[Note: This review of Borderlands 2 will include all supplementary material released for the game thus far; the pirate-themed Captain Scarlett campaign and the additional character Gaige. These pieces of extra content came out close enough to the game's release that both were enabled during D+PAD's first playthrough of it and so Raymond's impressions of the game were coloured by these new additions.]
A key focus of the marketing for Borderlands 2 was on how it was intended to exceed its predecessor in scope and polish, taking what was ultimately an amusing but empty-feeling game and refining it into something more universally appealing and complete as a product without compromising what made the original unique. It lives up to this claim in all respects, adding more weapon types, an entirely new roster of characters with greater options for customisation, much-requested visual customisation of characters, more variety of levels and enemies and ultimately a better sense of progression rather than a series of empty-feeling hub worlds which each were connected to a few areas.
There is a far stronger emphasis on narrative, which allows for the game’s high-quality writing to shine through and also drives the player’s progress; plot missions do not feel as much like arbitrary tasks to be completed to progress but instead are more logically connected episodes in an ongoing conflict. This illusion of a more linear story and urgency in what remains a game where plot progress proceeds at a pace determined by the player is a strength of Borderlands 2; it provides a better incentive to proceed and to not simply stop all progress for several hours to burn through side-missions.
So structurally, Borderlands 2 is an improvement; while it still ultimately returns to the hub-and-branch structure of games of its type, there is one hub area and more emphasis on moving between clusters of sub-locations rather than a series of underpopulated and static towns which are ultimately functionally identical. To make this possible, the fast-travel mechanic is given far greater prominence, often eliminating much of the back-tracking that marred the original game. Many areas are still ultimately circular in nature, with the final area opening back onto the first via a one-way door, but each often has one or two additional areas to explore that are used for side-missions. Those that are not are simple linear affairs, generally obviously defined as areas that will not be reused. Thus, in simple level design terms, Borderlands 2 does not innovate from the modern FPS norm; some areas give concessions to the genre’s mazelike roots but there is little of the exploration inherent to a game like Doom.
Its strength, however, is in how effectively it uses this as a framework for good action. Rage, a game compared frequently to Borderlands in its hub-based FPS structure, fell down in having uninspiring circular levels populated by unthreatening enemies that attacked in small, easily-managed waves. Borderlands 2 crowds its levels with vast hordes of enemies attacking from all directions in a constant state of chaos; while this is sometimes frustrating once the highest-tier enemies arrive, the constant need to keep moving and firing harkens back to retro FPS games and rewards system mastery over grinding use of cover and slow progress.
It is when Borderlands 2 is at its most chaotic, with rockets flying around, enemies attacking from all directions, grenades exploding into more grenades and so on, that the character abilities really shine; they are all designed around handling crowds of foes more easily, or buying the player time to deal with more pressing threats. The game remains chaotic and apparently unsurvivable, but the abilities turn the balance. There is also a strong focus on using them as much as possible, with upgrades generally focused on prolonging or expanding their effects. A key part of understanding how to play the game is learning not to conserve useful ammunition or special abilities for boss fights but instead to wantonly consume every resource the game gives you as fast as possible. Come the halfway point of the game this lesson is firmly impressed upon the player as even basic enemies become capable of annihilating unwary groups. Group play is not essential to success in Borderlands 2 as it ultimately was in the original game, but it does make certain sections far more satisfying or straightforward, and some of the lengthier and less rewarding side-missions are made more bearable when done with friends. Furthermore, the game allows players who have progressed in the plot in online multiplayer to immediately jump to that point in their own game, a feature which minimises repetition and wasted effort.
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