Borderlands 2 opens with a botched murder plot, perpetrated by antagonist Handsome Jack, and from there it's a whirlwind pace of catching up with the old cast and shooting things in the face (or the robot equivalent of a face). The story isn't the shining centerpiece, but it's good enough to get you around Pandora, which has become a beautiful place since we last set foot on it.
The planet is riddled with distinctly themed caves, regions and cities that come with their own atmosphere and day-to-night cycle. It's a stunning place that is much more rewarding to explore in every sense, and a richer vein for item acquisition and exploration. More than just deserts, you could say.
The majority of the quests in Borderlands 2 come from a hub town called Sanctuary, so you spend far less time trying to get to some bounty board in the middle of nowhere to turn a mission in. This is a godsend and one of the small differences that shows a greater appreciation of your time, which is better spent tackling side quests or exploring Pandora.
Combat will feel familiar to returning vault hunters – just point your gun and shoot that snarling thing until the treasure pops out. Borderlands 2 is absolutely a shooter, one with more sophisticated, coordinated AI characters. But the real boon to combat is in the more diverse pool of enemy classes that compliment each other in continually fresh ways.
Jack has an army of robots at his disposal: suicidal units that run you down and explode, robots with big spinning blades that redirect your bullets back at you, some that carry shields or transform into jets, others that heal their partners, and robots that spawn ... more robots. The diverse, more deliberate combat situations that result continue to excite throughout Borderlands 2 and compliment its built-in pursuit of loot well.
And those shiny new guns and accessories are worth the effort. Acquiring a good weapon is a potent surge that pushes you well beyond your limits and forces you to play just a little bit longer. It's an addictive cycle that I was all too happy to fall into, again and again.
In the first Borderlands, tactics eventually reached a zenith – two tanks run in and draw aggro, while two other players hang back in support roles. In Borderlands 2 there's more nuance at the top.
The new Gunzerker, Salvador, feels more constrained than the other classes. Many of his skills funnel into the Gunzerking ability, which lets him dual-wield guns and drop a barrage of bullets on the battlefield in dizzying fashion. He's great at dealing with crowds and is very comfortable in that role, with little room to stray from that formula. With Salvador it's not whether you wanna Gunzerk, it's a question of how you want to Gunzerk. (That's a verb, right?)
Axton, the Commando, takes the place of Roland from the first game. He's the square-jawed everyman, and a solid fit for people who just want to shoot things without bothering with complex RPG elements. His turret is beefier this time around (and can be paired with another), can stick on walls, and has offensive upgrades with missiles and additional cannons. Axton feels like a natural evolution of the Commando class in all the right ways, offering an essential emphasis on offense in the more challenging Borderlands 2.
Maya, the Siren, trades in the ability to Phasewalk for Phaselocking in Borderlands 2. Like Salvador, Maya's entire skill set is designed to support and augment her Phaselocking, which can capture creatures in bubbles of magic and dangle them above the battlefield like a piñata.
I found her particularly potent as a kind of battle mage – she has separate skills where you get a chance to heal after killing a Phaselocked enemy and regain health while enemies are Phaselocked. There's also another skill where you can instantly revive a teammate in Fight for your Life mode by dropping a Phaselock on them, ultimately allowing Maya to straddle the line between offensive and support capabilities in a way that no other character can.
Finally, Zero is best described as a mixture of Mordecai and Lilith, with heavy sniper roots and a new version of Phasewalking, which Gearbox now calls Deception – a great panic button to escape particularly nasty situations. Playing Zero alone is pretty tough, but with others he's a great character for creating diversions.
The different characters work well in co-operation (you'll learn to love the Medic Maya), but Gearbox hasn't changed much here. The campaign is still better with friends, and you can still enjoy the spontaneous duel for bragging rights on who's built the better class.
Whatever a certain class lacks, Badass Rank helps to add some more wrinkles. In the first Borderlands, small challenges (kill 100 skags and whatnot) were compensated with additional XP. In Borderlands 2, you now get Badass Rank, and for every Badass Rank milestone you receive a Badass Token that can be redeemed to augment random stats. These carry across your profile, not any one specific character.
These additions, along with many others, makes Borderlands 2 an improvement on its predecessor in nearly every single way. Gearbox has done a great job of distracting you from the rote loot hunt, by constantly pushing you to go to the next objective and tightening up the rigmarole that is often the unfortunate byproduct of a game driven by greed and lust for shiny new things. There isn't much time to sit around menu surfing, because you're constantly finding new quests and places to explore.
Some of the quests are still hit and miss – fetch quests run rampant, and chasing down bandit caravans for scrap metal and jugs of booze is boring busywork – but the good far outshines the bad. It's certainly easier to recall some highlights: a pizza delivery mission involving some sewer-dwelling ninjas; a birthday party for a fan favorite character; or a quest to help Moxxi get even with an ex-boyfriend.
Borderlands 2 is full of memorable moments and silly, crass folks – and if those silly, crass folks happen to be your friends, it's easily one of the best co-op experiences out there, and one of the best games I've played all year.
This review is based on the final Xbox 360 version of Borderlands 2, provided by 2K Games.
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