Note: The following score given to the game is not the actual score. It is the subtitle that represents my main views of the game itself (i.e. superb, abysmal, etc.) Massive spoilers for the review will be here, so read at your own risk.
The original Borderlands remains as one of my favorite shooters of the past generation of gaming. Despite some of the flaws surrounding that game, it was one of those games that proved it didn’t need to be another dime a dozen military shooter to do well in today’s market. Borderlands was a shooter that took elements from the RPG genre, and slapped it in an open world for us to explore, collecting loot as bandit after bandit was slaughtered, while making it look really darn cool. I really felt a strong sense of accomplishment, once I finished the game (despite its anti-climactic ending) because it left me feeling like I accomplished something that wasn’t done before in the world of Pandora. Borderlands never told me that I did something amazing in an over the top cinematic; it allowed me to feel that emotion as I watched the credits roll by.
Then… Comes along the sequel. The hype around this game was pretty high, considering the way how this game was going to have more of everything (and the first thing had a lot to even begin with). After all, who wouldn’t want to collect even more guns while having a great story to go along with some beautiful vistas? It felt like it was going to be one of those games people would instantly love for years to come, and I can say that Gearbox has done a fine job of doing so.
Unfortunately for Gearbox, there are those times where some people are disappointed with a new release, and maybe even hate it because of the love they had for the original, and how the sequel completely destroys every bit of potential it had. I’m one of those people.
Now I’ll be blunt about this. A lot of my gripes with the game deal with flaws that many people will consider to be nitpicky. People might assume that a good amount of the problems I have with this game is because I sucked at it or I just hate video games in general. The truth is that even if you happened to love this game with a fiery passion, it’s hard to deny that there are some massive flaws when you take everything into account. My problems with the game centered on how its design philosophy seems to be “more is better”, and how it utterly ruins a series with the direction it took and was well-received by.
Let us look into the first two parts of the game that everyone seems to think have been fixed in this sequel, the story and the environments.
The story itself takes place after the events of the first game, where the death of the Destroyer has left behind huge amounts of a new and powerful element called Eridium for people to harvest. Not only that, but there are claims of a new Vault appearing, with claims that whoever reaches it first has control over a powerful monster that resides in it. The main focus revolves around a villain by the name of Handsome Jack, trying to seize control of said Vault to create a dystopian Pandora that follows his every command, while the four new Vault Hunters are out to stop him from accomplishing his goal.
At first glance, this seems like an overall improvement to the original game’s plot, whereas that game had players spent most of their time going on a scavenger hunt. We have a clear indication of who are main heroes are and a main villain to go up against, there isn’t any confusion as to what our main objective is, and the game itself has a bigger script than the original. All of this all sounds fine and dandy but there’s just a slight problem with all of this. The story isn’t any good.
My main problem with the story arises with Handsome Jack’s role in the game. I have no problems with him being a disillusioned psychopath who is bent on cleansing every so-called bandit in the game, but the indirect actions he partakes in do nothing more but make look like an incredibly stupid villain who only seems like a menace because the main heroes are even more moronic than him. The first and obvious flaw that brings his character down is the New-U stations. Their role in the original game made at least a fair bit of sense, since the people who can use it had to have gotten Claptrap’s help/permission in being registered to the system, so the Vault Hunters could be automatically revived every time they died. The sequel might use New-U stations like the original, but because they’re owned by Hyperion, the very exact company Handsome Jack happens to own, it begs to question as to why he even bothers to kill the Vault Hunters if they get another chance to live anyways.
This makes it more problematic, when you start asking questions like why these stations are even placed in areas like the room where Jack’s daughter, Angel, is being held at and Jack is shown on a TV monitor; clearly begging the Vault Hunters to not mercy kill her, why they’re all of a sudden placed near the entrance of the Vault he spend so much time fighting to get to, or just about anywhere near where his base of operations are at.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the game also expects me to take the scenes where Roland and Bloodwing are killed off in a dramatic fashion, and all I’m left is wondering “why couldn’t these idiots just use the New-U stations if they are all up for grabs?”
To take things even further; despite seeing Jack struggling to take down a failing resistance, he shows the player that he has the ability to apparently travel to any location with ease. If that’s the case, then why couldn’t Jack bother to kill one of the Vault Hunters by teleporting right behind them when they least expect it? Why did he even bother begging for the Vault Hunters to not mercy kill his daughter, Angel, when he apparently has no trouble taking down an experienced soldier and a Siren who has the power allows her to temporarily travel to a different dimension, meaning the enemy can’t do anything while Lilith has the upper hand in battle? The sad part of all of this is that none of the points I just mentioned are ever answered in the game, and that I should just accept Handsome Jack as a passable villain because the script tells me that’s what he is, when the reality is different.
Now some people may justify this by saying that gameplay mechanics like New-U stations aren’t considered canon or important in the story because the main writer of Borderlands 2 said so, but this is an extremely weak excuse. If I was writing a story for a game, the last thing I would ever want to do is break player immersion, by implementing a game mechanic that’s so counter-intuitive to the story, that it ultimately breaks any coherence to the plot. What makes this completely unforgivable, is how the developers were fully aware of this issue, seeing as how they have no problem giving the New-U station a few cringe-worthy lines of snark that constantly repeat themselves on how a handful of dollars spent on their service is supporting Hyperion, and even a mission where Handsome Jack offers a hefty sum of Eridium to the player if they commit suicide by jumping off a mountain, and acknowledging that he will still kill them despite amusing him for a bit, which implies that Jack knows the player uses Hyperion New-U stations.
Handsome Jack’s role as villain is even taken less seriously not only because he is insanely incompetent in being a villain, but also because the old Vault Hunters are now so unbelievably stupid and worthless in the sequel, that it questions why the new Vault Hunters even need their assistance to take down Handsome Jack, when the old Vault Hunters treat them like glorified errand boys. The most clear example of this is after I defeated Wilhelm with barely any effort (while Wilhelm was hyped up to be something that even the original Vault Hunters couldn’t handle), there is a Hyperion power core that clearly looks suspicious by omitting a red aura compared to the typical blue ones, and this also happens to be even more odd considering that the Vault key Mordecai claimed was near Wilhelm is nowhere to be found. I suspected this being an obvious trap but Roland basically tells me in a nutshell “There’s a power core that was can use to charge our shields that was conveniently placed inside Wilhelm, that the Vault Hunter took down with little trouble… Screw logic, take it!”
Speaking of which, wasn’t there a side-quest, where a small town settlement build a shield capable of nullifying Handsome Jack’s artillery missiles, with just a few low-leveled shields fed into a meat grinder, and no power cores required? Roland, why not save me and others the trouble, by telling the Vault Hunters to use that machine to build Sanctuary a shield capable of protecting itself from Handsome Jack's missiles, rather than making us waste time running around like a headless chicken to collect power cores?
It really pains me to see how the script for this game has taken a toll on the original Vault Hunters intelligence and personality as well. Roland, once the leader of the Vault Hunters who led them to victory against the Destroyer, against an entire island inhabited by zombies, against an army of pissed off Claptraps going on a killing spree, against one of the most powerful gun manufacturers at the time, now can’t even bother to organize his failing rebellion against another corporation run by an imbecile that allows their enemies to re-spawn for a small sum of money.
Lilith, originally a powerful Siren, capable of slaughtering countless enemies with her Phasewalk ability and acknowledging herself as a force to be truly reckoned with, now relies on Eridium like a drug addict would to do something as simple like engaging in combat, is an incredibly awkward character who underestimates her own abilities in combat or even basic social interactions with others, and couldn’t even kill Handsome Jack when he killed off Roland (i.e. her ex-boyfriend) with one measly pistol shot to the chest (in a game where shields can absorb bullets no less), and instead is captured by Jack effortlessly while the new Vault Hunter does absolutely nothing to save Lilith because the game pulls out a cutscene in thin air during this moment, proving that our heroes are incompetent morons that can’t do a single thing right unless the game gave players permission.
Mordecai, once a mysterious character who gave out badass boasts against his enemies, while his buddy Bloodwing would tear apart even the most heavily armored of enemies; as Mordecai would take out enemies from a great distance with either snipers or revolvers with excellent accuracy, is now a drunken loser that can’t even have the balls or time to avenge Bloodwing’s death and instead sends the Vault Hunters to do it for him in a side-quest, and failed to maintain a relationship with a woman that even a fat arms dealer like Marcus could have done at one point.
Brick, a powerhouse killing machine that was capable of beating the crap out of enemies and even the Destroyer in no time with his own fists, and being surprisingly efficient with using weaponry like explosives, now runs a group of bandits who are too stupid to acknowledge that you aren’t their enemy (something that Brick even said at one point), and takes an eternity to demolish a couple of enemy beacons in the game for no apparent reason other than the game wants to waste more of my time.
For the cherry on the top on all of this, the game doesn’t even allow players to keep a backlog of ECHO recorders they find on their adventures, something which the original Borderlands had. This is problematic if you happen to listen to one and die during its being played, or the game decides to interrupt them as you progress to an area. All of this showcases just how the developers took no time to think how certain storytelling elements should be implemented, and just blindly assumed that adding more dialogue equals into a more engrossing story. Of course, why should I even bother bringing up these criticisms of the story, when the developers or fans passively tell me “it’s not meant to be taken seriously” as an excuse far the game's failings, rather than taking a closer look at how things went wrong in so many areas?
So you get what I’m trying to say when I point out the game’s numerous plotholes, and how it utterly ruins the traits that the original Vault Hunters had. The story isn’t remotely intriguing when I notice how the in-game mechanics and quests interfere with the main story. Oh but don’t worry about me running out of steam. I’m not even getting started with this fail excuse of a sequel…
Let’s look at that wonderful art direction. Where do I even begin with tearing the art a new one?
I suppose I should start with the most glaring flaw that the original didn’t have, the mini-map.
I gotta ask Gearbox, why was this change made? Did any one of you even bothered to play the original Borderlands, and compared the effects the compass and mini-map had in both games? Did you guys not bother to think how this change forces players like me to constantly focus their sight at this tiny mini-map on the upper-right corner that poorly displays my current destination because the blue texture on the mini-map blends in with both vertical and horizontal areas, and since it’s the only way to know where we are heading without pulling out the map every few minutes, and also happens to take players away from the cell-shaded style that the game uses to suck them into its world?
The original Borderlands sported a compass that was above the XP bar, which was located at the lower-middle corner of the screen. You know, the center of the screen where a player is spending looking at most of their time in a first person shooter? The original compass helped sell the art style of the game because it was something that everyone would have their main attention on and get sucked into the world’s cell-shaded artsyle, not just because it looks different from every other shooter out there. It makes no sense to fix something that didn’t need to be fixed, and what’s worse is that this could have been easily avoided if the developers would have just bothered to give players the option to change the mini-map to the original compass, but they didn’t. All of this is even more insulting, considering how one of the game’s loading screens boasts on how it has numerous options, yet it ironically can’t even bother to have an option that could have made the biggest impact on the art direction.
Worse still, even if the aforementioned mini-map issue was fixed, the game’s art would have been inferior compared to the original. Enemies seem to re-spawn at the exact same spot for minutes at a time, completely taking away the attention of players from the scenery, and instead on focusing at a bunch of bullet-sponge enemies that can take us out with just a few hits. This is made even more problematic, because an overabundance of enemies are taking shots at every possible angle, at times where I don’t even know where they’re located because the level design is much more cramp and vertical than before. What I’m left with is a situation where I can’t enjoy the scenery, I am forced shoot a bunch of re-spawning enemies that are hard to locate at times, and dying numerous times because of this.
You could argue that I probably just suck at the game, or that I can just run away from the enemies if they’re such a hassle. Now I don’t know about you guys/gals but I been playing shooters for a long time now, and I consider the genre to be one of my personal favorites, I can tell when a game is punishing me out of my carelessness, or if the game itself being poorly designed. As for the last point mentioned, this completely goes against the role Vault Hunters partake in the game. It’s not fun for anyone to force themselves to run past enemies, just to avoid time being wasted fighting them, and it breaks the feeling that you’re in control of a deadly killing machine.
When not talking about the art direction directly taking a toll on the gameplay, the art by itself is another step down from its predecessor.
The original Borderlands was mostly made up of a barren wasteland, with very few diverse environments in the game. People argue that this artstyle made the game look bland and boring but I believe that is not exactly the case. It gave the impression that Pandora was a terrible place to live in, and that only those who were strong enough to persevere could be able to find a Vault full of riches. This art design added a layer of lore to the game, whenever you came to visit abandon shacks with bits of blood splattered against the wall, or fight enemies wearing makeshift armor, it really gave it the sense that this was a hellish place to go to, that mercenaries risk traveling to for the sake of a rumor of a Vault. The developers had an idea that this was the case, since enemies were less over abundant in Pandora, and there was more dangerous wildlife going around Pandora minding its own business, rather any than actual humans, meaning that few people were crazy enough to even attempt setting foot on Pandora.
The sequel completely goes against the original artstyle that the first game had. Pandora is a now much more diverse looking place, yet all of the areas don’t even mix well with one another. There’s a snowy region connected to a desert, which is connected to a lush greenland, which is then connected with a toxic field and futuristic city, then connected to another desert, and so on. All of these areas happened to be separated by a long loading screen, and the result is a jarring transition that gives you a feeling that you just traveled to a completely different planet in a matter of seconds. There’s absolutely no attempt to be consistent in the world geography like the original game, and the result is a world that feels like it was poorly meshed in together at the last minute.
Even worse is how despite the attempt to make Pandora a much more colorful and lively place, it happens to feel even emptier than the original at times. Enemies don’t ever seem to be out in the open patrolling the areas like the original, and just start popping out of their hideouts like they were all inside clown cars, making them feel less like humans, and more like I was fighting a bunch of Skags who can stand on their hind legs of all sudden.
This is even more evident in the towns you visit, because there’s absolutely no one else there but respawning enemies to fight. Nearly all of the optional NPCs you can "meet" are lazily slapped onto a Bounty Board (unlike the first game which allowed you to talk to talk to NPCs every now and then in different settlements). The only place I can think of where NPCs are plentiful is Sanctuary, but that is even more so remedy, since most of the NPCs can’t even be interacted with.
The only positive I can find in this game is the artstyle of the guns themselves. I can thankfully now see the point in knowing the difference between a Maliwan and Torque gun, unlike the original where many of the guns look similar to one another. But sadly, this is taken two steps back, thanks to how many of the guns (especially Hyperion guns) have this ugly, pixelated looking gloss on them as if you’re holding a cheap toy gun, and how the gun manufacturers now limit themselves to develop certain kinds of weapons for no reason. There’s no reason for Maliwan to not bother making an elemental type shotgun, or even for Jakobs to be the only supplier of a cylinder style revolver. Again, this shows that there’s no consistency with what the original had, and that the developers just added more while restricting themselves paradoxically enough, for no reason other than they could just get lazy and not bother making more guns.
Moving on to the sound department, it also has taken a hit but less severely compared to the other parts of the game. I would be lying if I said I didn’t find a few soundtracks to be enjoyable in the sequel, but the way they’re implemented doesn’t work out. Unlike the original game, which had an ambient soundtrack that focuses on making menacing beats as you traveled along the wasteland, or fast-paced battle music that had a barbaric tone to it to match the situation of dealing with depraved killers; Borderlands 2 tosses all of that away in favor of a sountrack that either is somber-sounding guitar music that is practically discouraging exploration, or something that comes out of a generic spaghetti western flick that poorly meshes in with the now more futuristic look of the game. A lot of the music Borderlands 2 just becomes background noise, thanks to how much time is spent concentrating in combat, and how most of soundtracks play softer notes that are difficult to hear or make no attempt to excite the player (an exception to this can be the Bloodshot Ramparts OST when engaged in combat).
Voice acting is pretty solid, but this again, is remedied since most of it is just someone sending you on a pointless errand where they’ll pull out the “Oh wait! You need to fetch me another item I forgot to mention!” line, or just hearing another one of Handsome Jack’s insults. There are a few exceptions like hearing ECHO logs or the occasional remark where a character talks to you about a past event, but these are far more outnumbered in comparison.
The guns themselves sound passable. Nothing to write home about but they get the job done for the most part.
Now saving the best part for last, the gameplay. I could write pages on the flaws the gameplay suffers from alone, but here’s the rundown of the problems I had with the gameplay.
The first noticeable flaw in the game is the tutorial. Now the tutorial itself isn’t all that bad, but the layout of it is what makes it a chore to go through. The original game had a much more smaller area, consisting of a small town where new players can feel comfortable knowing that they’re heading in the right direction, while experienced players can rush through the areas without being interrupted by the game many times if they wanted to try out a new class.
The sequel… yet again, takes that philosophy of “more is better” to this as well. Getting lost in a game isn’t always a bad thing, but adding more empty terrain for us to run through isn’t my idea of fun. I spent a lot of my time in the tutorial just running a long distance from point A to point B, and later then spent my time listening to the characters explain game mechanics that I already understood. The tutorial does a poor job of not only getting failing the players to get the information they need without drowning them with loads of explanations and getting them lost with the empty terrain, but it’s more obnoxious towards experienced players, who have no way of skipping the hand holding and just have to wait it out because the game assumes that were likely to forget what it just taught us while forcing them to cover a long distance for no reason other than to waste time.
Speaking of things that go to waste, how about that Eridium? Gearbox could have used Eridium as a gameplay mechanic and make use of it to deliver some interesting gameplay scenarios (i.e. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption using Phazon as a way player invulnerable for a bit, while risking the possibility of getting a game over screen if it’s used for too long). This is after all, a mineral that plays an important role in the story and is sought out by many for its priceless value. Instead of doing something like that, Borderlands 2 just reduces Eridium as a currency for increasing both backpack space and ammo capacity, something that was already done in the first game but with using your main currency instead. This comes across as incredibly disappointing, especially when playing as the new Siren, since you never once partake on what effects Eridium has on others like that of Lilith, and instead just imagine that something really cool can happen.
There’s so much more that the game limits on the player that it comes across as insulting, especially when the game keeps shoving in the notion that these new Vault Hunters are stronger than the new ones. Debates can go on if whether or not the new Vault Hunters are stronger or not, but I can say that the new Vault Hunters are more restricted than the original Vault Hunters.
Looking at another worse change to the game is how it removes the ability for a player to level up weapon proficiency, and instead in its place is a system where players level up many of their stats in an inferior manner compared to the original. The new system tries to justify its existence by having the ability to pass down these stats increases to other characters, but the increases are so low (at the most reaching 0.8, and later the increase rate drops) and eventually become so infrequent, that it comes across as downgrade to the original, where players could achieve high accuracy and quick reloads of their preferred weapon of choice in just a couple of hours of use. The original system even encourages players to switch up things a bit, since not only was ammo for all guns plentiful, but the increases went up about 6% or more in each level, so a sense of progress was steady and logical in the player’s mind. Even if Gearbox still wanted to implement this new system while removing the original weapon proficiency system, then they could have just bumped up the percent increase to about the same range as the original, rather than making me invest coins for a tiny increase in one skill out of the twenty skills to choose from.
Possibly the worst change the gameplay has made that makes absolutely no sense to me is the increase in ammunition price as the game progresses. Unless players are playing as a Gunzerker class with the right perks, ammo is bound to run out eventually, and players either have to start scavenging or purchase ammo from Marcus’s vendor machines. The prices increases get to a ridiculous amount of over 120 grand for rockets if players start a new game plus, but despite this, players can still purchase rockets for a dirt cheap price by buying them in their original playthrough. Simply put it, the game makes me exit my new game mode, wait for a loading screen, select my original playthrough, wait another loading screen, find a vending machine, purchase new rockets, exit the game, see another loading screen, then select my new game plus playthrough, another loading screen, and that’s the end of that. I suppose that if the new game wanted to make more of everything, might as well make everything into a bigger ordeal, because players value wiser decision making.
That’s the entirety of how the game is designed. Making everything into an ordeal seems to be something Borderlands 2 excels at. Enemies can move faster and attack faster than the player and the Battlefield-like movement poorly meshes in with this game’s faster sense of speed, dying results me into seeing a long cutscene where I watch my character die then slowly get revived in a New-U station, getting on vehicles take longer than before, loading screens are longer despite having a massive game installation, switching guns is slow unless I have a Commando class; which poorly meshes with the way Slag guns require you to switch to a different gun to deal more damage to enemies who have been slagged, later enemies have a habit of constantly pushing me all over the place as if I was playing a poor knock-off of Unreal Tournament, and taking down a group of enemies takes longer than it should when I spend over ten minutes in one area in hopes that game eventually stops respawning enemies.
Now I didn't bother playing the co-op much because my feelings for the game weren’t that good up to that point. After a bit of playing, I can say that co-op has received no improvement in my eyes. Here’s the two following problems that break the co-op for me. Players can still take most of the loot, leaving three other players empty-handed, and other players have the opportunity to interrupt ECHO transmissions or cutscenes by their own will. Perhaps I need a private party of three people to amend these problems but even with that being the case, nothing stops the player/s from doing what I just mentioned.
I don’t want folks to come across this critique as someone who is just here to nitpick, hates other people for liking the sequel, or even thinks that I’m a purist of the original. I genuinely had high hopes in the sequel, and at the very least I expected the sequel to fix the flaws of the original. The problem is that for every moment of the game I did find enjoyment out of, there were at least ten other moments where I was being frustrated, annoyed, insulted, and disappointed in what the sequel had to offer. The saddest part of this review is that these aren't even all of my problems with the sequel. I still have plenty more to say on the sequel, but as of now, I just feel as if I were beating on an already dead horse. If anyone is reading the final part of this, I hope that you can exercise good discussion on whether you agree or disagree with what I said.