Borderlands 2 Review: Hell. Yes.
RPGs and RPGs
And you thought you’d make it to your death without someone making a pun out of Role Playing Game and Rocket Propelled Grenade? Shame on you. Now, I forced you to endure that terrible joke because you can’t talk about Borderland 2′s combat system without talking about the game’s RPG elements. Yes, this is a legacy feature from the first game, naturally, but screw Borderlands 1. You don’t need to play it to enjoy Borderlands 2 and in fact, that would be like enduring someone’s asshole brother in order to hang out with them. But if you did play Borderlands, the sequel will feel at every turn like a pleasant surprise, and that’s thanks to how beautifully combat and RPG elements are combined.
The Borderlands series isn’t a true RPG of course, but it is firmly within the looting-RPG-shooter-weapons modding genre (think Mass Effect with the game elements reversed). However, in the first game, RPG elements felt tacked-on, more a boring necessity than a strategic assist. In particular, I found that character classes didn’t really matter; yes, they were different, but I had few problems playing very similarly regardless of which class I chose. If that was your experience, wipe it from your mind because Borderlands 2 improves on both aspects of the game dramatically.
Character customization has been somewhat beefed up. You can collect new skins that change your character’s appearance, often to hilarious effect, and also class-specific mods that improve performance with weapons, melee attacks, health or powers. The leveling up system has also been improved with a ton of new options to choose from. The level up system from Borderlands returns, of course. However, new to the series are Badass Points. These skill points are earned from completing certain random obectives (like kill a certain number of a certain type of enemies, or complete a mission under specific circumstances), and are then spent on general upgrades like improved health or diminished recoil.
The cool thing about Badass Points is that they are essentially unlimited, and the points, or the boosts you earn with them, carry over between characters you create. The result is that characters you create after your initial run through start out with more advantages that your first character did, making games 2, 3, 4, etc subsequently easier, giving players a serious incentive to try multiple playthroughs1.
But the real joy comes from how each class has been rendered extremely distinct. That tripped me up when, having chosen to play as Zero (the assassin), I kept approaching things from a straight up shooter POV and getting my ass handed to me. You really do have to play according to your class’ strengths, which for me meant sneaking around, sniping and using elemental weapons or melee attack moves when desperate. Like the first game, each class has a specific power they can use, but this time around I felt like the powers actually came in handy. The assassin’s ability to create a decoy and become invisible, for instance, may be stolen from a lot of other games, but it really helped me get past some rather tough bosses.
Combat itself is fast paced and fun, regardless of class. It’s worth noting that the touted number of weapons is somewhat of an exaggeration. They’re basically variants of several archetypes: pistol, shotgun, SMG, rifle, sniper rifle, grenade, and rocket launcher, with varying stats, and they’re randomly distributed. This means you’ll spend a lot of time picking up guns that suck and are best used to sell for better weapons. This is a problem common to all games of this type, however, so there’s no sense knocking Gearbox for the issue here. And besides, the weapons are still awesome, especially new elemental effects. Essentially weaponized elements added to various gun-types, some elemental weapons set enemies on fire, others shock them, others poison them or do other kinds of damage. They’re especially useful in situations where your other weapons aren’t working.
For instance, if you’re having trouble remaining still enough to get head shots with your sniper rifle, switch to the ‘Evisceration Aegis’, a fire-based elemental weapon, and stop worrying about accuracy. Every few shots will set the enemy on fire, which saps them of life, earns you XP for every point of damage taken by the flames, and most importantly, makes them easier to kill. That kind of variety keeps things interesting, not only in combat, but simply looking for guns, especially because the looting system still kind of sucks (more on that shortly).
Of course, like the first game, story missions are basically a linear progression, while optional sidequests, which present themselves regularly, can be done in almost any order. In essence, just as with a traditional RPG, every time you start a new game, you’ll have what amounts to an almost unique experience. And the fact that you’re doing so while enjoying tremendous carnage makes for a strangely deep, satisfying play experience.