The formula for a Saturday morning cartoon isn't that hard to recognize. Composed of some trite dilemma and almost always resolved with a happy ending, they aren't exactly captivating dramas. Nevertheless, even the thinnest of plot lines or most repetitive episodic structures can be enjoyable if there's an endearing hook. A weekly ritual of following a favorite hero or cast of characters can be solidified by that one, cool 'thing.'
That's kind of how Gearbox's Borderlands came off: something that was held together with little substance or developed reason, but fun enough to keep you entertained. Not much readable effort was put into telling a story, yet mixing elements of the first-person shooter and role-playing genres yielded a game extremely competent in delivering a cooperative experience of loot gathering and level progressing.
A few years later on the real-world calendar, and five in Pandora's universe, 2K Games and Gearbox's Borderlands 2 shares a quality with those weekly TV cartoons: a noticeable formula. By sticking with the mechanics that worked the first time around, but adding exceptional writing and buffing out some rough presentational edges, it's a game that plays nearly identically to the first in the series—to a fault. In many ways, it'd be easier to point you to our review of the first Borderlands instead of putting energy into typing up this whole new piece. Some cutting and pasting, along with slight editing and updating would do just as well in describing this sequel; it's a series of steps that almost mirrors what Gearbox have done in their franchise.
In 2, you again choose to play as one of four different classes of warriors in search of another fabled Vault on an alien planet. Pandora is a relatively open world, effectively gated off by the level caps of your enemies, around which you run and drive, doing odd jobs for money and experience points either by yourself or as part of a group (two with splitscreen play, or four online). And once again, one of the main selling points for 2 is the myriad of weaponry and equipment to procure. Each character class has their proclivities towards a different caliber, but no matter the heat being packed, elemental ammunition adds a degree of strategy for enemies weak against one kind and resistant against another.
It's clear Gearbox have a set structure from which a “Borderlands” game is derived, and they have a very concise vision for how it should play out. Like those Saturday morning cartoons built from a base formula, Borderlands 2 doesn't deviate far from the debut mould. Instead, it livens up the mint with: sharper colors and larger, more detailed environments; more dynamic, detailed menu systems; and additional ways to upgrade up your characters (by fulfilling challenges like killing [X] number of enemies with [Y] gun).
The game's most glowing updated features, however, are found in characterization and story development. Where once there was a shell of plot, and mascot characters populating your adventure, we now get a tale of dual purpose: to fill in backstory for the first game, and create a noticeable conflict for the current one. In fact, Borderlands 2 does a better job of telling the story for the first trip to Pandora than that game did. Moreover, the characters who inhabit the world are more persona than quest board. They won't give you over-dramatized events, but they're violent struggles that, at points, are more fun to listen to than play, composed like a lost episode of “Archer.”
Yet, for all of its accomplished seamless co-op gunplay, loot grabbing, and witty dialogue, Borderlands 2 is still bogged down by the shortcomings of its debut formatting.
Despite its more well-rounded narrative and graphical updates, it's still a kind of gaming experience that's ultimately dependent on who's joining you in Pandora's wasteland. The infrastructure is tuned and employed thoughtfully, but Borderlands 2 does little to make more than an acceptable impression with its gameplay. The performances in quests are ultimately more entertaining than the fight to witness them. Quirky allusions to pop culture favorites and funny dialogue try to outweigh back-and-forth fetch and collection runs. Even without lengthy loads between areas and some quick travel, the numerous missions retread old ground and fall prey to the dull enemy A.I. littering Pandora's outposts, open spaces, and facilities.
Continually pressing towards you, enemies aren't skillful opposition. Battles against them are simply a matter of your level being higher than theirs and your gun having a higher AP than their armor's HP. Weak points make aiming required, but coming up with an attack strategy doesn't involve more than circle strafing. Should you conquer an area and level up beyond the enemies in it, retracing your steps through it for a side quest nets little experience and borders on tedium.
Repetitive gun fights don't become any more interesting once you push through to a tougher boss either. Managing shields, health, and ammo are secondary to exploiting glitches in how a larger enemy can traverse an arena since none of the four characters are particularly agile in comparison to your attackers. Even when playing as the assassin, Zer0, who's introductory cinematic makes him out to be the most maneuverable of the cast, you're forced into nearly routine battle tactics, just as if you were the more lumbering tank-like “gunzerker.” Abilities might be different between character classes, but things play out similarly regardless.
It's also a shame a greater emphasis wasn't put on creating other things to do than just shooting your way into and out of situations. There's enough quantity to embark on, making for a game that could take upwards of 40-50 hours to fully complete, but quality by way of variety is missing. I'd be much more willing to go back through a throng of murderous bandits—even the low-level, pissant hurdles—if doing so rewarded me with some sort of dynamic story event (a la Fallout) instead of just a chance at a better gun. Some quests seem like they'll award you with a campaign-changer, like a danger-free zone with faction allies, but they're instead explained away with something along the lines of: “They'll still attack you...because they're dumb.”
The line might be delivered in some sardonic, chuckle-worthy wit, but it takes the air out of the victory.
Reminiscent of the slightly less favorite cartoon sandwiched between the most popular ones, that's fun to watch because it has some neat touches, Borderlands 2 plays out in a comfortably familiar rhythm. Gearbox have done incredibly well in creating a lengthy game that can appropriately accommodate multiple players no matter someone's setup. Also, crafted with not only one of the most legitimately hilarious scripts (given your taste in humor) but skillfully produced opening cinematics as well, set to The Heavy's brilliant “Short Change Hero” (the original score isn't as impressive), Borderlands 2 shows depth as an entertainment product. That said, it remains a part of a series in need of more things to do than going around guns blazing for XP.
Do you care for more story or loot and XP in you RPG? Does it matter for Borderlands, or are you content with how things are going? Let us know over Twitter @Gamers_Hell