Borderlands 2 is an improvement over Borderlands. You’ll find most of the gaming world is at a consensus on this point. Yet it is still a game whose secret ingredient, that one thing that makes so many salivate over it, continues to elude me.
For those that didn’t get to read my thoughts on the original, let me summarize them for you.
That’s how I felt after completing this game. The mechanics were poor, the story simply wasn’t there, it was only occasionally funny and the enemies were bland and repetitive. This was not a game that was fun to play simply because it was a fun game, but because it got most of the basics right and I was able to play with my friend.
Borderlands 2 does something most sequels don’t, however. It tackles most of those problems and fixes them. When you’re looking down the rifle’s scope at an enemy and pull the trigger, the bullet lands where the crosshair was pointing. There are a greater variety of foes human, machine and beast alike, and they all have different A.I. behaviors and special abilities. There are a greater variety of environments, though they consist of your typical snow, desert, and grassland locations.
The writing is perhaps where the game has improved most notably. The world is full of actual characters. I don’t simply mean they designed a guy and stuck a name to him, I mean they have back stories, personalities, desires and even relationships. Side quests are often enough actually amusing. The dying words of fallen foes are the most chuckle-worthy since the first encounter with Halo’s Grunts.
Where Borderlands 2 really shines, however, is when they stop playing the setting for laughs. There’s this subtle undertone in the world of Pandora, where this cartoony facade is stripped away to reveal just how screwed up this planet is. It is full of uncaring bandits and violent fortune hunters that don’t care about killing other living creatures, human or not, for their own personal gain. To illustrate this sort of subversion, there is a subquest where the player finds audio logs of a humorous man whose ego becomes so bloated he begins punching creatures called Night Stalkers to death. He challenges the biggest of them and gets his hands bitten off, then is eaten alive crying for his mother.
Borderlands 2 doesn’t merely imitate your typical Mad Max style of post-apocalypse. Not anymore, at least. It has built its own cruel world where the creatures are just as heartless as the humans that populate it, only the animals don’t care for glory. Anyone that seeks to make a hero of themselves is met with a violent, pitiful end.
Which makes the villain himself a rather interesting case study. Handsome Jack has been discussed often in the gaming community, but most of what I’ve heard has been how great the voice actor is and how funny it is to hear him call the player a Butt Stallion. While these things are certainly endearing in their own twisted way, this isn’t what makes Handsome Jack fascinating.
He is clearly a cruel and heartless man, but he believes himself to be a hero. In his mind, he is the good guy trying to save Pandora. To the perspective of the player, he is clearly not. He kills people without remorse, he has little respect for his own employees, and there is even one character whose relationship seems all too twisted and cruel.
Yet everyone else’s motivations are either glory or survival. Handsome Jack is, despite his cruel nature, the most human of all the characters within this universe. That alone makes him the greatest accomplishment of Borderlands 2, and one of the most stand-out villains in the modern scene of gaming.
Unfortunately there is one crucial self-sabotaging element of the game that reduces the effectiveness of the writing. The Pavlovian call to side quests and loot pulls the player away quite frequently from a story that begs to be experienced in a straightforward and linear manner.
It is not a problem unique to Borderlands 2, but all games that try to have a more open-world while maintaining a primary storyline. You complete a story quest and suddenly a variety of side quests opens up, where characters simply have colorful dialogue directing you to points B, C and D, then rewarding you for what is essentially a second, third or even fourth trip through old areas shooting guys you’ve already shot.
The thematic drive, the sense of agency, is completely removed as the player travels through what is essentially recycled content just to earn some extra experience, money, and/or weaponry. While the player is completely free to ignore all of this stuff, the notifications will be spread everywhere and the story itself will be a lot more challenging, despite the game’s efforts to push the player into the appropriate level for the encounter.
In order to best meet the game’s challenge the player should tackle the side quests, yet tackling the side quests removes much of the emotional impact of the story. Each story-quest has a sort of arc, where an event occurs that will help a character in the story change or grow. This is an element more games need to make use of, to make story missions more episodic in nature, building towards the greater whole. Yet it is harder to feel an emotional attachment to anyone in this universe when most of your time is spent using everyone as a job board in order to go and kill things to pick up different colored loot and earn experience in previously tread ground.
Just as the original Borderlands, its sequel relies on the player being completely invested in questing and looting for no greater cause than to quest and loot. In other words, it asks the player to be nothing more than a bandit denizen of its own world that is cruel, heartless, and unforgiving.
Borderlands 2 is an improvement over the original, and there’s a lot to get out of its story if you so want it. The game seems much more preoccupied with making the player yet another mindless bandit chasing after worthless treasures, though, and that is perhaps the greatest weakness in what could otherwise be a fantastic game.