Friday, August 8, 2014

Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software/2K Games, 2012)

Back in my review of The Witcher: Enhanced Edition I mentioned how games come in different lengths. Some are designed to be completed in a single sitting, and then replayed multiple times, while others take a bit longer. Then, there are the games that simply take a really long time to play. I'm a fan of the site which gives averages of how long it took players to complete games. It usually gives me a pretty good estimate of how long I can expect to spend on a single title. On one particular game lately, the average fell roughly at about 40 hours, a long game, but not unusually long. So, I dove in, and after completing the entire main story, every side mission, and almost every challenge and collectible, Steam told me I'd spent roughly 70 hours on it. This game was Borderlands 2.

When the first Borderlands game came out in 2009, people didn't really know what to expect. It was a quirky cel-shaded first person shooter with role playing elements mixed in, all wrapped up in an ultraviolent yet cartoony package with a tongue in cheek attitude balanced in a mix that somehow worked into an incredibly addicting experience that took the industry by surprise. This time around, expectations were high out of the gate.

The first noticeable difference I found was in how much better this game is at telling the story. The original game had an opening cinematic, a couple video clips of the mysterious Angel telling you about your task, and the occasional clip of dialog from a stationary NPC. The only characters in the game that really felt alive (other than the ones you blew up) were the CL4P-TP, or Claptraps. The DLC expanded on this by letting the NPCs finally come alive, move around, and take part in the story. Borderlands 2 takes this even farther by having the NPCs actually interact with each other, have their own conversations, and live their own lives, including the four vault hunters from the previous game. You feel much more like you're part of a living world, not just dumped on an endless desert where everything wants to kill you.

The world of Borderlands 2 is also quite different from in the previous game. It still takes place on the planet Pandora (not the Pandora with the unobtanium, a different Pandora), but in the 5 years that have passed since the events of the first Borderlands, the place has gone through some noticable changes. An unexpected result of the events of the previous game was the release of a rare, valuable, and powerful mineral called Eridium that begins popping up everywhere. This both transforms the landscape and attracts more settlers and industry to Pandora, giving the player a world of frozen tundras, grassy plains, toxic caverns, rocky mountains, and luminous swampland that is much more diverse and interesting than the endless desserts of the first game.

That's all great and all, but how does it play? Well, it plays a lot like the first one, but better in a lot of ways. The enemies are more interesting, and more varied, with better AI. The vehicles are more fun. And most importantly, there is a much larger variety of crazy guns! The elemental enhancements on weapons plays a much larger role this time around, with an almost paper/rock/scissors approach to what types of guns are most effective on different types of enemies. It allows for a more strategic approach to both the combat and the inventory management. The missions both advance the story and immerse you in the game's world without feeling too repetitive. I'll admit, after having played through the original and all of its DLC, this game was a lot of more of the same. Then again, that's not a bad thing at all!

Additionally, the humor has taken a step up. The game is overflowing with subtle and not so subtle homages to other games and a variety of movies. The Top Gun and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inspired levels were some of my favorite moments. The ongoing dialog between various NPCs throughout the action provide an ongoing charm without making you stop and watch a cutscene every time somebody starts talking. There are some dramatic moments as well, but it's the humor that sticks with you long after you've finished the game.

There's not really too much to complain about with this game, but if I had to find a gripe it would be that the in game economy starts to feel pretty useless after a while. In standard RPG style you start the game with the most basic of gear and have to grind to save up enough money to purchase better equipment. That's all well and good, but in standard loot drop style you are constantly finding new gear all the time from downed enemies, hidden in chests and lockers, as rewards for completing missions, or in almost every pile of skag dung. Sure there are vending machines that sell weapons, shields, and other gear, but why bother when you'll find something even better just sitting around for free half an hour later? In the first Borderlands there were always ammunition upgrades to save up for later in the game, but in this one Eridium is used for these upgrades instead. This leaves you with a practically infinite amount of funds for ammo refills when needed. Since losing a portion of your money is the only real death penalty, it also takes away from any sense of actual danger.

Just about everyone I know who has played the first Borderlands has already played this one and is eagerly awaiting the Pre-Sequel. But, what if you've never played the original? The most common question I get from people I recommend this game to is whether or not they should play through the first game before tackling its sequel. I thoroughly enjoyed the original, and highly recommend it, simply because it was an amazing game on its own. Having played through the first one also adds extra meaning to a lot of what you see in the second. But, do you really need to play it first? Well, no. Borderlands 2 is the story of an entirely different set of vault hunters, and the story stands on its own without relying on any previous knowledge of the series. The real question is how much time do you have free to invest in some seriously lengthy action games?

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