Borderlands 2 – Impressions
Borderlands 2 couldn’t have released on a better day, at a better time. My lifetime co-op partner was home from work, all but one of our kids back to school, and two gaming PCs were ready and up to speed.
8 hours later. Wait, 8 hours?!
I don’t think I’ve ever played a game for eight hours in a single day, or at least not as an adult.
The Borderlands formula is often described as “Diablo with guns”. In the first game, this great concept fell flat in execution. It was fun, something a little different, but I never fell in love with it. Rewiring my brain to think of assault rifles as DPS machines and seeing the numbers literally pour off of enemies was cool for the first hour. Ten hours in, the incredibly stat-bound experience soured me on the game. Maybe it’s a minority opinion, but hardcore fans of the first game aren’t waiting on a review to buy the second game.
As a sequel, the expectation for Borderlands 2 was that Gearbox would go bigger. It might very well be bigger, I don’t know yet. I’m 14 hours in and certainly not looking for the end anytime soon. Borderlands 2 could have gone with spectacle. Gigantic set-pieces, explosions filling the screen, massive heart-pounding bass beats. The sound design has vastly improved, but that’s not what makes the games endearing. Gearbox doubled down on the quirkiness, managing to make things like murderous fire-obsessed cultists hilarious. Borderlands 2 has personality in spades. Every single character, especially the resplendently evil arch-villain Handsome Jack, is larger than life in the best sense of the phrase.
Of course, if all I wanted were some larger than life characters, I’d be watching an action movie or reading comics. The game has some really slick level design, and the core action is better than ever. Yes, there are some really standard tutorials, but others are cleverly disguised. Kill four assassins. Simple enough, but for an added bonus: kill each of them with a different weapon type (while also surviving against the horde of mobs in the level). Did you realize just how much fun being forced to use a sniper rifle at close range was? Killing fire-resistant enemies with a fire weapon?
Extra personality extends to the four launch classes. Each selectable player character has more (and funnier) situational dialogue than in the first game. More importantly, the action-skills for the classes diverge more than I felt they did in the first game. Salvador’s ‘roided-out dual-wielding mode propels me forward so fast I’ve cleared rooms before I could blink. Zero requires incredible tactical precision, blending headshots from afar with powerful backstabs up close. Axton’s sentry turret is much more useful than Roland’s version. Maya’s Phaselock power isn’t powerful in and of itself, but becomes essential in boss fights.
At this point, I’ve just started digging into both of my character’s skill trees. My Salvador has a high chance to not use any ammo at all, a useful trait to have, but his role seems confined to “any weapon, so long as it’s got incredible DPS”. My Zero is more interesting, particularly in solo play, because I’ve built up very high critical hit (headshot) damage multipliers. Combine that with level design catering to snipers, and it’s easy to pick off crowds before they swarm on top of you. When there’s too many left, his melee attack is surprisingly useful, and gets more powerful the lower an enemy’s health.
I fully expected to be playing Borderlands 2 on the couch using Steam’s new Big Picture mode. As it turns out, I’ve spent all of my time with keyboard-mouse at my desk. The inventory screen, despite supporting drag-and-drop reorganization, still manages to be awkward but keyboard-mouse is an otherwise great way to play the game. The shooting is fast, crisp, and heavily rewards headshots. The precision of mouse-look is also great when it comes to sorting through trash loot to find the one or two guns you might actually want.
My biggest complaint with Borderlands was its static enemy and quest level system, something Gearbox has only partially rectified in the sequel. I’m really surprised they don’t simply define quests as either easy, medium, or hard and scale them an appropriate amount relative to the player’s current level. Unlike the first game, low-level quests still present a challenge unless you’re many levels above the content. Doing every single quest available won’t put you at such a high level that things became boringly easy. More advanced enemy AI and subtle repopulation of high-level enemies in old areas alleviates this issue.
Related to this is the continued problem plaguing so many multiplayer RPGs. Players who join a host above their level get fast-forwarded to the new content, which is great, but they won’t necessarily be prepared for it. Likewise, a high-level player can overpower a low-level host’s experience. Dropping in and out is handled seamlessly with Steamworks integration on PC, but keeping characters within spitting distance (5 levels) of each other is essential to getting the most out of the game.
If there’s ever a Borderlands 3, the existence of Guild Wars 2’s elegant down-leveling system will make this design decision inexcusable. In Guild Wars 2, the area surrounding a particular quest is keyed to the level of the quest, so even players far above a quest level get downleveled in core stats (HP and damage) to keep things interesting. For example, it would be great if Borderlands 2 could let a player who’s met Tiny Tina then go back and join a friend in fighting Captain Flynt without being completely overpowered.
It remains to be seen whether fighting off Level 4 mobs is more annoying when I’ve gotten to Level 25 than it is at Level 13, but Borderlands 2 isn’t about dwelling in the past. It’s about pushing forward, blasting the enemies away, and getting that next perfect gun. At my point in the story, one of the first game’s heroes has made a slightly cracked appearance. Another is in need of a rescue.
What are you waiting for, Vault Haunter?