Borderlands 2 is a first-person box opening game, in which players open up a wide variety of boxes, lockers, and other assorted receptacles and see if they have enough space available to carry around whatever they find inside. It is also an addictive first-person shooter, but that seems at times like a secondary feature, when compared to all the boxes one ends up opening.
On balance, Borderlands 2’s considerable strengths exceed its weaknesses, and Left Gamer Review recommends it to anyone who likes playing shooters, opening boxes, or sleep deprivation. However, Borderlands 2 is the sort of game that’s so carefully tailored for an audience of committed genre fans that I can only imagine that anyone outside of its target zone will find it a frustrating slog. In this way it’s a bit like watching a new Quentin Tarantino movie: it’s stylish and has obvious merit alongside obvious flaws, but if you aren’t onboard before the action starts, you likely never will be.
Borderlands 2 is set on an exotic planet called Pandora that’s filled with resources that interest nasty interplanetary mining concerns and mercenaries. It’s kind of like the Pandora in Avatar, only instead of pretty jungles filled with sexy blue cat-people, this Pandora is a terrifying hellscape filled with feral bandits, mercenaries, robots, and monsters. You a play a “vault hunter” who comes to Pandora in search of plunder at its various vaults. This central conceit is both a simple MacGuffin and a byzantine mess of game lore. In practical terms, this story matters very little to the actual gameplay, which is one of the game’s bigger flaws. All that really matters, in terms of the big story, is that a nasty corporate executive named Handsome Jack is trying to keep the entire planet under his iron fist, and he’ll succeed if your vault hunter doesn’t prevent him from opening a particular vault. It seems quite complicated, and there’s all sorts of history carried over from the first game, but it really comes down to “stop the space villain.”
Though the writing of the main plot is at once confusing and blandly contrived, many individual segments and side quests are fantastic. Non-player characters are, as a rule, supremely entertaining, and level design is outstanding. Partially, level design impresses simply on the basis of pure size. The game world is enormous, and while critics of the original Borderlands often found maps big and empty, maps in Borderlands 2 are big and full. Even side-missions that seem like they’ll be bland fetch-quests usually end up sending you to some unexplored corner of the map, and so Borderlands 2’s missions rarely feel repetitive, even if each mission can be summarized as “go to a certain place and shoot a certain thing.”
Some missions, though fun, seem out of step with the rest of the game, which further muddies the overarching story. At one point, you’re enlisted to help start a gang-war between a couple different factions. Fair enough. One of the gangs, though, is a group of Irish caricatures that’s bizarrely at odds with almost everything else in the game. Somehow, next to a tiny, nearly empty village housing only folks who’ve been poisoned by mining operations, there’s an Irish pub filled with drinkers at every hour of the day. Somehow, in this world of bandits and treasure seekers, there’s also a densely-concentrated community of Irish ex-pats? What? And why am I trying to get them into a gang war, rather than helping them move to the relative safety of the rebel city, Sanctuary? And why aren’t I trying to get them to be allies in my fight against Handsome Jack? It’s silly–the whole game is a bit silly, but this is silliness of a different, competing variety.
The only missions that are truly terrible are the timed ones. I managed to complete one, then got so annoyed at another that I vowed never to try another one again. Basically, the timed missions involve stuffing things into mailboxes in a certain amount of time, while being attacked by monsters and/or bandits. If you fail, well, why not do it again? Somehow, the guy telling me to deliver five packages in two minutes is apoplectic with rage if I don’t finish in two minutes, but happy to wait another five (or however long I want) and try again. These missions feel like pure RPG grind. They don’t advance the overall story, and are transparently about giving the player something to do for the sake of doing something. Skip them all, and you’ll be happier for it.
Returning to the writing of Borderlands 2, the only character who isn’t satisfying is, unfortunately, the one you control. I played the “gunzerker,” assuming that my play-style would fit best with the least thoughtful of the available character classes. It’s possible that this guy is just a mouth-breather and my experience would have been quite different if I’d played as someone else, but I felt the whole time as though my guy were boring and quiet in a game world that’s clever and chatty.
This isn’t a game like Mass Effect where much of the fun comes from defining the character you control, but it also isn’t a game like Halo, either. Master Chief is silent for the most part, but he’s also a soldier on a battlefield, often alone, so I never find his lack of dialogue inappropriate. In Borderlands 2, though, people are happy to talk to you, but you never talk back, which feels to me like a missed opportunity, particularly considering the strength of some of the NPCs. I particularly enjoy the talkative robot, Claptrap, and Tiny Tina, the teenaged demolitions expert. I can’t help but feel like they’d be more fun if every conversation weren’t exclusively one-sided.
Of course, of the main event in a shooter is the shooting of things, so if that doesn’t work, these other concerns are basically irrelevant. Combat in Borderlands 2 will feel familiar and fun to anyone reasonably experienced with other contemporary shooters, though the running-time of this game makes it much more like an RPG than a shooter. A game like Call of Duty might only offer you five or six hours of play in its campaign mode; after five or six hours of Borderlands 2, you might feel like you’ve finished the tutorial stages and are ready for the game to begin in earnest.
The other elements that set Borderlands 2 apart from a typical shooter are its RPG-style leveling, weapons choices, and experience-points systems, which I find overwhelming. The opening stages are frustratingly difficult–I only started enjoying the game once I’d leveled up a few times and acquired shields. After that, I found the gameplay addicting and fun, albeit with occasional stretches of intense frustration. Periodically, I hit points at which my character was simply not strong enough for the next mission, or where my weapons were underpowered for enemies, who get stronger at the same rate you do. All the variables give the game something akin to punctuated equilibrium–every now and then it just seems to get way harder for a while, and it always took me an evening of play to re-adapt.
Part of my problem, I know, is that I’m simply not interested in the kind of fine-tuning that this game seems to think I desire. And maybe its core fans do want to muse whether a skill point is best spent in this skill tree or that skill tree, or weather a gun that fires fire bullets that do 108 damage is better or worse than a gun that fires electricity bullets that do 99 damage, but with a slower reload time and faster rate of fire. Borderlands 2 forces you to think about an unending series of numbers. There are certain choices that are obvious–fire guns are terrible against robots, but corrosive guns work great. But beyond these broad categories, there’s a lot of obnoxious trial and error, which only increases once you work your way deep into the game.
For all this micromanagement of weapons, though, I find certain customization options surprisingly limited. For instance, you an unlock various options for how you want your face to look, but most contemporary RPGs give you nearly infinite choices about your character’s face. Even a terrible game like Dragon’s Dogma lets you customize your face down to the tiniest detail, so unlocking different appearance choices in Borderlands 2 doesn’t seem like much of an award, especially considering how seldom you actually see yourself. Even less interesting is the ability to change the colors of the vehicles you occasionally drive around. They all look essentially identical from the vantage point of the player, and it takes extra time to select a different paint-job. So why bother?
The things you do notice, though, are a wide assortment of environments, all wonderfully realized.Borderlands 2 is a fantastic game to look at. I enjoy the cartoony, cel-shaded style, and was wowed by a plenty of the game’s huge vistas. I particularly enjoyed the frozen landscape that starts the game. I think that the hand-animated feel of the game also makes the violence and death toll feel playful rather than nasty, though I suppose others might debate whether that should be counted as a strength or weakness. My only real complaint is that too often, neighboring zones look very different from each other. For instance, the first time you venture out of an icy are into a warmer realm, there is absolutely no transition. It’s just icebergs one moment and dust storms the next.
Borderlands 2 is not the sort of game that self-consciously engages with politics in the mode of Spec Ops: The Line or some of the other titles we’ve tackled at LGR. It’s main theme–the little guy versus the evil corporation–feels a little shopworn and can barely even be thought of as commentary at this point. Since Handsome Jack is essentially a Bond villain, there’s little resemblance between his evil corporation and the actual manner that corporations spread evil.
[BEGIN SPOILER ALERT] I think that the end of the game undercuts this critique a little, too. Once you defeat Handsome Jack, Pandora is fundamentally unchanged. Everyone pretty much shrugs and goes on with their miserable, frontier lives. I suppose I played the majority of the game assuming that Handsome Jack was a villain because of his role in the Hyperion Corporation, and that taking him down would result in radical changes on Pandora. As it turns out, he’s just a villain who happens to be high up in a nasty corporation. As a result, I feel a little let down by the game’s end. I was propelled along for days by the action and humor and level design, but with so little story to hold it all together, the end feels arbitrary.[END SPOILER ALERT]
Moving to one of LGR’s major topics of concern: representation of women in Borderlands 2 is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I found the key female characters in the game competent and, considering this is a video game, relatively realistic in their appearance. This would be refreshing if there weren’t so few women in the game. I understand that this is effectively a frontier town, so a certain degree of imbalance makes sense. But, the less that Pandora feels like it possesses any sort of community, the less Pandora feels like a stand-in for our own world, the more it seems like the wise thing to do would be to just get the hell away and let Handsome Jack do whatever he wants with his miserable, bandit planet. What is there that’s worth saving, exactly?
I think a game of this size and scope needs more plotting to hold all the pieces together. Plot implies stakes, which implies some kind of attachment between the player and characters in the game, or the world of the game, or something. Borderlands 2 doesn’t develop these elements enough to overcome what it is at its core: a simple game about shooting things for hours, and hours. There are glimmers of humor and moments of excellent writing, but they never quite cohere into the outstanding game that this could have been.