Border-lining Greatness: Borderlands 2

Role-playing survival game is willing to take risks

One of the surprise hits from the last decade would be Borderlands. Combining the fast paced insanity of a FPS, with the character and loot development of an ARPG made Borderlands a break out success. Now with Borderlands 2, the question is if Gearbox was able to score another home run. After touring through Pandora yet again while it’s not a grand slam, it’s still a solid entry.

Borderlands 2’s strongest element is how the designers have expanded on what worked in the first game. The story which was Borderlands weakest element has been retooled, with a great villain in the form of Handsome Jack: The current CEO of the Hyperion Corporation.

After the events of the first game, Jack is now mining on Pandora and doesn’t want anyone to get in his way. When our new cast of four (with a fifth coming in DLC soon) arrived, they were attacked and left for dead. The story once again has the player going across Pandora, this time to stop Jack while meeting several familiar faces, and shooting a lot of other faces.

The gunplay and loot system in the first Borderlands was one of the best parts of the game, and the sequel does not disappoint on that front. As in the previous game, weapons are categorized by their type along with their manufacturer. Every weapon is based on the same attributes: damage, firing rate, accuracy, magazine size and reload speed.

As in the first game, the stats of each weapon class have limits based on the type. For example: shotguns will never be as accurate as sniper rifles and SMGs will never do near the same damage as a rocket launcher. Where Gearbox has improved the loot diversity is with the manufacturers and weapon modifiers.

Each weapon manufacturer now has a greater impact on how a weapon operates. One company’s weapons instead of reloading like normal, you throw the emptied weapon as a grenade and a new one materializes in your hands. While another one allows you to control the firing rate based on how quickly you press the button.

In the first game, modifiers were limited to elemental damage and special modifiers for named loot. In BL 2, the number of modifiers has increased dramatically. From guns that use more bullets, to increasing the melee damage done and others. Shields and grenades have also had their modifiers extended giving the player even more choices to consider.

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The awesome might of the dual gun wielding gunzerker

Elemental affects have been expanded upon making them a lot more effective this time around. You can really see the difference between using weapons that are strong against enemy types vs. just having a higher base damage weapon. In many cases, the elemental effect will beat out weapons of a higher base damage. The new affect: slag acts as a special modifier. An enemy coated in slag will take increase damage from non slag type weapons, making it an effective one-two punch.

Special mention has to be made to the actual weapon designs featured in the game. The guns have been given a great cosmetic face-lift looking more varied and awesome then before. It’s very hard to find two guns that look exactly alike but given that the developers say that there are a gazillion guns, there’s always a possibility.

The bad guys on Pandora have also been given new tricks with a lot more enemy types this time around. Enemies are keener on dodging attacks and many of the new enemies require the player to pay more attention to how they fight them. As in the first game, “elite” ranked enemies are still a major threat, but you can now find Loot enemies that if killed drop additional items.

For those of you interested in multiplayer (IE most of you reading this), co-op is still the best way to play the series. No longer using Gamespy, BL 2 features drop in and out co-op play for you and your friends. With the tougher enemy types and bigger battles, co-op fights become a riot of explosions and chaos.

So far BL2 has hit every right note for a successful sequel: Everything that was great in the first game, has been made better. However, the developers slipped up on the other half of the equation: fixing the issues from the first game. BL 2 is not perfect and has its share of problems, which for fans who played the first one, should be very familiar to them.

First the beginning, for those who played the first game knows that it had a very slow start with the first act of the game. Most of the rare weapons were pre-determined and required the player to perform busy work quests of getting shields and grenades.

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Beating the game once, unlocks the extra hard: True Vault Hunter Mode”

While BL 2 does get things started a little quicker, it still forces the player into a tutorial zone. This time made all the more worse by limiting the player to just one weapon for the entire tutorial section. I really wish that there was an option to just skip the tutorial and start off at the first area. As by the time that you’re on your second or third character, I think you should know how to move and shoot by then.

It takes awhile (a few chapters) before the game opens up with all the loot you come to expect out of Borderlands. This is a strange problem that is not just limited to BL2, but to D3 as well. I don’t understand why developers lock out loot categories in an ARPG at the start.

The thrill of ARPGs is being able to find that amazing weapon or item out of the blue, by locking out content behind the scenes seems to hurt the game more than help it. From my own play-through and talking to friends, the game doesn’t reveal all the loot types until around level 10.

Another problem area for both BL 1 and 2 is with downtime. In both games, the areas that you explored grew in size the further you played. This meant that the amount of time running or driving to and from quest areas also expanded. Borderlands 2’s areas are a lot bigger and this increases the amount of time just getting to the action.

The quick travel system isn’t as useful as it was before. As areas only feature one or two travel stations. The rest of the time you’ll be running or driving to get to your destination. Annoyingly enough, there are many areas that are huge that don’t have any travel stations or vehicle points, requiring you to huff it on foot every time you want to explore. It got to the point that I just quit out of my game and reloaded at the nearest travel station to save time.

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Each of the different classes has a different special skill

Another problem is with the UI itself. One of the biggest criticisms that BL 1 faced was the cumbersome menu interface. The problem was that the interface was clearly designed for the console market and lacked the functionality that having a mouse offered.

BL 2 is a step in the right direction, but still is behind the times compared to other ARPGS on the market. The problem is that at its base, it was still designed with a controller in mind. As evident by how there are so many key press commands to use it. If the menu could be controlled using nothing but the mouse’s functionality, that would help a lot. It shouldn’t be that big of an ordeal as every ARPG on the PC is built that way, with keyboard shortcuts to further assist.

The quest system leaves a lot to be desired when combined with the limited travel options. You can only track one quest at a time, even if there are multiple quests in the same area. Further adding annoyance is that you have to return to the quest giver to turn in each quest. After playing Xenoblade Chronicles that removed this particular tedious action, it’s hard to go back.

My last issue has to do with the level scaling. In the first game, the difference between your level and the enemy’s level had a huge affect on survival-ability. If someone was 3 or more levels higher than the other, they were just about untouchable. But in BL 2 the designers have changed that in a few ways.

First, most enemies in open hub areas will scale to some extent based on what chapter you’re on. An area that had level 5 enemies would become level 10 for the next chapter. This prevents the case where you could just run through a low level area with impunity from the first game.

The damage penalty for attacking higher level enemies is there in the extremes (+4 or more difference.) I’ve had cases where enemies who were a few levels below me were able to wipe my shield out in a few seconds.

There is one very annoying wall in the final sections where I had enemies killing me within seconds. Apparently the designers want you to be at level 30 or up before beating the game, as the second I hit that threshold, the amount of damage being done dropped from thousands to hundreds.

My problem with the scaling is that while it has fixed the player being able to steamroll across the map and not be challenged by the main quest, it has created another issue. The loot and experience earned are tied to the enemies that you’re fighting.

Fighting lower level enemies, even by a few levels will not help you in terms of improving your character. It’s annoying to have to waste time, ammo and health fighting enemies who just aren’t worth focusing on, but that can still cause trouble.

This issue also makes completing quests that you missed not worth it, as even though the enemies have scaled, the quest is still at the same level in terms of rewards and items. Fighting your way through level 26 enemies to only be rewarded with level 15 gear just isn’t worth it.

This is a shame as the quests this time around deal with a lot of the back-story of what has happened between the two games. Which most people will probably skip due to the lackluster rewards.

Considering the designers weren’t afraid to scale up enemies in most sections, one solution would have been to scale up quests as well. But as it stands, you’re going to out-level a lot of the quests easily.

Despite the problems, BL 2 is still a great game. The refinements helped elevate the sequel above the first one, and with the promise of more DLC episodes should keep people happily blasting bandits for some time. If you’re a fan of the first game then there is no doubt that you’re going to enjoy #2. But for people who were put off by the problems or design of BL 1, BL2 is not going to change your mind on the merits of combining shooting with leveling up.

Josh Bycer

  • You know, I saw other people complaining about that enemy and didn't understand. Now, I played Zero with my first guy and tend to snipe, but when I did take damage it was what I was normally accustomed to. But then I was 31 or 32 for that fight.

    I sometimes feel that the sort of scaling we saw in D2 is something our mainstream designers are losing the ability to do.

  • Still working on BDL 1 but i have BDL 2 on pre-order.