would have been really useful & should be considered for future BL titles.
In a single playthrough of the campaign alone, there is enough content & entertainment to give BL2-players their money’s-worth, but once the story concludes, a more difficult play-mode offering better loot & harder enemies is unlocked: having finally freed Pandora from the deplorable, chuckle-inducing villain Handsome Jack, players must go through True Vault Hunter Mode to reach the level cap (currently 50) & gain enough points to complete one & a half skill trees. On top of the promise of filling out skills & acquiring ever-better equipment, the humor manages to stay comical enough to make further playthroughs appealing, but the ramped-up difficulty in combat will force players to stray from being exclusive to their tactics from the previous mode. Along with DLC that is currently available, several more expansions are slotted to be released & can be obtained individually or with a Season Pass that allows them all to be acquired for a one-time fee. Additionally, free Golden Keys are regularly offered through the Gearbox Facebook & Twitter accounts. I can’t say this is a game that would best satisfy hardcore rpg-players or religious fps-players... really, the people that will come away the happiest from Borderlands 2 are the total stat-whores. So I ask, do you like numbers?