Game Review: Borderlands 2
Ah, the post-apocalyptic wasteland, a back drop haunting the minds and imaginations of gamers everywhere since Wasteland in the 80’s: providing a huge open world of disaster that allows the player to explore both the very rock-bottom of humanity, as well as a planetary vision of the death of the western world. It all sounds very dreary, and it doesn’t bode well for humanity that in the Fallout series, the modern defining examples of the wasteland survival genre, even after our total destruction at the hands of nuclear warfare things don’t seem to get much better. Super Mutants, zombified men, slavers, rapists and bandits all ravish the old American states, and you’re just one man in a dead, irradiated world of mutation with basically no water. The genre has indeed then, developed a tradition of pessimism that is so depressingly summed up by the sombre proclamation at the conclusion of both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas that ‘war never changes’. ‘Oh dear’, I bet you are thinking.
Luckily then, Gearbox Software have made Borderlands 2, the First-Person Action-RPG sequel to the surprise hit Borderlands. Set on the fictional planet of Pandora, Borderlands 2 is a kind of Space-western placed in a world abandoned by the mining corporations who previously occupied it, leaving behind a population of former employees who are made up almost exclusively by convicts and head cases. Who ever said cheap labour lacked quality? The technology left behind by the Atlas and Dahl corporations remains, but for the most part has fallen into disrepair and scrap due to the fact it’s maintained by a bunch of thieving and murdering rascals. However, the rumours of treasure still yet to be found on Pandora are enough to attract the attention of four Vault hunters to the planet. They then proceed to uncover the mystery of a secret vault that contains some kind of alien monster named ‘The Destroyer’, which in typical gaming fashion is then defeated with style. Borderlands 2 begins Five years later, where obnoxious rich-man and all-round scoundrel Handsome Jack has imposed an iron-fist on the inhabitants of Pandora after hearing rumours of an even larger vault. This in turn attracts four new vault hunters, and so enters the player (and potentially 3 other friends in the brilliant four-player co-op) into the vast world of Pandora. After a little scuffle with a trap set by Jack, the player is saved and restored to health by the highly ridiculous, but chokingly humorous robot Claptrap. Along with all the other inhabitants, life is a case of survival. It’s not necessarily post-apocalyptic, but it is still a wasteland and so very much like the Fallout series, it is every man for himself.
However, unlike Black Isles iconic series, Borderlands 2 is totally ridiculous. While death and murder are used for dramatic effect in Fallout, here it is totally gratuitous and often amusing: which is just as well, since you’ll be spending a lot of time dealing it out casually in the excellent combat found throughout. Originally conceived as a Diablo influenced FPS, the player shoots, explores and loots around in a world dominated by the harsh alien wastes and wildlife of Pandora. A simple concept in writing, but for a genre that in recent memory has toned down the RPG elements for a stronger sense of Action (I’m looking at you Mass Effect 3), Borderlands 2 manages to get an excellent combination of both. Combat is at all times blockbuster and vibrant, and yet the variation of customisation provides both a unique player experience and also a level of strategic depth that will satisfy even the most hardcore RPG fan. As well as the four individual classes available that change your skills, the player can use mods, shields and relics to change their strengths and weaknesses according to the enemy encountered. Furthermore, levelling up allows development of certain attributes according to that class, while a challenge system awarding ‘Badass Points’ can be used to redeem further attribute bonuses according to your playstyle. The real pleasure in Borderlands 2 though, comes with the massive amount of guns available through looting. The original built its reputation for the millions of generated guns, but the sequel has improved on this by actually creating a sense individuality to each gun, albeit quite modestly at times. The looting aspect also proves to be incredibly addictive, forcing the player to be adventurous and diligent in their exploration of each part of Pandora in order to find the best equipment. It also makes the multiplayer an even more essential experience, in that by playing cooperatively it increases the difficulty, and with a higher difficulty means even better loot. All this creates true player inventiveness to the game, in which equipment and skill decisions can fashion itself into a creative character choice that really drives the whole game.
All this is brought colourfully and exotically to life by a cel-shaded graphic style that adds a sense of intense excitement and comic life to the world of Pandora. It is wholly distinctive, with numbers jumping over the place from damage counts, big signs of ‘critical’ comically popping away from enemies after receiving vast damage and explosions, destruction and action firing itself into the face of a player more times than a Michael Bay Movie. The scope of the world of Pandora is also very impressive, while nothing as vast as other contemporary RPG’s, Gearbox do create a sense of the alive in the world of Pandora. The variation of environments also keeps things interesting, but it stands a testament to the design of Borderlands 2 that the imagination in each area of Pandora has a distinctive characteristic to it, both in the landscape itself and in the wild-life.
A lot of effort has also gone into the soundtrack to create a sense of the wilderness of Pandora. From the blues track opening of The Heavy’s ‘Short Change Hero’ the player is immediately drawn into a sense of the desolation of the Western. While each environment is accompanied by a unique soundtrack, from the cold stiff-fingered acoustics of the empty snow environments, to the more epic optimism of the highland areas, and finally to the intriguing electronic of the more industrial locations, Borderlands 2 does well to add to its imagination through its music. It makes all the right sounds in the right places, with the correct blast of a Slag spewing sniper, or the rustic ramshackle reload of a Steam-Punk shotgun, to the bang, blast and crash of the combat scenarios. It also features both some of the most brilliant and achingly awful voice acting currently available in video games. Claptrap is absolutely hilarious, from his misplaced sense of grandeur in calling you ‘minion’, to his tear-jerkingly awkward plea for a high-five, but you can’t help but notice that the character has taken a leaf, or several leaves, out of Portal 2’s book with Glados. Also, some of the speeches to come out of the players mouth after activating a power are incredibly irritating, with terms like ‘I move in for the kill’ and ‘you set off my trap-card’ dancing on the wrong side of cliché.
Similarly, perhaps the only downfall of Borderlands 2 is that it remains very similar to the original, with not much to report in terms of innovation and not providing a great way to customise the appearance of the player character. However, it has improved upon its predecessor remarkably, creating an incredibly imaginative world full of exploration, excitement and explosions. It is one of the well-made games of this generation, creating a very tight and refreshing experience that is as fun as it is challenging and rewarding. Things like poor voice acting only add to the silliness of the game, and it is in the sense of ridiculousness where Borderlands 2 succeeds. If we take Mad Max 2 as a precursory influence to the wasteland genre, then you can see the different path it has taken to other games in this genre. While Fallout, much like Mad Max 2 focused on the humanitarian aspect of the death of society, Borderlands 2 sees the crazy vehicles, stupid haircuts and nutcases and uses them as a way of liberation through its ridiculousness. In another way, Borderlands 2 looks at the threat of total world disaster and rather more optimistically than Fallout, laughs right in its big stupid face. Is it satirical of the world’s disbelief that such world-wide destruction could happen? I couldn’t say, but there is nothing more confirming of the human condition than the ability to laugh right in the face of utter catastrophe.