Borderlands 2 (PS3/Xbox 360/PC)

Developer: Gearbox Software

Publisher: 2K Games

Release date: Sept. 18

Price: $59.99

Score: 8/10

Borderlands is back for another go, and if the first game was an unexpected hit, the second one at least has the hype train going at full speed. There's not a gamer out there who's unaware of its impending arrival, and it's definitely one of the most anticipated games of the fall—and that's saying something, considering games like Black Ops 2 and Halo 4 are on their way as well.

Can it possibly deliver on all that hype? For one thing, it's clear that Gearbox understood the first game's shortcomings (repetitive missions and a lame plot). Characters and their stories are at the forefront of Borderland 2, and more voiced dialogue makes each quest feel more distinct. You'll still be running in circles a lot, but at least you'll do it with a purpose this time. And the ending, though not spectacular, at least isn't the let down that the last one's was.

What these improvements amount to ultimately is a greater degree of polish, while the core game remains ultimately the same. Borderlands 2 is an iteration on, not an evolution of, the Borderlands formula. Stock up on side quests, assail countless screaming, spitting foes, and comb through mountains of loot until you finally find something worth opening the menu for. Rinse, repeat, enjoy yourself.

But is that enough?

 

Funny people

Borderlands 2 is brimming with humor, even more so than its predecessor. The blustering little robot colloquially known as Clap-trap has somehow developed an obsession with dubstep, and he regularly sings "wub wub wub wub wub wub wub wub" on the streets of Sanctuary, the game's new hub zone.

It wastes no time in introducing the villain, Handsome Jack. As the head of Hyperion corp., an entity that's all but conquered Pandora since the events of the first game, he dogs your every step. His motivations ultimately make little sense, but he provides a much-needed focal point for your aggression that was absent from the first game.

His unwavering belief in himself as the savior of Pandora is only one facet of his considerable psychosis, and you'll be hanging off his every word. Thus, when he gives you a quest to kill yourself by jumping off a cliff, you'll oblige simply to see what he says when you do it.

You'll cross paths with a fire-obsessed cult of bandits whose members insist on being violently immolated at your hands—and who are you to deny them that ecstasy? Dying grunts' gurgled last words fall along the lines of "I'd almost finished my comic collection!" and "I nearly paid off the house," or the confused plea, "But I'm so cool!" Borderlands 2's ability to make its cannon fodder relatable without diminishing our glee in blowing their heads off is impressive.

Re-spawning at Hyperion's expensive new-U stations cause the machines to occasionally remind you not to think about the fact that you're simply a digital recreation of your long-dead original body. And an enthusiastic fellow named Face McShooty implores you fervently to—you guessed it—shoot him in the face. Not the arm, not the knee, it's got to be the face. Come on, man. He needs it.

 

The devil's in the details

Despite all these new trappings, Borderlands 2 feels ultimately just a sliver too similar to its predecessor. You'll fall into the same rhythms of questing and looting, and the four new character classes with their new abilities lend themselves to the same play styles that their predecessors' did.

The Gunzerker, who can wield a weapon in each hand, is the new Berserker. The Assassin's ability to extricate himself from the midst of battle is reminiscent of the previous Siren's ability. The Commando's ability is simply to drop a turret. It's beefier than Roland's turret in the first game, but ultimately serves the same purpose.

New "Badass" points allow you to slightly tweak certain stats as you complete challenges like accruing sniper kills and critical hits, so that by the end of the game you'll wind up with minimal boosts to shield regen, damage and more. These carry over between characters, which is a particularly nice touch.

You can equip four weapons at once, plus grenade, shield and class mods, and gems that grant various abilities. New toys like singularity grenades that pull enemies toward them like tiny black holes before exploding in clouds of corrosive acid, fire or electricity provide plenty of amusement. And there are plenty more subtle tweaks in equipment and abilities.

The characters' new skill trees provide plenty of room for customization within each class. My main avatar, a Gunzerker, wound up as a brawny powerhouse who could rush into battle with a shotgun gripped in each meaty fist, taunting enemies and regaining health as he absorbed the bullets sent his way.

It was awesome, but it made it extremely difficult to play solo. Taking this on by yourself rather than with a friend or two is a completely different experience, and one that I didn't always find enjoyable. With no one around to revive you when you take too much damage, you'll die way too much.

 

What else is there to say? Oh yeah, "boom"

Vehicles feel different, but you'll quickly get used to them. The mini-map helps with navigation and spatial awareness. The enemies are more varied and smarter, and quick to overwhelm overzealous or solo players. New characters like Handsome Jack and a volatile 13-year-old girl named Tina are worthy additions to the cast, and old favorites like Scooter and Dr. Zed—not to mention the original player characters Roland, Lilith, Brick, and Mordecai—are given expanded roles and new life.

There are still moments of filler in the plot, but overall the game truly benefits from a more prominent, fleshed-out and emotional narrative.

Oh, and there's the guns—those glorious guns. There are snipers, SMGs, revolvers, handguns, shotguns, rocket launchers, assault rifles, and countless combinations therein—like assault rifles that shoot rockets, or shotguns with scopes that you'll use like sniper rifles. Some weapons have elemental affinities, and it helps to pay attention to the rock-paper-scissors dynamics of acid-beats-armor, electricity-beats-shields, etc. But ultimately the game encourages you to use whatever weapon you feel like using—I rocked double shotguns for a huge chunk of it.

Characters that don't regenerate ammo—anyone other than the Gunzerker, in other words—are going to find bullets frustratingly scarce, a real flaw in this otherwise well-designed experience. Another is the texture-popping—when characters and environments appear smooth and featureless until the textures load several seconds after they come into view. It's a massive problem, though I'd wager it's one PC players won't wrestle with.

Is it enough for a sequel to simply improve upon its predecessor without really innovating? In this case, I say yes, and I'm guessing most Borderlands fans are going to feel the same, making Borderlands 2 an easy recommendation. There's plenty of DLC on the horizon, and with Gearbox's track record that's something to look forward to. But I cant help but feel that they could have done more with this formula—and with that in mind I'll be eagerly awaiting Borderlands 3.