The fall. The season of the harvest when the hard work of the year comes to fruition. Yet in most industries, the fall is not typically the time when products and services are introduced. However, in the video game industry, gamers eagerly await the fall. From the usually barren summer months, there is a sudden and sometimes overwhelming influx of great titles emerging in the months before the holiday sales period. With the release of Borderlands 2, gaming’s strongest season has begun. The sequel to the 2009 surprise hit, Borderlands 2 is an open-world first person shooter with a strong sense of personality and a whole lot of loot.
As someone who enjoyed the first game, I eagerly awaited this release and fully expected the developer, Gearbox, to expand on the successes of the first game while maintaining the core essence of the universe and gameplay. Therefore, I wanted more missions, character development from the first game, and, of course, a lot more guns. Diving into the expansive and diverse world of Pandora, I found that Gearbox accomplishes their goal but that the game doesn’t deliver the same level of fulfillment as the original.
The best way to describe Borderlands 2 is that it’s an amalgamation of elements of other great and addictive games from different genres. The loot is reminiscent of that found in Diablo III and World of Warcraft, the game’s sense of humor seems to derive from Portal (albeit, it is more sophomoric), while the gameplay is a mixture of Bioshock, Call of Duty, and Fallout. It’s obvious to players that Gearbox is a development team consisting of passionate gamers as there are a slew of homages to great gaming franchises. During my extensive playthrough I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of easter eggs within the world. References were made to Minecraft, Metal Gear Solid and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Borderlands 2 is a game that is readily aware of the zeitgeist. The crowd-pleasing references to nerd and internet culture and the contemporary dialogue are among the strongest elements of the game.
While this ambitious blueprint made up of a combination of elements from other successful games could result the best of all worlds, it could also result in components of overall lower quality. Many times games with ambitious mechanics suffer in the details with poor graphics, music or dialogue. Luckily, Borderlands 2 is a beautiful game, filled with bright cell-shaded colors and strong, mood-defining music. Additionally, the dialogue written by Mikey Neumann and Anthony Burch is phenomenal and is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. It is this laughter, the regularity of which is second only to that found in Portal, that masks overwhelming problems in the overarching narrative of the vault hunters on Pandora. The story and most of the characters aren’t memorable. Gearbox attempted to create a narrative that would thrill fans by including characters from the first game, yet I barely recognized them. There are a few comical characters who deliver great dialogue, such as Tiny Tina, Sir Hammerlock and Brick, but their appearances are few and far between. Most surprisingly, in a game overflowing with missions, there is almost no protagonist or antagonist character development.
Luckily, the gameplay in Borderlands 2 is well designed and engineered which allows one to more easily overlook the weaknesses in the story. In particular, the variety of weaponry makes the continuing level grind in Pandora less unbearable. When you finally find that powerful shotgun or the perfect elementally infused sniper rifle, there is a sense of accomplishment that ultimately doesn’t come from uncovering the mystery of the vault key. This continuous, addictive looting is the largest reason to play the game on the more difficult setting (known as “Vault Hunter Mode”) after you finish the campaign and slog through the plethora of side quests. Ironically, a large frustration that I had with the gameplay was the sheer number of sidequests many of which were repetitive retrieval based missions. There were just way too many missions of less than exciting quality. These type of quests are a staple of the grind found in Japanese RPGs and online MMOs, but seemed to serve as a gimmicky way of extending the campaign in this case.
The goal of expanding a large, addicted fan base seems to be the motivation behind other design choices as well. Gearbox included four different classes to choose from and announced a fifth which will be coming out along with several DLC packages. Although each of the classes have different skill trees and suggested play styles, most players I encountered utilized similar strategies during firefights. I chose the Commando class, toted as the well-rounded character, largely because the class’s special skill was the ability to deploy an automated turret. This choice was entirely satisfying especially after I unlocked the bonus skill of setting off a nuke when deploying the turret. The blast made my teammates scream out in awe and saved me in countless firefights.
Speaking of teamwork, Borderlands 2 is specifically designed to be played with other people. I played roughly the first half of the game in solo mode which resulted in many frustrating boss fight deaths. Teammates have the ability to revive you once your shields have depleted and you have lost all your health, but while playing solo you cannot self revive unless you score a kill while bleeding out. This is almost impossible during boss fights and your death results in a checkpoint respawn, loss of money, and, most infuriating, fully replenished health bars for all enemies. However, the catch-22 of playing with other people is that the addictive looting looses much of it’s enjoyment. Unlike in other games, there is no randomly chosen winner of dropped weapons and items based on class type or need, rather it is a first come first serve basis–whoever happens to be in the right place and can hit the button the fastest gets it. In some of the major boss battles or quests, including the final boss of the game, my character walked away empty handed. This was a major disappointment largely because I didn’t play the game to see the conclusion of the story. I finished missions in order to encounter additional enemy types, develop more powerful skills and find better weapons.
Borderlands 2 suffers from a confusing story, but the core gameplay mechanics and diversity within the world and weaponry make it enjoyable to play. Gearbox is undoubtedly made up of passionate gamers who love the culture surrounding the industry and the games themselves. It is this passion that crafted Borderlands 2′s greatest strength, its true essence: the gameplay. Video game enthusiasts have been polarized largely because of their varying beliefs about the most important element of a great game in the modern age; whether it is based on enjoyable core gameplay or great storytelling. In truth, there are more games than one can possibly play and it is becoming clear that a game must include a combination of both in order to merit the purchase. Borderlands 2 will sell well because it is one of the first games to be released in the golden season or releases, has a visible, well-funded marketing campaign, and a loyal fan base. Gamers will find the purchase justified by the genre-hybrid gameplay and the great dialogue, but will definitely be disappointed by the narrative and lack of character development.