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Borderlands 2

I want to talk about Borderlands 2, but first, for the sake of not feeling sleazy, I have to offer a disclaimer.

Earlier this year, I interned at Gearbox Software.

It wasn’t a long internship; I was only there for a week. I’d tell you about what things I did or what my experience was like, but I’m legally obligated not to.

I’m telling you this just in case of the possibility that working for Gearbox has made me biased with regard to their game. I don’t really think it has, since I can wholeheartedly say that I’m not looking forward to Aliens: Colonial Marines, that I don’t care even slightly about the Brothers in Arms series, and that the dev team unofficially calling an easy-to-use skill tree in Borderlands 2 “girlfriend mode” is nothing short of disgraceful.

But you’re free to conclude for yourself whether or not I’m “biased,” I suppose.

Anyway, now to talk about Borderlands 2.

Actually, no; first let’s get everyone up to speed. As I’ve said before, Borderlands was a game I both loved and hated. The most novel aspect of the game was easily the gun variety. There were so many guns ranging in varying aesthetic styles, from the old-fashioned Jakobs six-shooters to the sci-fi themed Maliwan elemental blasters to the military-esque Dahl weaponry. And more importantly, all these guns had different attributes that really affected gameplay in meaningful ways.

Gearbox took the old dungeon crawler template of providing a bazillion different weapon drops of varying stats, but instead of the usual “critical hit chance,” “arcane resist,” “dexterity” and whatever other small numbers that mean nothing to me in terms of running around and hitting bad guys with a sword, these weapons affect things like reload speed, weapon capacity, and accuracy. Yes, both of these hunks of metal are shotguns, but while that shotgun deals more damage and reloads more quickly, that shotgun has far more accuracy so you can deal more damage from a distance.

What this means is that different weapons will appeal to different people based on their own individual playstyles. As you’re looting all these guns, you have to look at them not in terms of which has the highest damage per second, but in terms of how you would use it. This made weapon choice feel more important and more interesting than many of the Diablo-style murder-a-thons that Borderlands took inspiration from.

Unfortunately, while constantly looting guns and swapping them out to find the one that was just your style was a blast, the rest of the game felt rather stale. The environments were samey, the interface was messy, it was plagued by a multitude of bugs, and worst of all, the narrative felt like a total afterthought. The plot was so simplistic it was practically nonexistant, and the NPCs never moved or did anything interesting while on screen, so the game never felt like much more than an endless cycle of shooting dudes, looting corpses and trying out guns.

If you got some friends to play with you, the social experience combined with the gun variety made it just enough fun to overlook all that. I played through the game four times, but I never really felt satisfied with it.

Now that I’ve finished Borderlands 2, I can say that I’m still feeling the love, but I no longer feel the hate. Unlike its predecessor, I feel it’s safe to say that Borderlands 2 is unqualifyingly really damn good, even in single player. And I’ll tell you why:

This man is why.

Anthony Burch, the guy behind Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? He’s who they got to handle the writing for Borderlands 2, and he did a brilliant job.

I think the best example of how well he handled the material  is with Claptrap. Like many others, I hated Claptrap in the first Borderlands. They tried to sell him as a cute, helpful little robot friend, but he didn’t fit that role. He was so irritating, noisy and intrusive that he’s become infamous among gamers. Even fans of the game generally found him detestable.

Having said that: I love Claptrap in Borderlands 2. And he wasn’t replaced with a different character who also happened to be named Claptrap, like Shaundi was in Saints Row 3; all they had to change was the way he’s perceived by the rest of the world. In this game, Claptrap isn’t presented as a cute robot friend; he’s treated as the annoying friend that nobody else in the group really wants to deal with. Nobody is outright cruel to him, but they don’t respect him either. They treat him like what he is; a necessary nuisance. He has good intentions, but he’s irritating as hell, and this time, everybody knows it.

He’s still the same character, but this time he’s endearing and funny. He managed to make me genuinely laugh more than once, and he’s not the only character who did so. This is the biggest improvement upon the original: the writing, and more specifically, the characters. The people in this game are varied, charming and funny, and they interact with one another in great, memorable ways. This is because Gearbox went out of their way to get an actual talented writer (Anthony Burch) who knows how to write solid characters for a comedy.

The most memorable character in the game has to be Handsome Jack, the antagonist. He’s a completely caricatured Saturday morning cartoon villain who goes out of his way to tell you that you suck and he’s totally going to kill you. He’s rich, he’s smug, and he wants to rule the world through ruthlessness, imperialism and money. Here’s a few lines of dialogue near the beginning of the game…

Stuff like this is all over the game. It’s great.

What surprised me, though, is that there’s actually a character underneath the humor. Without spoiling anything, he actually does have cares besides money; there actually is a human being underneath the evil. He is an undoubtedly evil character, but he’s fairly three-dimensional. And that goes for a lot of the main cast. The attention to detail with the characters and dialogue is impressive. And I think part of why the main supporting cast members are appealing is because they actually join you in a few missions, which makes them seem far more real than the MMO-style Borderlands 1 NPCs. It makes you feel like they’re actual people who care about what’s happening in the world.

The story is also a lot more involved and a lot more detailed than that of Borderlands 1, though I suppose the bar wasn’t set that high. It isn’t extremely complicated or profound, but it’s certainly competent. Your goal is established effectively at the start — Handsome Jack took control of Pandora using the riches of the Vault from the first game, and you want to stop him from being an evil jerk. The good guys are introduced, and you’re given adequate motivation to want to protect them.

Unlike Borderlands 1, the story has various twists and turns that make the journey more compelling, and unlike Borderlands 1, you actually know what the hell is going on. The first game’s story is so simplistic and yet there was so much left unanswered; most notably, who was that “guardian angel” character, and what was her motivation to help you reach the Vault? Again, without spoiling anything, those questions are thankfully answered in the sequel.

Most of the other problems with Borderlands 1 have also been fixed. The environments are hugely varied; you start off in a snowy, icy region, and throughout the game you travel through grassy plains, swamps, deserts, caves, industrial complexes, and an urban city. This makes progressing through the game much more engaging. There’s also more enemy variety, which makes the combat feel less samey. The weapon proficiency system has now been replaced by a “Badass Rank” system that works entirely differently, so you don’t feel compelled to restrict yourself to one weapon type anymore. The interface has been cleaned up a fair bit, so you won’t have quite as much clicking in the menus.

And to top it off, the PC version doesn’t feel like a sloppy port this time around. A great deal of effort was put into making it feel like an actual, you know, PC game. Matchmaking is integrated through Steam instead of Gamespy, you can skip the stupid splash screens at the start, and it gives you all the options you’d expect. Hell, it lets you adjust your field of view. How many PC games give you that option these days?

When the game first came out I was shocked by how many reviewers called it “Borderlands 1.5” and claimed it just felt like “more Borderlands.” I can only see that attitude applying if you pay absolutely no attention to the narrative, and even then, there’s a great deal of environment variety and enemy variety we didn’t see last time around. Borderlands 2 isn’t Borderlands 1.5; it’s Borderlands 2: The Awesome One. It’s what Borderlands 1 should have been, and I’m glad to see Gearbox learn from their mistakes.

If you really, really disliked Borderlands 1 down to its very core, then I guess you won’t like this one either. Like Borderlands 1, you spend a lot of time gunning down bandits and monsters, looting their corpses and picking which guns to use in the next fight. Like Borderlands 1, the game’s fairly buggy. And like Borderlands 1, the ending is an anticlimactic cliffhanger. (Though it’s considerably better this time because you actually understand what the hell happened.) But if you thought Borderlands 1 was a neat concept with a lot of rough edges like I did, then I think you’re gonna love Borderlands 2, and I’m pretty sure I don’t just think that because my name is in the credits.