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In Other News – 23 April 2014

Borderlands 2 review – Still no rest for the wicked

borderlands2

It’s been three years since Gearbox’s revelatory, unique hybrid of role-playing game and first-person shooter captured gamers’ imaginations with its alluring cell-shaded aesthetic, ludicrously addictive looting, oddball humour, bazillions of guns and sublime co-operative play. The novelty of it all has worn away, its sheen and lustre lost to age. It was an underdog then, but its sequel’s out now – bringing with it a ton of expectation. Can it still deliver a compelling experience?

It’s all the same…

I’ll be honest; Borderlands 2 doesn’t really even attempt to go particularly far beyond the first game’s scope. Iterative and instantly familiar, it is in essence, largely the same game as the original. Sure, there’s more to the Anthony Burch-penned narrative this time – it’s actually a pretty damned well written tale. Still, it’s essentially the same story about a band of misfits, a new ragtag collection of Vault Hunters aided by a sad but hilarious robot,  trying to penetrate some alien vault, hoping for riches and glory – and to overthrow the vice-like, tyrannical grip that the rather delightfully smarmy Hyperion president Handsome Jack – easily the best antagonist in a game this year – holds over the planet.

Bl2shootyface

The world it’s set on, Pandora, is a much more lively place, vibrant and alive; instead of the dull, perpetual desert wasteland we’re now treated to an arctic tundra, cities, factories, highlands, a wildlife park and bifurcated plains. This vigour extends to the diversity in enemies, so you’ll no longer killing little more than dog-like Skags, psychos and midgets – though they’re all still there.

You’ll still collect a dazzling variety of guns, shields, mods and other bits of loot, your own hoarding tendencies driving you forward for much of the game.

In short, you’ve played this before.

But so very different…

So why then, does the game tell me I’ve played it for close on three full days? In spite of its largely iterative approach, it’s still some of the most fun I’ve had playing a videogame this year, if not the whole damned console generation. I am relentlessly and hopelessly addicted. Seriously. It’s all i can think about. Like some sort of nefarious digital narcotic, I can’t help but go back for more; just one more mission, one more mid-boss. By the grace of Bacon, give me just one. more. awesome. gun!

Bl2thegang

Speaking of guns, like in the first game, there’s a wealth of randomly generated guns, graded in rarity by colour, all exhibiting different characteristics based upon their origin. Hyperion guns, for example, ramp up in accuracy the longer you hold the trigger; the humorously misspelled Bandit weapons give you larger magazine sizes; guns from Jakobs tend to be western-styled revolvers  – and my very favourite, guns made by Maliwan are all buffed with elemental effects – allowing you to strip through armour, electrocute enemies or incinerate them. Each gun, though cobbled together, feels unique and interesting, with often flashy effects and modifiers. It’s an odd sort of numbers game. you’ll often pick something up, and pause the action to pore through every detail of your newly acquired loot, matching its fire rate or magazine size against a gun you already own.

B2snipe

The weapons – and indeed shields, class mods and the like – are far more balanced than you’ll find in the first game. You’ll be hard pressed to find guns that regenerate their own ammunition, and you’ll search forever for a shield that regenerates your own health faster than you can take damage. It’s a good thing; it means you’re probably not be too overpowered – and drives you to keep searching for better loot. You’ll want to, too – because unlike the first game, the enemy AI actually exhibits a little bit of the I; flanking you, calling for help or driving you out of your precious, precocious hiding place and generally making life much more difficult than it ought to be.

Bl2robots

A clear evolution of the previous classes, the new breed of vault hunters like the quartet before them, exist almost solely as shells within which to develop your own character. You’ll do this through the game’s extensive and varied upgrade skill trees. Once you’ve reached the requisite level, you’ll unlock each character’s Action Skill; an activated cool-down power unique to each character. Salvador, the effusive furry midgets gains the ability to duel–wield, with skills that enable him to regenerate ammo and health, turning him in to a tank or damage dealer; Maya, the Siren, equally adept at healing and hurting, is able to phaselock – trap an enemy within a ball of energy, temporarily rendering him useless and open to fire; Axton, the Commando, can deploy a turret, doling out massive damage or acting as support.

My character of choice though – at least for the first of many playthroughs – was zer0, the stabby Assassin. A ninja, equally *stab* proficient in stabbing as he is at shooting things in the *stab* face from the distance. His action skill, deception, offered *stab* far more use than I’d imagined. It temporarily turns *stab* zer0 invisible, throwing out an enemy-bewildering *stab* decoy to confuse opponent while you line up the perfect shot, or get in close for a stab or two. It’s *stab* useful for more than just killing; the moments of enemy *stab* confusion helped me slip *stab* out of danger – or aid a downed *stab* comrade. Mostly just stabbing though.

I focused almost all my level-up skill points in to his melee-focused “bloodshed” skilltree – turning him in to a lethal, unseen close-quarter deathdealer.

Skills aren’t the only way to improve your character; new to the sequel is the Badass Rank, where completing in-game challenges nets you badass tokens, a currency you can use to incrementally buffs your character’s stats. Things like Gun Accuracy, maximum health, shield efficacy and the like receive a permanent increase that’s tied not to your character, but your profile – so they carry through to subsequent playthroughs. Like the looting, it’s awfully addictive, giving you even more reason to keep playing. Just. One. More. Token.

At the apex of the bloodshed tree, zer0’s deception continues as long as he’s still killing stuff – and under the right conditions, Zer0 is more than capable of clearing out an arena full of bandits by himself.

Not that you should be playing alone, mind you. The game’s unquestionably built around a co-operative experience, and really is best experienced with friends. I played through the entire game with others and it really is the best way to play. There’s an interesting interplay between the classes; the siren’s phaselock presents a great opportunity to deploy the commando’s turret, while the assassin snipes from the back and the gunzerker…well, pretty much shoots the hell out of everything.

Garth was our Gunzerker:

Sexual Tyrannosaurus!! That’s me. I’m the toughest, meanest person on Pandora. I DUAL WEILD guns for the best fun! AKIMBOOOOOOOO!!!

Do you want to be the toughest thing around? Salvador has a way of surviving most anything, or softening things up for killing in a second wind. He doesn’t run when his shields deplete, because that is where the real fun starts, with skills (so many options, so few skill points!) that up his damage, reload speed and general face hurty as he takes more damage. Or make him the Jakob using powerhouse that overkills everything, then transfers the extra damage to the next target, making for a trail of gobs. Otherwise, learn how to gunzerk almost constantly, regenerating health, ammo and using two guns at once. What else could you possibly want? Salvador is also the most fun character to listen to, because he is deranged. DERANGED.

OOH, NEW TOY!!!

Our fearless leader, meanwhile, opted for Axton, the Commando:

Surrounded by the insanity that is Pandora stands my Commando, the only rational character out of the bunch and the one with the most believable skills. But don’t let this put you off as the Commando is the ideal class for anyone from a shooter background who wants to try out this new genre of gaming. His skill tree’s all surround his faithful turret which becomes your very best friend in the game. Whether you go for the supportive turret that can regenerate your health and ammo or you double turret or upgrade to the nuclear turret it doesn’t really matter as it will save your life on countless occasions.

The Commando is also the best class for clearing out an enemy camp from a distance, all you do is longbow your turret into the middle and all the enemies will target their fire onto that while you snipe them from a distance.

The Commando is the  Hannibal Smith of this particular A-Team

Brenda, naturally, was the nurse, Maya the Siren.

My, oh my, it’s Maya…

I love my Siren class, and not just because I have really weird tastes. She’s a completely different beast than her predecessor, a lean and mean machine who doesn’t dominate the battlefield, but controls it instead.

Phase-Lock has to be one of the most useful skills in the game, and one that encourages experimentation and re-speccing. Need a team player who will keep your guys alive in an arena? Baby, lemme heal you with my bullets. How about a walking weapon who can do crowd control?

I’mma let you finish, but I first want to show you my phase-lock that creates a singularity, and then explodes in a goregasm of fire,acid and lightning!

She’s may be frail, but in the right hands, Maya can lay down one serious smackdown when the situation calls for it.

The best thing about the evolved classes is that they’re no longer tied to specific guns (save perhaps for Zer0’s affinity for sniper rifles), so just about every awesome gun – whether it be a combat rifle, SMG, pistol – you find has some worth to your character, or perhaps your secondary character – or even a character you’ve yet to start.

Bl2pandora

There are some persistent issues with co-op play that carry through from the first game; notably, everybody playing has to be on or around the same level, or the balance falls to pieces, so it’s best to play with the same group. Beyond that, the only real complain I have is that it’s consumed days of my time.

Sure, it might not be a great leap from its successor, but it’s bigger, badder and better – and one of the most fun games I’ve ever played. And isn’t fun what games are all about?

Scoring:

Gameplay: 8.5/10.

Borderlands blends together the best things about shooters, with the t best things in RPGs. Instant satisfaction from gratuitously violent headshots, and the reward of looting and levelling up. The quests, especially those that drive the main story can get a little tedious – fetch this thing here, go here, collect that, shoot this guy – but they’re made up for by the real meat of the game, the genuinely entertaining side-quests that inject a lot more variety to the grind.

Design and Presentation: 8.5/10.

Borderlands’ vibrant, cell-shaded aesthetic is hardly changed – but it still works. The new locales breathe a bit of life in to the dusty wasteland, making it seem more like an actual place. the quests, even side ones, are all fleshed out with full voice acting, and you’ll never have to read through walls of text to find out what you have to do. The game’s new faux 3D menus, I find, simplify equipping and sorting through your inventory, but Darryn’s of the opposite opinion.

Value: 9.0/10.

Three. full. days. that’s how much time I’ve spent in Pandora, and there’s no sign of me stopping any time soon. I’ve only played through with one character (twice, mind you) – and there are still another 4 for me to try, each offering unique ways to play. I could, quite happily, play this for months.

Overall: 9.0/10

It’s just so much damned fun, filled with memorable characters, genuinely funny humour (not an easy thing to accomplish in a game), more pop-culture references than you can shake a stick at and lots, and lots of things to stab, shoot, or blow up. Also, lots and lots of things to collect.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to find me another awesome gun.

[Reviewed on Xbox 360, played through in co-op. Still being played.]

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Author:Geoffrey Tim

I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.


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