Arts video game review

Back to the grind

The popular first-person-looter is back!

5257 borderlands2 1
images courtesy of gearbox software
5258 borderlands2 2
images courtesy of gearbox software


Borderlands 2

Developed by Gearbox Software

Published by 2K Games for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360

If you played the original Borderlands and liked it enough to do a second playthrough, there is no point in reading this review past the next sentence. Borderlands 2 is worth its cost at $60; it has everything the original has, plus a real plot and an almost seamless co-op multiplayer experience.

If you haven’t played Borderlands, then this review is a bit tricky. Borderlands 2 is a great game, but it belongs to a very specific genre, one that is very hit-or-miss with most gamers. Knowing whether the game is worth buying depends very much on understanding what sort of experience you’re in for.

Technically, the game is listed as a first-person-shooter, a genre which calls to mind Halo or Call of Duty. This is a very misleading label. Borderlands 2 is more aptly described as an arsenal management simulator. Almost a third of your time playing will be spent with your nose buried in the inventory screen, comparing the stats on two shotguns to find out which is better. The other two thirds will be mostly spent grinding through hordes of enemies, hoping that their boss drops an even better shotgun. In this way, Borderlands 2 shares more with dungeon crawler games like Diablo 3 than it ever could share with the Halo series.

Many gamers out there find grinding and looting to be unbearably tedious and will simply not enjoy a game like Borderlands 2, no matter how well done it is. They will be repulsed by the frequent demands to collect 10 MacGuffins or kill 10 moogles, and drop the game after a few hours of play. But if you are the type of person who lives for the ecstasy of loot, Borderlands 2 is one of the finest examples of its genre ever created.

Choosing between options in your inventory of weapons — and to a lesser extent, the perks you get as you level up — is a constant challenge in constrained optimization. Borderlands 2 offers a dizzying variety of weapons: more than a half million can be randomly generated. Balancing between long-range and short-range capabilities, between burst damage and sustained damage, between ammo hogs and ammo sippers, and between accuracy and firepower — all while continuously upgrading to keep pace with challenges and maintaining access to the game’s range of ways to exploit enemy’s elemental weaknesses — is a serious challenge. Failing to kit your character with a balanced loadout often makes the difference in missions, sometimes turning an already grindy game into an extremely grindy, if not impossible game.

The combat is well done. Again, how the combat proceeds depends strongly on how you choose to equip and spec your character, but I found it both appropriately challenging and varied. These are traits that are very hard to find in a loot-and-grind style game, particularly when it comes to managing the game’s difficulty. Usually, game developers seem to focus their balancing efforts on a single design-basis threat, making the game near impossible for a single player who skips a significant portion of the sidequests, or a complete walkover for larger, more completionist parties.

To boot, Borderlands 2 brings to the table a set of qualities that fit well in virtually any genre. The well-voiced dialogue has a combination of dark, witty, juvenile, and self-referential humor. The game’s cel-shaded graphical style is a welcome break from the usual grey and brown shooter style, while having the added benefit of reducing the jarring effect of texture pop-in. The plot is…well, nothing that would win a storytelling award, but certainly better than the first game which had virtually no plot. Finally, the game handles multiplayer co-op with very few hiccups, making it easy to join in with friends online.

However, there are still some complaints to lodge. In multiplayer games, loot should be randomly distributed among the players instead of going to whoever grabs it first as it does in Borderlands 2. Vehicle handling could stand improvement, as could some of the game’s menus. And there is no good reason for why the game only allows one quest to be active on your heads-up-display at a time. None of these problems are deal breakers (except the loot distribution system in regards to playing the game with strangers).

For the most part, the question of whether or not you will like Borderlands 2 depends on whether looting and grinding is something that thrills or bores you. For enthusiasts of the genre the game is one of the rare few that deserves its full price tag — at the very least, pick it up in a few months when the price has fallen to around $40. For those turned off by grinding, even if first person shooters are your bag, Borderlands 2 is a game only worth considering in the $10 range, and even then maybe not.