You'll shoot and loot yourself silly in Borderlands 2

With such a winning formula introduced in the first title, Borderlands 2 has a lot to live up to. So how does it handle the pressure?

It's been nearly three years since the team at Gearbox Software released a new open-world RPG franchise with a unique art style and curiously addictive gameplay. Borderlands went from a sleeper hit to blockbuster seemingly overnight; since its release, it has seen sales in the range of 5 million copies.

Borderlands' looting-focused formula encouraged and rewarded exploration, which helped ease the otherwise intimidating undertaking that some RPG titles can endure.

With Borderlands 2, Gearbox Software has tweaked and refined the genre -- mind you, a hybrid that it seems to have invented -- and has unquestionably topped itself.

Gearbox Software

Jeff: Hundreds of side missions, a deeper and more engaging narrative, and a dizzying number of weapons, modifications, and accessories, Borderlands 2 delivers in every way a sequel should. It's gorgeous, surprisingly more addictive than its predecessor, and has a witty, sharp, and at times hilarious script.

Visually speaking, it doesn't get much prettier than Borderlands 2. Things look even better than the original, and the painstaking attention to detail in enemy, environment, and architectural design is fabulous.

The gameplay in Borderlands 2 is mostly that of a first-person-shooter, but I found myself micromanaging my loadout during a sizable chunk of my playtime. That's not a bad thing, as every new area has the potential of harboring the next coveted weapon upgrade that I so desperately have been seeking. Again, the incentive for exploration is incredibly strong in Borderlands 2, so scouring the land for every possible container is not an uncommon practice.

Gearbox Software

Compared with the original, I think Borderlands 2 does an even better job at introducing core game mechanics early on and then ramping up the difficulty. Things do seem to get harder a bit quicker than I thought they would, but it's all part of the plan to teach you how to survive in the fictional land of Pandora.

Even more so than in Borderlands, its sequel encourages playing with up to three other users in what's arguably one of the best co-op experiences available on a console. Take heed in the game's slogan: "Mayhem awaits. Bring friends." You'll really want to play with friends because every time I played with strangers, they weren't too thrilled about sharing loot. Playing with partners certainly has moments of sheer joy and sense of accomplishment, but don't hesitate to play Borderlands 2 alone. There's plenty of advantages to going at it solo, and the game is definitely more difficult with co-op partners -- almost feeling unfair at times.

The heavy-hitting gaming season is upon us, and Borderlands 2 sets the bar high. With so much to do and four classes with specialized special skills to experiment with, there's nothing to question when it comes to Borderlands 2's value.

Gearbox Software

Dan: Borderlands 2 wasn't a sequel I originally expected to see. At least that was my thought when I logged into the original 2009 Borderlands game for the first time. A quirky first-person shooter built over the bones of an action RPG such as Diablo (apologies for excessive game genre lingo), it was literally a space Western -- a sci-fi tale told as a frontier story -- and far removed from just about anything else people were playing at the time.

Borderlands ended up being a surprise hit, largely because it was a four-player co-op experience released during the ascendancy of multiplayer console games, fitting between competitive ones such as Call of Duty and co-operative ones such as Left 4 Dead. But, unlike those other games, the bright colors and humorous characters and dialogue were a striking counterpoint to the pervasive nihilism in most "serious" console multiplayer games of the time (and since). Sure, the world of Pandora was a wasteland filled with marauders and murderous creatures, but it had wisecracking robots!

The success of the first Borderlands has led to an inevitable sequel. Thankfully, we've had a solid three-year gap between games -- if Borderlands had fallen into the annual upgrade cycle that's becoming depressingly common, it would feel far too recycled.

Gearbox Software

Instead, we get a second visit to Pandora that feels familiar (too much so in parts), but also fresh and new. The new character classes are an improvement, moving past the cookie-cutter archetypes of the first game. They're still walking cliches, to be sure, but the new special abilities and upgrade trees had me thinking long and hard about which character to make my main avatar during my first weekend with the game. For the record, I went with a Gunzerker, who has the ability to regenerate both health and ammo while his dual-wield special ability is active.

Still, some annoyances remain from the first game. The plot is threadbare, even for a video game, and few concessions are made to bring new players up to speed. Saving is automatic, and dying will respawn you at a point usually not too far off, which is good. But, log off and you may respawn somewhere much farther back, keeping your progress, but being forced to fight your way through repopulated areas on the way back to your goal. Further, many story missions can take a long time to complete -- not always great for the day job crowd.

Despite that, I still enjoy the desolate vistas, the comiclike art style (I called the original "a faux hand-drawn style vaguely reminiscent of French comic book artist Jean Giraud"), and, of course, the quest for randomly generated guns and equipment. That makes the frontier story aspect even more apropos -- instead of prospecting for gold, these adventurers are searching for the rarest uber-weapons -- a search much more satisfying than whatever alien vault you're supposedly trying to find.

Rich: Knowing that Dan and Jeff would offer plenty of impressions about the gameplay of Borderlands 2, my goal was to determine what kind of PC gaming citizen Gearbox had made of its new game. I'm happy to report that Borderlands is not only one of the least "consolized" PC versions of a cross-platform game I've seen lately, but the game feels downright empowering for the strength of its networking features and its PC-specific options.

With the original Borderlands, not to mention the Brothers in Arms series, and a few well-regarded Half-Life expansions to its name, Gearbox already has a strong reputation among PC gamers. And although it was also Gearbox that brought the remains of Duke Nukem Forever to depressing reality, I would argue that Gearbox did the gaming community a favor by offering closure to gaming's most notorious development cycle.

Because of that reputation, I wasn't surprised to find the complete array of 3D graphics, audio, input, and gameplay options PC gamers like to see. You can remap every key, you can set toggle on and off for crouching and aiming, and you can tweak all kinds of graphics settings, from anti-aliasing to the field of view.

Borderlands 2 offers a complete array of PC-specific options.
Borderlands 2 offers a complete array of PC-specific options. Screenshot by Rich Brown/CNET

Gearbox also gets the little things right. I was able to Alt-Tab out of the game with no crashing or other weirdness. And, miracle of miracles, nothing bad happens to your play session when your Internet connection drops out. You will see an in-game notice informing you that you're no longer connected, but saving and all other game functions continue to work seamlessly.

I wasn't able to test multiplayer during my preview, so I can't speak to the complete experience, but the networking options all look promising. You can set your public and private status, browse multiplayer servers, and launch a quickmatch all via the in-game menus. Old-school PC gamers in particular will be happy to learn that Borderlands 2 offers LAN-based multiplayer.

Despite all of those great features, I expect some of you will still take issue with the very existence of downloadable content for Borderlands 2, as well as with the bonus customizations that come from two Gearbox customer loyalty schemes. If you find those out-of-box extras objectionable, I can only say that Gearbox has incorporated all of those offers in a nonintrusive manner.

Finally, I can report that the game played smoothly at maximum image quality on a year-old laptop with a lower-end Core i7 CPU and a midrange Nvidia GeForce GT 555 chip. You might not love shooters, or even the Borderlands formula (as highly polished as it might be in the sequel), but if you are up for Borderlands 2, but maybe you're not sure which platform to play it on, Gearbox gives PC gamers every reason to stick with their platform of choice.

 

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