Borderlands 2 – PC
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date (NA): September 18, 2012
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
Reviewed by ryanvoid
The world is lousy with mediocre first-person shooters. As soon as game developers saw the breakthrough appeal of GoldenEye 007, they out churned a river of trigger-happy clones with roughly the same premise – blast your way through hordes of goons, wade through cutscenes written by Steven Seagal’s interns, feel disappointed by your tiny sidearm. It didn’t matter much what you were shooting – zombies, Nazis, aliens, and terrorists (I leave it to much better writers to discuss the pervasive xenophobia haunting the last decade of military shooters) all got mowed down without the player having to think about much of anything. Rinse, repeat, reload.
Which means I get pretty fucking giddy about an FPS that tries, and mostly succeeds, to be interesting enough to justify dozens of hours of playtime.
You play a Vault Hunter on the planet Pandora, a crapsack world full of blasted landscapes and hostile tundras, and your goal is to defeat Handsome Jack, the despotic ruler of Pandora, who’s trying to open the same locked vault full of [insert Mineral MacGuffin here]. Along the way, you meet prepubescent demolition experts, alcoholic falconers, socially inept robots, and a burgeoning resistance movement bent on taking Pandora back from Handsome Jack. The game takes place five years after the events of the original Borderlands, and all of the original Vault Hunters appear as NPCs to give everything continuity with the previous installment. Which helps, because Borderlands 2 dials the gonzo humor and violence of the original up to eleven, until it can only be related back to its predecessor by squinting really, really hard.
Since I prefaced this review with a wheezy rant about first-person shooters, let’s start by talking about guns. Bizarre, enormous, impossible guns designed by Dr. Seuss’s gun-nut cousin.
A great aspect of sci-fi shooters, especially sci-fi comedy shooters, is that they don’t strive to catalog their vast array of weaponry by hardline real-world standards. (Somewhere in the distance, a Call of Duty player grimly admires the historical accuracy of whatever rifle he’s using to plug a Nazi in the head before eating an entire loaf of white bread.) The cartoonish aesthetic of Borderlands 2 makes the enormous array of guns with names like Skookum Muckamuck, Facilitating Fibber, The Bee, Corrosive Teapot, and Extra Large Splatgun feel completely at home in the bizarre world of Pandora. The mechanic of each gun is unique, and the game builds beautifully on the original Borderlands’ already exhaustive selection of boomsticks. At certain points, it can be frustrating to figure out which weapon to use because of the profusion of guns on Pandora. Do you want the Extendified Magamum or the Zapper Ass Beeter? Choices.
And it’s the sheer glut of available guns that provides Borderlands 2 with a dynamic I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced in an FPS: fast-food guns. They’re disposable, there’s a billion of ’em, and you could lose your entire inventory and gain a better one at any time. The game plays it so fast and loose with gun selection that it really doesn’t matter which gun you care to shoot people with. If you have a head for numbers and statistics, you might run the risk of comparing gun stats until your eyeballs turn the translucent blue of a computer screen, but mostly you look at the damage bar and pick up guns that kill people more quickly or light them on fire or become a throwable grenade every time you reload. You know, if you’re into that.
The gameplay itself is wildly inventive, even if it occasionally falls flat due to repetition or sheer irritation. One of the most interesting elements is the Second Wind system, in which you get a chance to come back to life by killing an enemy before the timer runs out. There’s something lovely about fighting tooth-and-nail to cling to life while surrounded by bands of bloodthirsty raiders and even managing to come out on top. It’s in direct opposition to the all-or-nothing nature of most shooters, in which you instantly die upon taking one too many hits, and it gives you an opportunity to revive teammates who are slowly dying themselves.
And the co-op mode of Borderlands 2 is one of the biggest draws of the game. It can be maddeningly difficult to try and blaze through it on single-player mode (spoiler: you die a whole lot), but the online co-op mode enriches the entire experience. You harvest loot together like a band of vultures and steer hilariously jerky land vehicles with your friend in the gunner seat as you avoid other ungainly raiders – Mad Max by way of bumper cars.
The writing is, by-and-large, fantastic. Writer Anthony Burch (of Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’ fame) is in top form as he makes the denizens of Pandora rattle off an endless series of one-liners. In the hands of a less talented writer, this could come off as overly precious, but Burch redeems it by being genuinely hilarious. The oddball sense of humor infuses almost every aspect of the game, and the downside is that it can be hard to take moments of genuine emotional pathos or gravity seriously because you’re constantly waiting for the punchline. Especially any moment with Angel, who essentially functions as a woman-in-a-refrigerator version of Clippy the Office Assistant as she helps guide you through the first half of the game.
But then there’s Handsome Jack. Lord have mercy, there’s Handsome Jack.
Borderlands 2 might have one of the most delightful villains I’ve ever seen in a game, and certainly in a first-person shooter. He sounds like the evil Sterling Archer, and he sneers and laughs and wheedles and threatens with loads of panache; a proper Magnificent Bastard antagonist. As his character unfolds and you learn more about how he came to be in control of Pandora, the reveals feel honest and satisfying. Whatever missteps Borderlands 2 makes with dialogue or characterization, it more than justifies it solely through Handsome Jack. One of the more interesting subversions of his character is the menace bubbling just underneath his glib one-liners; he’s a complete monster who covers it up with snarky quips, and it’s the very real menace of his character that makes him so much more than an Affably Evil clown.
Borderlands 2 is by no means a perfect game, but exactly how many sci-fi comedy shooters can you name off the top of your head? It doesn’t always stick the landing, but even when it falls flat, it falls flat in the name of Doing Something Different. And there are enough sidequests and DLC to keep you enjoying yourself until your grandchildren are old and gassy. Who needs gritty hyper-realistic shooters when you can go on a sidequest to help a redneck mechanic write a poem about robot sex?
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