Borderlands 2 is a difficult game to review. Best enjoyed co-operatively, to appraise it judiciously you have to rope in three other people to even begin. It’s also a slow burner, much of its best being saved until well into its second and third acts. Also, to judge the game as a whole means completing a large portion of its hundred or so side missions.
On top of all that, Borderlands 2 is a better game when played in True Vault Hunter mode, unlocked upon completion. It has better guns, a vast array of new enemy types, and offers a fighting chance of taking on some of Pandora’s skyscraper-sized world bosses. Say what you like about Borderlands 2, but it’s big. And for the record, we played over 100 hours of it. But not only does Borderlands 2’s sheer size make it a tough review, so too do its niggles, which are as numerous as they are inconsequential. To list them here would result in four solid pages of whining that would be rather unreflective of the experience we had with it. We will, however, take a moment before the praise for a frisson of rage, included here to reflect the number of occasions when our anger leaked audibly out.
You see, some of Borderlands 2’s enemies are just plain cheap. What’s that, games™? You mean you got killed a whole bunch by tough enemies? Noob, and so on! Yes, it’s a shame that complaints vocalised as a result of a game’s frustrating AI can be made the victim of a jabbing, accusatory finger that insists the complainer is just not very good at it. Especially when, as is the case here, those grievances are justified.
Around a third of Borderlands 2’s enemies adopt attacks and evades that are unavoidable and/or near-impossible to counter, no matter your skill level. They have been designed to harass you, evade you, disappear and frequently land on your head, sometimes killing you instantly. If you want to test your resistance to rage-quitting, some of these enemies will give you a decent run for your money. It’s difficult, then? Not really, especially since anything killed before dying stays dead when you respawn. ‘Difficult’, as a term, implies that skilled players will succeed where unskilled players do not.
Imagine you’re a 100-metre sprinter and the race organisers want to make the run from A to B more difficult. How about some cones for you to slalom around? Or some hurdles to jump? Those with more skill would be able to handle them; those with less, perhaps not. This might translate in Borderlands 2 to adding more enemies, affording them more hit points, and so on.
What Borderlands 2 more commonly resorts to, however, is the equivalent of lopping off your feet, setting the track on fire, throwing medicine balls at your head as you crash to the floor, and laughing loudly in your face. One could argue that, yes, these measures have made the race more difficult, but they are also as cheap as a penny chew. Not only is it frustrating, but ultimate victory has no payoff. In your heart of hearts, you know that it was more luck than judgement.
There is some text on one of the loading screens – you know, one of those ‘tips’ that often flash up – that neatly sums up Gearbox’s attitude here. It states that you will learn to hate a certain enemy due to its behaviour. If Gearbox doesn’t know that ‘hate’ is a bad emotion to be feeling when playing one of its games, should we really be the ones that tell it? Did nobody in QA pipe up to say, ‘Uh, guys… some of these enemies seem deliberately designed to frustrate, harass and exasperate. Think we should, you know, do something about that?’
That may seem like a hefty criticism, and if you’re now left to wonder why the score you see at the end of this review has come away relatively unscathed, it all comes down to a question of scale. If we spent one hour cursing the cheapness of certain enemy types, we spent another 99 rapt in the joys of daft guns, humour, characters, locations, loot, exploration and experimentation. Pandora is just a great place to be.
It’s changed a lot since the events that unfolded in the original Borderlands. Handsome Jack has taken ownership of the vault from which he’s mined large quantities of the MacGuffin mineral, Eridium. The purple crystal possesses mysterious properties and powers the telekinetic abilities of the Sirens. Jack has become ludicrously wealthy as a result of this monopoly and built with his ill-gotten lucre a new capital city, Opportunity. Jack is a good bad guy. What we mean to say is he’s a detestable sadist whose communiqués throughout your time on Pandora do more than enough to imbue actual satisfaction to the moment when you’ll finally get to kill him. And his constant, humorous references to you as ‘the bad guy’ do little to sway this cause.
New friends, new foes, the various movements of the story, the ups and the downs all do enough to tug you along to your next objective. Ultimately, though, Borderlands 2 doesn’t really need a main story, since its primary draw is not narrative but psychological. It has, at its core, the same mechanisms that keep MMO players coming back for more, day in, day out. It has random reward. Stick a pigeon in a cage with a button. If every hundred presses of the button delivers it food, it will keep pushing the button in the hope that at some point it will get food again. It’s sad to think that we, a supposedly higher-thinking species, are just as prone to such base instinct, but it’s true. We are. No matter how we try to rise above it, that ultra-rare sniper rifle that drops off some Badass Skag once in every 25 hours will keep us hitting that button until it drops again, no matter how long it takes.
Which is not so much a criticism as it is a realisation of what Borderlands 2, and MMOs, are doing in general. Random reward, along with iterative improvement – in this case from pea-shooter-wielding weakling to nuke-launching badass – is secreted beneath lashings of beautiful environments, frenetic gameplay and varied mission structure. But it’s there, right at the core, and it allows Borderlands 2 to punch well above its weight. It’s just so difficult to put down.
Every aspect of your character receives a steady stream of upgrades. Microscopically improving stats, old guns for new. Levelling up itself provides you more health, of course, and the black market store at the game’s central hub, Sanctuary, furnishes the ability to upgrade the amount of ammo you can carry for each weapon type, as well as how many guns you can keep in your inventory. Then there are the class-specific skill trees.
We went Assassin class for the vast majority of our time. Being ardent fans of sniping in general, we ploughed our points into the improvement of critical sniper rifle hits – headshots, to be more blunt. Equally, we could have specialised in what can be broadly categorised as stealth or speed. There are three trees per character, and while these are largely quite sensible in their layout, some are more attractive than others. We don’t know why anybody would pick the Assassin class simply to be fast. Snipers snipe.
The real game-changing abilities are the last to be unlocked within any specific tree, meaning specialisation is an imperative, not a choice. Jacks of all trades here will be master of none and, as a result, will struggle. For this reason, the three trees offered each class don’t, in our opinion, offer three realistic choices. More, they offer a main tree with two in support of it, should you level beyond acquisition of one tree’s final ability.
As a single-player game, an enduring challenge awaits, but where Borderlands 2 really comes into its own is as a co-operative experience, and provided all players present are at roughly the same level, that experience is excellent. But therein lies another problem. While Borderlands 2 does a great job in allowing folks to jump in and out of your game and vice versa, it fails to offer the level playing field that would make it fun for all. If your levels are mismatched by more than three or four either way, it can only be fun for one of you.
Levels, gun damage, XP. All of these are just numbers, which means it would not have been impossible to boost or reduce the stats of players and enemies to be roughly on a par when playing together. We had assumed, until we tried it out, that that was exactly what Borderlands 2 would do when faced with four players of fairly disparate levels. That it would prioritise fun over ‘look at me’ willy-waving on the part of the most levelled-up and specced-out player. Instead, all players remain exactly as they are.
The upshot is that if one player is level 44, say, and hosting a game that is joined by two players, one of level 26 and one of level 16, both those other players won’t be able to damage the enemies at all and, furthermore, won’t be able to use any of the loot that’s dropped, since its level requirement will be too high. Conversely, if the same players joined a game hosted by the lowest-levelled player, the loot would be redundant and they would not gain any XP at all for killing stuff. It would not be fun either since everything, for that player, would be a one-shot kill. We cannot fathom what led Gearbox to work things this way, since beyond finding players who are at or around your level, there is little impetus to team up. You might as well just play on your own, where you’ll always get XP and level-appropriate loot.
We also take some issue with Borderlands 2’s sense of humour. While it’s welcome, it draws so frequently on up-to-the-minute memes that it becomes hard to remain immersed in an experience supposedly taking place in the distant future, on a remote planet, and among people who have no reason to understand the significance of an arrow in the knee. Most of it’s just not that funny. It relies on people laughing in
polite acknowledgement. You know, because they get that it’s a riff on Batman, but not because anything funny is being said about him. It’s catchphrase humour.
People who enjoyed Borderlands and are willing to forgive this sequel its flubs will find not just a new game in Borderlands 2, but something that’s going to steal away time reserved for eating, say, or sleep. Conversely, those less sensitive to the addictive properties of random reward and incremental upgrade are going to find themselves more sensitive to Borderlands 2’s problems.