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.