Jim spent the past ten days in hyper-hyped mega-sequel Borderlands 2. He has killed many things, with many, many guns.
Here's wot he thinks.
Deep breath. This is going to be a long one.
I suppose that to begin with I was a little disappointed with Gearbox's level-based, quest-driven FPS sequel. And it's true that the first few hours of Borderlands 2 are slow, and a little underwhelming. Sure, it's beautiful, but we knew that. And a couple of the jokes made me smirk, but that was a given, too. I began to sit back in my chair a little, wondering if actually I was doing something wrong. I was. But I'll come to that.
The truth is that the first few hours of Borderlands 2 are going to be thoroughly familiar to Borderlands players, albeit with a lot more expositional jabber being directed at you (all of it sits somewhere on the sassy/wacky axis), and familiar deserts replaced with an Arctic landscape that does little to stir the imagination. Not that any of this is fatal, of course, because most of those Borderlands veterans will be here because they enjoyed the original. It's just that, well, for many hours, nothing really stood out. Nothing sang to me in the way that original did. Worse, nothing really raised hairs or widened eyes. There was no “WOW” event to create a blip that you could write next to on the graph of my excitement. And this led to a feeling of unease.
It was immediately better when I turned to play co-op, of course. But that's always true. (Of almost any game.) We knew exactly how it would be true in Borderlands 2: the ramped up intensity of more and tougher baddies, the richer rewards of extra and better loot. It's just the same as it ever was. Only louder and more colourful. Co-op is what makes this game live. To miss that is to miss the point entirely.
But yeah, there's still an army of people who will get through it on their own. Or, like me, have a character for soloing, and others for co-op. Given that my brain is now a sort of petri dish experiment for long-term submersion in videogames, I suspect that my feeling of vague disappointment could be one that appears in other people's experiences, too. They might play a few hours and feel they have serious reservations. But the fact of the matter is that Borderlands 2 just takes its time. That might be an error of judgement: it probably did need a bigger opening few chapters. Being underwhelmed is not a great way to feel at the start of an epic game. But...
Borderlands 2 is a minor masterpiece.
Running for cover, under a hail of gunfire, I systematically looted my way down a corridor, and under a canopy, suck ammo from cases and lockboxes as overhead flying enemies tried to blast me with electrical weapons. Bombs were going off, and robots were whirling and stomping towards me. I looked out ahead of me, to where the next slalom of gun-violence would take place, and I realised that the game was singing. Sure, the song was a familiar one about the explosive ending of men and monsters, but the melody was perfect. And more importantly, it had hit a rhythm. I had hit a rhythm, and I didn't want to leave it.
It helped, perhaps, that the backdrop was so perfect. Borderlands 2's environments are a dream of jumbled technologies and alien geologies. Was this thing I was on a dam? It was part shanty town, part technological megalith, part brutalist functionscape, covered in detail and dereliction. And really, it didn't matter what it was, but the fact that someone had thought to design it with such definite purpose and repurpose made me smile. I was only going to fight there for a few minutes at the most, but true craft had been buried in its beams, bulwarks and buttresses.
This is a feeling I got throughout Borderlands 2. It feels like a game that has been cared for, and meticulously smoothed over. There was some bumps, which I will come to, but as an object of design it is exquisite and multitudinous. I found myself taking screenshots of action-free, incidental rooms, and of the menus, repeatedly. And that seems absurd.
Anyway. Returning to that feeling of unease, I have to say that one of the sources of it was a mistake. I chose the bum character. Or, more accurately, the character that was ill-suited to my way of playing. That was my mistake. I chose Zero, because the faceless, lanky assassin looked interesting. I liked the hawk-wielding sniper dude in the original, and expected Zero to be some kind of analogue, albeit with a stealth kick and a sword. But it was not to be. Zero's power involves disappearing and projecting a hologram of himself, before revealing you again with a boosted punch to your next hit. The idea was okay, I suppose – and it got me out of sticky situations – but the execution felt awkward. Worse, my ninja muttered ridiculous “I am become death” gibberish in my ear each time it was fired. Whatever, you wannabe. Shut up, or I'll call the police.
What a relief, then, when on my co-op playthrough I chose the Gunzerker. Obviously I should have chosen this character from the start. His power is to temporarily dual-wield (with additional buffs), and to roar and cackle as he does so. He doesn't say “I am death from the shadows” or anything pretentious like that, he just howls as his guns blaze, and enemies get their hit-points smacked out of their guts like chainsaws being thrown at a piñata. That's what I wanted. Not the ability to run away and hide, but the ability to kill, Kill, KILL. And suddenly the game was a degree of magnitude more magnificent.
You might argue, then, that including Zero was Gearbox's mistake. And perhaps it was. It's true that both the Commando, with his awesome deployable turret, and the Siren with her ability to phase-shift an enemy out of fights entirely, also seem, like Salvador the Gunzerker, superior to Zero. But the real decider of the quality on the Borderlands 2 show is not even the characters – who, as I will mention in a moment, are radically customisable and upgradeable to level few FPS could ever conceive – but the guns.
PC Gamer's Tom Francis made an interesting observation as I began playing the game, saying that the possibility that someone might not have as a good a game because of random guns was a real thing, and he wondered whether it might end up radically changing someone's feeling about the game, if they just happened to get bad hand-cannons, or if they received heavenly pistols. Of course the game always drops some superb weapons in your path, because it's just scripted to do so, but the other aspect of this is that when – and not really if – you get a radically ridiculous weapon, then things change.
This is exactly what happened with my Zero playthrough. At around level twelve I got a super fast-firing rifle that turned its bullets into explosive rockets, and sniper rifle that set people on fire and reloaded in a flash. Both of these were products of Borderlands 2's extraordinary weapon-generation system, which has in it hundreds of thousands of possible combinations. I had just peaked on a wave of randomness, and suddenly the game – and my less-satisfying-than-Gunzerker assassin character – moved into place.
It helped, of course, that this fluke coincided with the point at which the game stepped up, dropped an army of bleeping, burning, crawling-along-the-ground-when-crippled robots on me, and took several sidesteps into madness. While up to that point it had been straining to be zany, and making me roll my eyes, now it was thumping the ground with its crazy stick. And the entire game began to shake with it.
I should mention the skills thing. I am not going to spend any time trying to discuss the details, because you can see the full breakdown here. But I strongly suspect the majority of players are going to end up as a the commando or the gunzerker, just because this is really a game about firepower, and the powers of the Maya and Zero, while effective, aren't really interesting enough to shift the focus from simply being able to put down a lot of damage very quickly.
What's also interesting is that the game has a second layer of buffs, which are earned from your achievements. By completing them you get fractional percent bonuses to things like weapon damage and reload speed, which you can choose from a list. This essentially completes the achievement loop, and I suspect will be widely copied (assuming it's not already been copied from somewhere) because it makes achievements actually part of the game again.
And I suppose we should also make explicit that there's the whole issue of it being level-based hanging over the battlefield. That - as in the original - can have some annoying ramifications, such as you having to leave an area to grind lower quests, so that you can come back and find things a little easier. Or, grinding all those side-quests and blasting through questlines with no challenge. For the majority of the time the rewards you get from killing higher level enemies (more XP) means that you can plough through the main quest line without really spending to much time to divert yourself into sidequesting, but then you miss out. (I did, however, run out of ammo on several occasions, and have to hike back across the (enormous) maps to get stocked up again. No big deal, but I did feel that the game's attempts to entice you off the direct track and into is myriad of secondary missions was very weak. You've got to want to do them to really step off the main line.)
Worse, there's no way to co-op with chums at a different level. You will need to be in a couple of levels of each other for it to work. And that can mean waiting, catching up, creating new characters, and so on. When co-op is such a vital part of the game it seems baffling there there is no level-lending sidekick system to make this easier.
I should also mention that things seem much healthier with the PC version this time. Co-op is seamless drop-in/drop-out based on your Steam friends list, which works far better than Gamespy's awkward (and often router port-fiddling) interface from the original game. It also has a wealth of options both graphically and in terms of controls, as you'd expect from a mature Unreal engine game. The upshot of that is that on a high end machine it runs smoothly and can look spectacular.
Of all the things that I could take away from the experience of playing Borderlands 2, the main one was that, well, there are so many things. The game is enormous. On my second playthrough I am taking time to do more of the sidequests, and there are many, so many many, of these. Some of them are highly inventive. Some are dull, grindy, fetchy excuses for taking your time. Others are just outright strange. I am not sure why I had to murder the shirtless men. I suspect it was a cultural reference that I am missing. It felt like some kind of weird nerd revenge fantasy.
Borderlands 2 contains multitudes. It is a glowing, rolling, bursting-at-the-seams carnival of a game. What it lacks, with its Diablo-with-automatic-weapons levelling-up hyperviolence, are the scripted (dare I go there cinematic) highs of the scene-setting scripted shooters. (Although the appearance of NPCs as characters you can play alongside and interactive is a big step on from the original's static mannequins.) It also lacks any subtlety at all. It's a Molotov cocktail of a game. But it's also a near-miraculous feat of production, from character customisation to the way characters can be seen to be looking at holographic menus when you are actually looking at menus. In videogames, beauty is in the details.
I met one of the developers earlier in the year. He had not worked on the original, and he was quite happy to say that he thought things were easier on this project, precisely because Gearbox had already made the original game. They had existing, tested systems to work with. They had a defined art style, a cast of characters, and a world that everyone knew “feel” of. There was going to be no inchoate pointing at a moodboard, or wondering if the look was okay. No wondering if this system was a waste of time, or that. And I am sure that this was useful, and allowed the current team to stand on the shoulders of giants. It probably was easier to make Borderlands 2. But that should take nothing away from the sheer density of this radioactive slab of game design. It's enormous. It might lack emotional nuance, or tactical and strategic depth, but it makes up for it in screaming madmen on fire, beautiful alien landscapes, fascinating ways to pump lethal light into an Encyclopedia of caricatured monsters, and pumping, seething numbers, always going up, up, up.
Borderlands 2 is not perfect, by any means. I've listed some of the imperfections above. You might have missed them, I suppose, because I was dabbling in hyperbole the rest of the time. I do want to stress that you should be playing this game co-op. For many of you the temptation will just be to plough onewards with single player. I get that. It's a shooter. But please, for the sake of everything in this game, and your own experience, try to find someone to play with. If you don't have any chums then try the RPS community, or the RPS Steam group. Really, it'll be worth finding sidekicks. This game is thoroughly co-op, and you need to taste that.
Ultimately, the point is that this is a masterful game which understands its lot. It's a sort of super-healthy offspring from the original: genetically superior and displaying all the original game's standout traits with flair and confidence. It does do some things wrong. It's basically a known quantity. It's not exactly a rollercoaster all the way through. And you probably won't be all that surprised.
Nevermind all that. It's really about the guns. The many, many guns. And sometimes that's enough.
Borderlands 2 is out now in the US, and on the 21st in Europe.