‘Manic’ is the word that lurked spider-like atop my forebrain after an hour or so with Borderlands 2. It had been a sustained torrent of colour and noise, the slaying of small armies of bandits, insectoid aliens and flying buggies interspersed with frenzied, light-speed jabbering from a psychotic teenage girl. Borderlands 2 is attention deficit disorder incarnate, a whirling, gnashing Tasmanian devil of hypercaffeinated gags, shouting and violence. I won’t lie – I felt a little exhausted after playing it.
The basic beats of Borderlands persist – shoot’n’loot in open environments, trying to kill all the men and collect all the guns – remain, but it’s a far greater spectacle than before. The simple deserts are now filled with towering junk towns, exploding alien plants and outlandish colour, colour, colour. We once thought of Borderlands as more-or-less sitting in the post-apocalyptic genre, but with the second game it’s taken a side-turn into all-out comicbook excess. Borderlands’ artstyle and Borderlands’ tone always seemed ever so slightly at odds with each other, but in the second game they’re united in a push for tongue-in-cheek chaos.
Tiny Tina is, in the section I played (with a level 25 character), emblematic of this. A thirteen-year-old girl with a penchant for building deadly machines and blowing stuff up, she’s a wild-eyed creature who babbles incessantly in a strange patois of absurdist prattle, nursery rhymes and rap-speak – think Ren & Stimpy re-enacting The Wire. She spends her time organising tea parties for home-made toys and dreaming of murder.
She could/should be a tragic character, being as she is an orphan whose parents were slaughtered by a local bandit by the unflattering name of Flesh-Stick, but her resultant psychopathy is depicted with extreme comedy. She’s essentially a quest-giver, asking you to collect her ‘guests’ from nearby bandit bases, to collect a plate of crumpets, to make a few big things explode noisily and, ultimately, to lure the conveniently just around the corner Flesh-Stick to her tea party and his horrible death.
It’s traditional courier quests painted in lurid high-concept colours, masking their true nature to the extent that I have only just now realised that they were, indeed, traditional courier quests. Borderlands 2 is built on action-RPG convention, but it wears an ever-grinning clown face that successfully makes it feel as though it’s doing something all its own.
It’s going to be a tall order to keep this up over a developer-estimated 60 hours of campaign, both in terms of actually creating that much inventive content and not causing players’ brains to snap in the face of this sustained onslaught of gibbering frenzy. I mean – I *think* a lot of the dialogue was funny, but the verbal gags arrive at such a speed that I didn’t have time to process one before four more had pounced at my ears.
In terms of combat, it does feel like a meatier shooter than before, a more tangible sense of click,pop,dead rather than graphics on top of numbers. With a much wider variety of enemies and more of a focus on particular weapon types (acid, fire and the like) for particular opponents, I found myself almost forgetting to worry about getting a better gun or hardier shield because I was that much more focused on the death-dealing business at hand.
That’s an improvement, I think: my co-op experiences of BL1 were characterised by my comrades and I regularly stopping to stare silently and obsessively at their inventory in the middle of fights, but here my priority was enemy management during large-scale battles which stacked the odds against me. Between that more honed shootybang aspect and the frenzy of the tone and dialogue, BL2 does seem a far cry from the relative simplicity of BL1, even though you couldn’t for a second think the two were unrelated.
A host of returning characters maintain the links as much as does the art style. Scooter’s still running the garages, former playable sorts Roland and Lillith are dialogue-heavy quest-givers, and one of my missions involves tracking down Mordecai. Borderlands 2 seems to have built a whole new fiction for itself from stray bits of bobs of Borderlands, rather than having much to do with the so-so story of its predecessor. As a sequel, it’s much more about amplification than extension.
In everything from UI to dialogue to death animations to even the skies above, it’s cranked up, unreal – a sort of contained madness, the result of an anything-goes design philosophy butting up against mechanical limitations. I got the sense it’s essentially providing a framework for play, a tombola of chaotic vignettes rather than any sort of logical series of events. We’ll have to see, of course, but I think from afar that this is absolutely the right thing to do. With even Blizzard admitting that Diablo III struggles for purpose in the end-game department, the key to replay value is providing a packed toybox to rummage around in rather than simply seeing the same situations with escalating difficulty.
The new Badass Ranks system is intended to make tackling the game again with new characters feel like a reward rather than repetition, unlocking permanent, carried-over buffs and effects that are applied to your profile rather than just the one character. You’ll be able to accrue any number of these by completing in-game mini-tasks, such as x number of sniper rifle headshots or electrocuting so many enemies, which in turn reward you with a token that will permanently improve stuff like reload speed or recoil for any and all characters you play as. While individual characters have a traditional level cap of 50, there’s talk of players potentially getting thousands of Badass ranks if they put the hours in.
On top of that, there’s a bunch of visual customisation unlocks to be had, with assorted hats and suits that go way beyond the minor colour-tweaking of BL1. Let’s hope all this stuff stays contained within the game rather than being the herald of an army of paid add-ons, eh?
I also had a peek at a level 35 version of Zero, the new stealth-assassin character. He’s got a pretty nifty box of tricks at his disposal, such as summoning hologramatic clones to distract his enemies (which can be detonated if you purchase the appropriate skill), having his bullets pierce foes and carry on to anyone behind them, and an almost teleporting dash melee attack that covers a vast amount of ground in an eyeblink. He’s got the fastest cooldown of all the classes, apparently, and while guns inevitably remain the most important guest at his party, he’s going to be the guy to play as if you want something a little different to a straight-up shooter.
So, happily, Borderlands 2 does seem like a true sequel. While the majority of today’s manshoot follow-ups seem focused on simply how to sell the same experience again a year or two later, this one’s ramping up of systems, scale and tone appears to leave its predecessor looking rather small, simple and quiet by comparison.
I’m slightly worried it’s almost got too much going on, but then I say that having jumped straight into the mid-game rather than slowly nurturing my Gunzerker from level 1 and up. I do suspect I’ll need to take regular time-outs from its frenzy, but I can’t wait to wade into its impressively varied world of explosions with a few chums.