What's behind the second door in our advent calendar? Is it an RPG, is it a plane? Could it be roguelike, or doomlike? Is it real-time, or turn-based? Is it a conversation piece or simple food for thought? Let's find out, with a seasonal click.
It's... Borderlands 2!
Jim: Perhaps the most notable thing about gaming in 2012 was the sheer variety of games that have captured our attention. Of course it's true that the gaming sphere is always pretty diverse, if you look closely, but in 2012 that seems particularly true precisely because of the quality of so many of these efforts. Even with the traditionally monolithic genres like the first-person shooter, we have seen a broad effort to pack things with well-crafted difference.
At the point at which the Venn diagram of our hobby sees overlap between action-RPG and high-budget FPS, we find the Borderlands games. Lavish apocalyptic cartoons, both, but with the second one it's a different degree of magnitude. This is one of those sequels that knows how to stand on the shoulders of its giant predecessor, and builds spectacularly on every aspect of it.
With numbers popping out of the heads of enemies as soon as you pull the trigger, and levelling up dominating the progress through the best part of a million procedurally-generated weapons, it's clear that this is a game about stats. Numbers. Sometimes numbers getting bigger is enough.
And that sounds a bit cynical, I suppose, until you are in the thrall of it. The truth is that everything about Borderlands 2 seems might rest on simple trees of numbers, but the resulting structure is lavish to the point of being opulent. It's one of those games that feels less like a shooter, and more like a dramatic act of production: developer Gods showing off just how much universe they can create in a figurative seven days. The environments spill over with ramshackle architectural fiction, and are heaving with maniac villains to be depleted of their hit-points and careful hoovered for loot. Even the menus feel luxurious.
Yes, there's so much of it. So many quests. So much world. A sprawling avalanche of side quests that must be surfed through on a quest to save Pandora from ultimate exploitation and doom. The characters are, this time, exaggerated to some ludicrous degree. Everything from the original game has been thrown into Gearbox's hyperbolic caricature amplifier, and come out screaming, on fire, and reeling off terrible jokes.
If anything, Borderlands 2 is almost too much. It's such a sustained howl, and it comes with so much noise, that it almost feels like too much for old men like us.
But there's no denying the quality of that noise, or the colourful conceits of mad weaponry and masked-murderers screaming towards you with molotovs raised. It's a barking mad science fiction cake, the icing of which is its brilliant presentation of a world in which it's as easy as anything to drop in and out of your friend's parallel pocket universes – a perfect co-op package which multiplies the mayhem until everyone is rolling in loot, and raging through a zoo of “badass” alien enemies that make any other shooter this year look like weak lemon drink compared to Borderlands 2's shocking cocktail of mechanics and styles.
Yeah. This one made me roll out the red carpet of hyperbole, and I expect whatever follows in its footsteps will do so, too. Even if you aren't, Gearbox must be laughing.