Wednesday, 10 October 2012

REVIEW: Borderlands 2 (PC)

No-one expected the first Borderlands to be as big as it was. The FPS slash RPG hit came out of nowhere, billing itself as ‘Diablo but with guns’ and despite an archaic quest system and an underwhelming finale, it was a very solid game. What Borderlands got right was the very core of the game – you shoot stuff and collect loot. It’s the same carrot-on-a-stick gameplay that caused Diablo to make people abandon their families and quit their jobs. It’s success was rewarded with multiple DLC packs (some good and some... not so goodand last September developer Gearbox gave us a fully-fledged sequel: Borderlands 2.

Let me say this first and foremost, as it’s probably the most important point in this entire review: Borderlands 2 is a multiplayer game. While it is possible to play through the entire game singleplayer, I guarantee you that you will have much more fun playing with other people. If you don’t have any friends, try the online matchmaking included in the game – it works quite well. Even with just one other player, your abilities will synergize well, and you’ll find more loot that people will actually use instead of just vendoring.

You definitely want to bring your friends along for this one
To say that Borderlands 2 plays the same as Borderlands is an understatement. While it has a shiny new coat of paint and a whole new cast of playable characters, explorable locales and killable enemies, at its core it’s the same kill-waves-of-bad-guys-and-check-their-pockets-for-guns that made its predecessor so fun. And I do mean waves of enemies. Oftentimes you’ll find yourself cutting through swathes of psychos and midgets like a hot knife through butter. It feels really satisfying when you get enough gear and just the right skill points that you can become nigh invincible in some circumstances. If brute force isn’t your style you can sit back and snipe enemy weak spots from a distance, attack intermittently from cover, or even use the terrain to your advantage by creating chokepoints to funnel bad guys into your waiting shotgun blast. Like I mentioned before, having teammates with varied play-styles and classes really helps with maximise whatever strategy you choose.

I played the Gunzerker and my main play-through buddy was on the Siren. We worked up a great synergy routine where I would spec myself down the ‘tank’ tree, and he would spec himself down the ‘healing’ tree. Then I would sit there and soak up all the damage while he kept me topped up and took potshots at the baddies running towards me. Another friend of mine played the Assassin, and I also tried out the Commando for long enough to get a feel of him, so between the three of us we have some insights on all four classes. How about some introductions?

Pleased to meet you, Sir. Mailbox
I’ll start with Salvador, the Gunzerker – the spiritual successor to Brick from the first game. The biggest complaint about Brick was that in a game all about collecting guns, his action skill completely forwent the use of his equipped weapon. It didn’t help that his action skill was so powerful and could be upgraded to the point where, by the end of the game, I was throwing more punches than shooting bullets. Gearbox has fixed this problem and then some with Salvador, by giving him the ‘gunzerking’ action skill. Gunzerking makes Salvador pull out a second gun and dual-wield, while regenerating ammo and health. His skill trees augment his guns, his gunzerking, or his tanking ability. He feels really good. The skill is on a long enough cooldown to make it feel meaningful, but short enough that you can have it when you need it. If you want to feel like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the end scene of Commando, the Gunzerker is the class for you.

Salvador's gunzerking is a welcome change from Brick's berserk.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Zero, the Assassin. In the first Borderlands, the ‘Assassin’ play-style was oddly split between two characters, with Mordecai getting the long-range sniping and Lilith getting the turn-invisible melee attack. Thankfully, Borderlands 2 has combined both of these traits into Zero, giving him a skill tree that focuses on sniper rifles as well as an action skill and accompanying skill tree that are all about going invisible and backstabbing dudes with your katana sword. My friend who played him, however, felt that the action skill was a bit underwhelming when you chose to focus on the sniper rifle skill tree.

Maya, the Siren, is the new Lilith, and the ‘Mage’ class of the group. Her action skill ‘phaselock’ can be used to lift up and incapacitate enemies, deal massive damage, or instantly revive fallen teammates depending on what skill tree you go down. She definitely feels a lot more Mage-like than Lilith ever did, being capable of dealing a lot of damage as well as supporting her team, with the tradeoff of being squishy. Again, my friend who played her felt a tad disappointed with her action skill, not because it didn’t feel powerful, but because its cooldown was strange. He said it was too short to simply save for the more powerful enemies, but too long to use on EVERY enemy. It kind of hit this middle ground where it was just being used randomly, instead of tactically.

Lilith's phaselock is great for lining up shots on weakpoints

Lastly, you have Axton, the Commando. Many people, myself included, felt that Roland, Axton’s counterpart from the first game, completely trumped the other classes. He was meant to be the ‘jack of all trades’ class, but he ended up excelling at almost everything. His turret could heal, replenish ammo, and do a shit-ton of damage. Its only real drawback was its cooldown, which could be reduced with class mods and skill points. With ammo regeneration given to Salvador, and healing given to Maya, it leaves Axton feeling a little underpowered. His three trees focus on improving the turret, improving his own gunpower, and improving his survivability. The latter two feel like weaker versions of Salvador’s trees, and the turret feels a bit underpowered, at least compared to the other action skills. He fills a nice niche with events where you have to defend an area, or boss fights, and your teammates will really appreciate your turret drawing fire, but he is in my opinion the least fun class to play.

Axton's Turret is a little underwhelming

Moving on from the characters, the story is a little bit more engaging this time, with a lot of the side quests being well written and filled with more pop culture references than an episode of the IT Crowd, and the main quests having a lot more memorable characters and about 80% less Claptrap. I particularly liked the extremely over-the-top James Bond villain personality of Handsome Jack, the game’s main antagonist, and seeing the playable cast of the original game turn up as major NPCs was always a cool surprise. The only time the writing gets stale is when you get tired of the half a dozen one-liners that your character yells out when getting a kill streak.

Seeing the original cast return was a welcome surprise

The quest and map systems have been cleaned up a lot from the original game, and the addition of a minimap is a godsend. However, it’s still far from perfect. All throughout the game, particularly when I had to drive across the map for a mission, I kept wishing for the amazing waypoint system of the recently released Sleeping Dogs, which literally highlighted the route I needed to take in real time. Sometimes I felt like I spent more time studying the map and figuring out which route wouldn’t lead me to another dead end than I did actually playing the game.

Speaking of the driving, it’s still shit. Again, after having played Sleeping Dogs, and even id software’s Rage, which both managed to have fantastic driving sections, it’s so frustrating to see Borderlands 2 fail so miserably. The game forces you to use the mouse to steer, which is just infuriating, and the vehicles bounce around the map with all the grace of a seven-year-old in a bumper car. Their usefulness has been toned down a little bit from the previous game - you can no-longer instagib every enemy by running them over - and they are fragile enough to warrant getting out of them when under heavy fire. They suffice only to get you from point A to point B, which could have been better handled by expanding the fast-travel network.

The UI, while seeing some improvements, still feels too 'consoley' and difficult to navigate with a keyboard and mouse
One excellent addition is the new ‘Badass Ranks,’ a great little idea that makes your achievements actually mean something. Basically, in the first Borderlands, you had challenges, such as ‘Kill 50 skaggs’ or ‘Kill a midget with a grenade’ or whatever: stuff that you would just kind of get as you were playing the game normally, but were still sort of mini-achievements. They gave you a small bonus of XP when you finished them. In Borderlands 2, instead of XP, they are added to your ‘Badass Rank,’ which is like another XP bar. When you ‘level up’ your Badass Rank, you get a Badass token that you can use to give a permanent boost to all of your characters. The boosts are usually quite small, like 0.7% health, but they add up as you accumulate rank, and the fact that they are shared across all of your characters means that it is quite helpful when deciding to level a new class. The ranks are also infinite, meaning that even after hitting the level cap you have a way to improve your character.

Did someone say 'pop culture reference?' No? Okay, I'll just leave then
Finally, the game looks better graphically, but it’s not that noticeable unless you are really looking. The great thing about the cell-shaded cartoon graphics of games like Borderlands is that they age exceptionally well; meaning that the first Borderlands still looks good and the sequel will look good for years to come. That said, the physics of this game are absolutely phenomenal and if you have a physX capable video card, I highly suggest you turn the advanced physics on. Blood and water ooze and form pools like you would expect them to, banners and cloth tear apart as bullets fly through them, and the terrain explodes and kicks up debris when under heavy fire. It’s one of the first games that really take advantage of the physX technology and will hopefully set the standard for games that follow.

Borderlands 2 is the first game I've seen that really takes full advantage of physX
Borderlands was a game that had it’s flaws, but had a solid engine that was really, really fun. Borderlands 2 is… still not without it’s flaws, but is also still really, really fun. Again, I can't stress enough that playing this game alone and playing it with other players will directly impact on the amount of fun you’ll have. If you like murdering a whole town full of dudes and then checking to see if the numbers on their guns are bigger than the numbers on your guns, Borderlands 2 is the right game for you.

Verdict: Buy

Liked this article? Check out my Sleeping Dogs review

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