Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Belated Review of Borderlands 2

The reason I didn't post much for the first three weeks of October was because I was too busy playing Borderlands 2. It's fun, it's addicting, it's better than the first game, and I couldn't pull myself away from it to do much of anything else. I'm still playing it. I've already clocked way more hours in BL2 than I have in Skyrim, and I still feel invigorated to continue farming loot and replaying with new characters and other friends. That alone should tell you how good of a game it is.

If the first Borderlands was an imperfect experiment, Borderlands 2 is the refinement of that formula. Everything that was great about the first game is back in the sequel, with all of the bad parts trimmed out and replaced with something new and interesting. This is how sequels are supposed to be done, and it's no wonder BL2 has sold so much better (and faster) than BL1. In the full article I'll look at how well BL2 stacked up to my prior hopes and expectations, as well as detailing the extra things I've liked and (in some cases) disliked.

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a short article discussing the kinds of things I hoped to see in BL2. For your convenience, here are the main points reiterated, along with descriptions of how Gearbox addressed each one.
1. Less Respawn: Enemies in BL1 respawned way too frequently, making long sections of the game a tedious slog, basically repeating the same fights over and over again. This crazy respawn also contributed to the game's poor sense of level-balance; because you had to repeat so many encounters you wound up out-leveling everything in the game way too quickly. In BL2, the enemies respawn far less frequently; it was rare that I ever encountered excessive respawn.
I actually had one moment when I fought a large group of enemies before moving into the next loading zone, and then realized I had to go back to the previous area for an objective I missed. I sighed and grumbled, expecting to have to fight everything in that zone again, because enemies in BL1 respawned every time you left a zone, but was pleasantly surprised to find that everything remained dead when I returned. 
The whole gang is back.
2. More-Varied Enemies: The vast majority of fights in BL1 consisted of basic bandit types, skags, rakks, and spider-ants, and it just got really repetitive and mundane after a while. BL2 still retains those same basic enemy types, but they've also mixed in a whole new slew of baddies like bullymongs, robotic loaders, varkids, crystalisks, threshers, and stalkers, with each enemy type having numerous different subtypes as well. Even the humanoid bandits have new variations in the form of goliaths and nomads. You're always bumping into new enemies that require slightly different tactics to face, which keeps progression through the game fresh and interesting.
3. More-Involved Quests: Most of the quests in BL1 were incredibly shallow and simplistic, basically just asking you to fetch some item or kill some target, purely as a means to promote more killing and looting. They were pretty boring. In BL2, the quests are tied much more closely to the story, with objectives that actually contribute to the plot's progression. The objectives themselves are much more varied, and you get to interact with other NPCs more substantially so that you actually care a little more about what you're doing.
4. Better Sense of Society: BL1 sent you to a number of towns and outposts, but the entirety of Pandora felt like a ghost town. The NPCs never had anything worthwhile to say -- they never contributed anything to the lore of the planet, and they didn't even add much to the atmosphere. In BL2, the main town of Sanctuary actually has a pronounced backstory which you learn about through audio logs and through conversations with NPCs, and the people inhabiting Sanctuary make idle chatter about Jack, Pandora, Hyperion, and other goings on which help to inform you of the overall sense of society.  
Sanctuary, the main hub town of Borderlands 2
5. Better Enemy Scaling: As already mentioned in the first number, it was way too easy to out-level all of the enemies in BL1. If you were thorough about exploring locations and completing quests, you'd reach a point very early when enemies offered no challenge and you received literally zero experience points for combat. In BL2, I was just as thorough about questing and exploration and never reached a point where I had significantly out-leveled anything. The enemies kept up with me pretty well, ensuring that I was challenged and engaged all the way through to the end. 
So Gearbox addressed each of my major concerns, basically fixing all the problems I had with the first game and substantially improving most of those areas. Here are some other thoughts on things I really liked:
1. References to BL1: Probably the coolest thing about BL2 is how much it references the first game. Every step of the main storyline reintroduces familiar characters and concepts, playing up your nostalgia from BL1 while putting a whole new twist on it. Coolest of all is that the four playable characters from BL1 are all important NPCs in the sequel, so you get to see even more development with them as they take a backseat support role in assisting you on your quest.
Clearly the best vehicle skin in the game, True Turquoise.
2. New Customizations: In BL1, you had very limited options for customizing the appearance of your character -- you could only change the hue of three different parts of your character's outfit, and vehicles were likewise limited to simple color palette swaps. In BL2, you can unlock dozens of unique head styles and alternate skins for your characters, which is fun to play around with and gives you a lot of ways to distinguish yourself from others in online play. There are tons of vehicle skins as well; I'm surprised that I'm still finding new skins in my third and fourth playthrough of the game.
3. Challenges and Badass Tokens: BL1 had a number of in-game challenges that functioned sort of like achievements, except they awarded bonus experience points for completion. Except that experience points were basically worthless because you were going to become over-leveled anyway.
In BL2, they have a whole bunch of challenges again, but this time you earn "badass points" which go towards earning "badass tokens," which can be used to increase your statistics by a small percentage. These stat boosts apply to all characters on your account, meaning if you replay the game on an alternate character you gain all the badass benefits from your main character, and can gain extra badass tokens to continue improving your main. This gives you a whole lot more incentive to complete challenges.
 The Wildlife Exploitation Preserve
4. More Varied Environments: The overwhelming majority of BL1 took place in a dry desert wasteland, and it wasn't until the very end that you started finding some radically different locations. BL2 consistently mixes things up, from snowy cliffs to dry deserts to green highlands to wetlands to industrial cities, they keep giving you fresh locales to explore to keep things interesting.  
So there's a lot to enjoy with BL2, including a wide variety of whole new features. But you already know that; the game's been out long enough, and it's been released to immense critical praise. No review is complete without some criticism and nitpicking, so here are some things I don't like so much about BL2.
1. Lots of Wasted Space: There's a lot of stuff in BL2 that exists to serve only one purpose, and it just sits around idly occupying space until you trigger a quest to use it. There's a named character in Sanctuary, for example, with a distinctive appearance, who stands around for the entire game doing absolutely nothing. When you try to interact with this character, you don't even get idle chatter out of them. Eventually you get a quest to interact with this character and then they're promptly removed from the game. 
Likewise, when you go through an area as part of one quest, you often encounter a lot of switches or doors or other things that will obviously be used for some quest later, but you can't do anything about it. You have to complete the first quest, pick up a new quest, and then return to the same area. This isn't a deal breaker or anything, but it just seems like they could've been a little more efficient with their designs instead of having so much content be completely obsolete and useless when you first encounter it. 
A beautiful sunset in the Highlands
2. Skill Trees Don't Reach Their Full Potential Until End-Game: It's only natural for the best skills to be reserved for end-game characters, but with BL2 you often don't start seeing dramatic changes in a character's active skill until you're level 30 and finishing your first playthrough. In some cases, certain skill trees are pretty drab and/or pointless until you can get the top-tier skill in that tree, and it makes it difficult to gauge how much you'll enjoy a certain class until you've already beaten the game with that class.
For example, when I started playing a Siren, I thought her phaselock skill was kind of boring and didn't like her playstyle, so I switched to the Assassin. I liked his deception skill a lot more at first, but grew kind of bored with it by the time I reached end-game because most of his top-tier skills just weren't that great. So I switched back to Siren, and by the time I got her to level 30+ and invested in her top-tier "Ruin" skill, I fell in love with phaselock. So it takes a lot of time investment to really get a feel for each class, and you may ultimately be disappointed.
3. New Game+ is Obnoxiously Difficult: While I appreciate NG+ being harder than the first time through (you need that challenge for it to be engaging), NG+ boosts the difficulty mainly by over-inflating the enemies' stats. The problem is that, when enemies can bring you from full health to near-death in the span of just a few seconds, and when it takes you many times that to kill an enemy, it kind of forces you to play the game a certain way and completely nullifies certain playstyles. In both my playthrough of NG+ as Siren and Assassin I pretty much had to hang back and play extremely conservatively just to get by, instead of just playing the way that was the most fun.
 Fighting the Bunker
4. Still Some Missed Potential For Society-Depicting: They did a much better job depicting society in the main hub town of Sanctuary, but later in the game you visit other towns that are completely devoid of civilization when the game clearly implies that there is a civilization there. Overlook is a conventional residential town with its own small backstory, but they came up with a convenient excuse not to have any NPCs in that town; apparently they're all suffering from a disease called "skull shivers" and so everyone is locked up in their houses. You only interact with one NPC.
Eventually you reach Opportunity, Handsome Jack's supposed-Utopian city, but once again there's no sense of society there. They've got publicity and media kiosks setup to keep average citizens informed of the goings on, but there are no actual citizens. Maybe the excuse for this is that the city is still partially under construction, but it basically just exists as a very shiny wasteland for you to fight Hyperion engineers and loader-bots. Likewise, you reach Lynchwood, an Old Western town with its own Sheriff and everything, but again it's just your typical banditville. I feel like they could've done a lot more with depicting these other locations to make them more impactful.
A rare bit of rare loot 
5. Legendary Loot is Way Too Rare. All the loot is scaled by rarity; legendary items are the rarest of all, and they're the ones that give the most interesting effects. Obviously you want to keep legendary loot rare so that it's actually special, but you also want players to be able to experience some rare, legendary loot. After all, what's the point of putting special loot in the game if no one's ever going to be able to use it? It's entirely possible that, unless you go specifically out of your way farming for legendary loot, to go through an entire playthrough not seeing a single legendary piece of equipment.
When you can spend dozens and dozens of hours farming the final boss, only to get one measly legendary, you're just wasting your time. And when you finally do get that item you've been striving for, it's not going to matter because you'll have already run out of content in which to use it. It seems like Gearbox lowered the drop rate of legendary loot dramatically compared to BL1, and it feels like kind of a cruel, devious way of tricking their customers into spending more time in their game.
And those are my basic thoughts on Borderlands 2. It's definitely not perfect, but it's a great improvement over the first game, and except for the absurd droprate of legendary loot, the other issues are mere blemishes in a very successful formula. There's a reason I've clocked 220 hours (and counting) in BL2: it's a rather good game.


  1. Hmmmm.... I don't understand. You and I ALWAYS agree on games, and you have introduced me to countless awesome series. But I don't get why this is a "rather good game". To me, it was just a first person version of Diablo, and that's definitely not a compliment. So, Nick, I ask you, what's the appeal in this game? What makes it good? You mostly talked about how it improves on BL1, which sounds like an awful game from the way you describe it (I haven't played it myself). Basically I mean that this game was very repetitive/boring to me (despite having a "gorillion" guns the weapons weren't particularly interesting themselves, and only seemed to differ statistically, though the enemy design was fine) and I'm trying to "get" the appeal.

    1. I can certainly understand the complaints that BL2 is repetitive and/or boring. I didn't care much for Diablo either, though I didn't play very much of it. For me, the appeal in BL2 (as it was in the first game) is playing through the full campaign with friends. I love cooperative games, and BL2 scratches that itch very well. Plus, the story is actually kind of interesting.

      I don't think BL2 is any more repetitive than any "typical FPS," however, the likes of which typically just dump you in the same combat scenarios while filtering you through the same basic hallways and setpiece arenas. Borderlands 2 has a quasi open-world feel that promotes exploration and allows you to experience optimal content while challenging yourself for different rewards. The guns may seem like minor statistical variations of one another, but the different manufacturers all behave differently, and they come with a lot of unique special effects -- which is a lot more variety than you get in a "typical" FPS.

      Finally, the RPG-style leveling system, both for your character and your weapons, is as addicting as playing an MMO except without all the time-wasting MMO bullshit. All the different skills enable different play styles, and it's really fun to watch your character develop over time, since it, along with all the other variables, makes the game more dynamic from beginning to end.

      So to me, BL2 combines the fun elements of FPSs with the fun elements of RPGs, in an excellent cooperative multiplayer system. Though admittedly, without that cooperative aspect the game wouldn't be quite as enjoyable.

    2. Going to be honest with both of you. If neither of you have ever played the Diablo series, it's not something you can really say you liked or disliked. Judging a book by it's cover, and all that.

      Now, I never played Diablo 1, but from what I do know, it's skill customization was basically limitless. I did play Diablo 2, and did nigh everything there was to do on there. Borderlands 1 definitely has many Easter eggs dedicated to Diablo 2, and even Diablo 3 has Easter eggs dedicated to Borderlands 1. It's pretty cool.

      Suffice to say, BL1 was great in it's itemization system, just like Diablo 2 was. Items scaled linearly, not exponentially, so if you got a legendary weapon, it would help you through some tough times, and last you quite a while. Not the same in BL2, where if you find a really powerful legendary, don't expect to get further than 3 or 4 levels before it's rendered useless. Granted there wasn't a huge amount of content in BL1, the content that was there was very fun thanks to the balanced itemization. Skill trees could have been better, and the stats of some items could have been a bit better (anarchy semi-op, thumper up, etc) but overall it was an extremely well thought-through setup.

      Many of your statements where BL2 bests BL1 are very true. Society, quests, varied enemies, etc. I found enemies respawning in BL1 too quickly as well, and can understand how that would be extremely frustrating, but can't say it strikes me as such a bad experience from my years of playing. That said, if you were so easily out-leveling enemies in BL1, why was it frustrating to go through under-leveled areas? They wouldn't put up much of a fight at that point.

      All in all, there's way more to BL1 and 2 than meets the eye and I hope by now, a couple of years later, you know much more than you did back then in 2012.

    3. @Anon

      BL1 was more of a first person to Diablo 2, not the original Diablo, which definitely had very different gameplay in comparison. The great thing about D2 was primarily it's character's stats not being tied as a primary stat to pump points into for damage. Don't get me wrong, that still existed, but only barely, and only for Strength at every 50 (or 100) stat points, I believe.

      The game's itemization was revered as being relatively well-balanced, endgame items existing at levels as low as 40 to 60, while having endgame content that didn't require you to hit level 99. Unique and Set items weren't the be-all-end-all for your character, as Rare items and Runewords were the real deal. There were so many choices you could go with, melee/bow/xbow sorc, staff barb/druid, xbow necro, throwbarb, and you could find items with skills from a particular class that any class could use. On top of that, a majority of your damage came from your skills, and a relatively decent amount from your items (+skills / %element dmg jewels not withstanding). This left you able to choose where you put your points (str for wearing equips / slight dmg, dex for accuracy / def, health for life / stamina, and mana for just that.)

      You could easily make the cookie-cutter builds, but the challenge was definitely making a wild build based off a random item you found, and then play the game all the way through hell mode. You even get Like a Boss points if you did it on Hardcore.

      The beauty of Borderlands 1 was very similar. Most legendaries weren't the end-all-be-all, purple items were the go-to items for primary damage, while putting the character customization in what weapons and shield you used. BL1 didn't have nearly the customization that D2 did with stats and whatnot, but as a shooter, it excelled with the extreme amount of weapon types creating an excellent display of variation. The fact that SMGs alone came with basic, anarchy, bruiser, stinger, and thumpers means the weapons themselves are diverse before you ever get to even more diversion with unique, legendary, and pearls. All weapons in BL1 have similar diversity.

      It's all down to what you look at, and how you look at it. I don't think it's a bad thing if you dislike the Diablo series, but always keep a fair mind to see and accept why people like the things you do not. :)

    4. Hi there Bgrmystr2, (10 years later)

      Same Anon here. It's clear from your posts that we have very different priorities when it comes to what makes a good game. Which is totally fine! You articulated your points very nicely, they just prove to me further that Diablo and Borderlands are not for me. Thanks for putting so much thought into these posts, however!

  2. Thanks for the prompt reply! I definitely agree that this game has more variety than the average Cod/BF, I just didn't feel like it had enough :/ I also personally didn't like the story very much. This video is probably too harsh, but kind of explains how I feel:

    1. Can't say I agree with the video. I can completely understand why someone might not like BL2, but this guy Mark's video relies too heavily on nitpicky, borderline inaccurate criticisms. His biggest complaints seem to deal with the story and Gearbox's supposed lack of creative integrity, neither of which I really care about, and neither of which really impacts the core gameplay.

      Really, it just sounds like he has a personal vendetta against Gearbox, and I take extreme issue with him saying "saying something is fun isn't an objective point." Fun is an inherently subjective quality, and for this guy to completely discredit people saying they're having fun screams of disrespectful, biased ignorance. Between him opening the video with "I didn't like BL1 and I knew I wouldn't like BL2," that line about fun, and his closing remarks trying to guilt players for having fun (no matter how he clarified it afterwards) rubbed me the wrong way.

      I'm not going to try to convince you that BL2 is a good game or that you should enjoy it more, because I quite strongly understand that this game is not for everyone, and that even some of its intended audience might not enjoy it very much. If I hadn't played both BL1 and BL2 with close, personal friends, then I could totally see myself being underwhelmed and significantly less interested in them. As a matter of fact, with both games I reached a point where I had to stop, look back, and wonder how and why I spent so much time with them. Call it a guilty pleasure if you will, but I enjoyed both games. Having said that, I have absolutely no interest in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and have virtually no intention of ever playing it, so take that for whatever that's worth.

    2. Hey, thanks. I didn't mean to attack you or anything with that video; having watched it again, I definitely don't agree with a lot of it as well, I just wanted to show where I was coming from with the repetitiveness, though I probably should have chosen a less biased source. But I really appreciate the clarification anyways.

    3. No worries. The low drop rate of special weapons and the repetitive mission structure are both legitimate criticisms of BL2, and I can see how some people might not care for the characters/story/writing. But for me, BL2 hit that sweet spot of satisfying level grinding with a pretty good cooperative campaign, which is all it really needed to get a "rather good" rating out of me.

    4. Hey, I wrote an article ( about this very thought-provoking conversation above between you and anon. Just figured I should give credit.

  3. Nice review! I have to agree with most of your points there. The greater enemy variety was a really nice part of the game and it did make it feel more challenging as well. Whilst the ability to respawn in the immediate aftermath of the action could be regarded as unbalancing the game, the penalty for dying (loss of money) did deter you from doing so, since ammunition became very expensive after a while and guns even more so (true you could get back lost money from enemy weapons but that depended on the weapons, if they actually dropped one and on you being willing to go back and forth collecting the weapons).

    I also liked the humour, which was OTT most of the time, but it also made the game's villain likeable - yes he was incredibly evil but he was meant to be and the morality of BL2 is kind of non-existent anyway (there are very few characters who get out of the morally grey zone).