Space Western is a sub-genre of Science Fiction, and if Gearbox Software‘s second entry in the Borderlands series is giving you flashbacks of Firefly, or even a vague taste of Star Trek (hell, Roddenberry even pitched the show as “Wagon Train to the stars”) you’d probably be forgiven. Keep the desolate country charm and eclectic planetary climates, but crank up the adrenaline and add a pinch of homicide, and you’ve got Borderlands 2.

Borderlands was originally released to critical dismay, with many top critics at the time calling the project a write off. Despite their preemptive disillusionment, the game went on to sell tremendously well on all three major platforms – including PC, despite a security flaw that allowed players to connect and play online without even needing a crack. That’s some fine impression Gearbox have made, and Borderlands 2 wearily treads within the foundations of its predecessor, carefully applying that old “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it logic”.

The 4 person, class specific party remains, but the questing dynamic and flow of the game is slightly more streamlined. Likewise, this time around we’ve more emphasis on story, with each of the bold and menacing characters on the good and bad sides all having more depth than a mere splash-screen introducing them by name.

These two key innovations (within the franchise) make for a much more satisfying story experience, with more soul, and great writing and voice over work. With an updated AI engine for enemy combat, and better vehicle physics with a more in depth gun-modification (and of course more guns) system, the notable differences between the original and Borderlands 2 are, at worst, slim to none, or at best: spit and polish. We’re looking at more of the same, but with some subtle differences that change the game more than you’d think.

Why are we back on Pandora?

Gearbox kick off with a pre-rendered cut-scene that sets the tone of things to come. Following a group of bandits driving across the desert, it only takes a moment of sweet, sweet country music before they get slammed into the front of a high speed train, and our four vault hunters are introduced to us; Axton, Maya, Salvador, and Zer0 are your playable characters this time.

Set five years after the events of the original, the vault hunters must face off against the heinous hilarious ‘Handsome Jack’, a man hell bent on total domination, who wants to purge the planet of bandits and vault hunters and set about his own will of command. Both Claptrap and the Guardian Angel return in their original roles, as well as Scooter, Marcuz, Dr Zed and Moxxi.

Lilith, one of the original vault hunters, also reprises her role as a non-playable character, integral to the story in Borderlands 2. 

Stranded

After the entrance cut-scene, you and your friends (or alone, if you’re playing single player) are met with a snow-storm and taken to a hide-out by the always annoying Claptrap. Heading into the cave, I noticed the usual Borderlands style loot system right away; loot is everywhere, in small numbers. Quite quickly, I got a gun after being asked to grab it from a chest as my first quest, and set out into the world.

The starting guns are awful in Borderlands 2, and this is a subject I want to return to frequently, because the game forces you to change your playstyle quite considerably throughout the game if only to adapt to how much ammo there is, or the enemies you’re facing. The pistol I started off with was weak and inaccurate, and short of Quake style jumping-around-shooting-and-kiting there was no other way to take out the ‘Bullymong’ (yeti things) that instantly spawned in vast numbers around me.

 The introductory combat sequence also served as a neat way to introduce the boss labels: a flash-card coming up on the screen every time there’s a notable NPC or boss. This deliberate bad-assery is rife in Borderlands 2, and really gives the impression that Gearbox loved creating the game.

The first bandit camp in Borderlands 2 serves as a pretty good example of things to come. The camps are small, but quite intricate, and filled with loot. At this stage, I was focused on finding money to try and buy my way out of a pretty crappy pistol situation I found myself in. Shooting your way through the camp is reminiscent in every way of Borderlands, but I was annoyed that even though I was playing as Zer0, I hadn’t been given a sniper rifle – something, as I found out, I wouldn’t be getting for a very long time. 

No exploding heads, but plenty of burning faces

Combat in Borderlands 2 is about as satisfying as combat with numbers flying around all over the place can be. Indeed, they’ve kept the floating damage indicators. Whilst this is great if you’re using a shiny new weapon that hits much harder than a prior one, it really sucks getting stuck with a pea-shooter and having measly digits floating up ever reminding you that you’re not quick enough to grab the boss loot.

Borderlands featured exploding heads, and that was key to my enjoyment of the sniping classes, but there doesn’t seem to be any this time around for whatever reason, which meant that sniping was a little less satisfying – although it’s incredibly awesome to snipe away the engines on enemy Buzzard copters and watch them smash into the ground.

The quality of combat in Borderlands 2 is subject to quite a few variables: playing online or offline, and the weapons you’re using. For example, active weapons can have an effect attribute such as fire, lighting and corrosion, which depending on the enemy type, can be either detrimental or helpful. Against robots, corrosive weapons are key; against flesh, fire weapons are key. Starting out, you can only hold two weapons for quite some time, so it’s difficult to balance a number of weapons for different situations.

Something that marred combat for me slightly was the fact that there is too much crap loot. Borderlands 2 throws so much shoddy material in your face that you’ll eventually decide that, well, exploring for loot isn’t worth it. It takes ages to click your way through 40 boxes of $5 loot, or to search for crates of mediocre guns. In fact, although there are a huge array of different weapons because of the on-the-fly gun-creation system that automatically mixes attributes before spawning weapons, most of them are bad - especially in the lower levels. It soon becomes apparent that you’ll be relying on boss loot, and a green item isn’t necessarily a good item.

Gun accuracy for all classes is also a problem. Whilst some guns have scopes, they might have a very bad accuracy rating which totally negates the scope. Other guns might be extremely accurate, but too weak to be of any use. In most cases, you’ll find generic green items to have this problem. When you do find a gun you like, though, you’ll be pleased to know that past around level 13 you’ll be holding onto them for a much longer period than at the beginning of the game.

Aside from shooting at everything the only other key feature in combat is use of one of the 4 class skills that each character has. I don’t want to unnecessarily put a downer on this, but the relatively short-lived skills feel a little cheap. For instance, Maya can suspend a single enemy (out of, say, 20?) in the air for about 3 seconds, with a refresh rate on the skill of about 15. That’s all she can do, apart from use of passive skills from one of the three skill trees, again, seen in Borderlands. The most useful one I’ve seen is Zer0′s ability to go invisible and then pop a crit on a target afterwards, but it doesn’t offer much to the otherwise very stale, very generic combat. It’s not that the combat is bad, it’s just that without the characters, world and art-style, it’s unlikely that the game would hold strong on the combat alone.

Playing with friends… turning into enemies

Borderlands 2 of course features the four player coop multiplayer, which changes the experience enormously. Borderlands didn’t have much in the way of a story, but Borderlands 2 features a constant narrative with story progression moving quite swiftly. There’s a lot of NPC chatter, and there are a relatively large number of quests. I found that playing with friends took you out of the story and entered you more into a world of kills and loot. Because of this, even though the enemies grow slightly in number and strength, we found ourselves running around brainlessly spamming all the enemies with bullets. This gets tired quickly, and aside from a boss encounter here and there, there’s nothing to remind us that we’re in an awesome game-world with great soul and character.

The biggest problem with multiplayer is two-fold: there’s no loot table, which means whoever is closest to the boss gets his rare drops, and there’s no level balancing, which means that if a friend lower or higher than you wants to join, he’ll be a detriment to the team, or be wasting his time. It’s very easy in Borderlands 2 to get out of sync with your friends, and it’s very easy to get out of sync with the story. Because of this, I found that playing single player enriched the story experience, but multiplayer as a side project did a lot to fulfill the enjoyment factor. Blowing stuff up passively, though, got tired pretty quickly.

Playing single player offers you the chance to really think about what you’re doing; how to infiltrate a town and thin out enemy numbers, or to stun a target to get a shot past his shield really plays a larger factor when you’ve time to think. I found that exploring, doing side-quests and really getting into the world of Pandora was a much easier task flying solo, and the game was even as immersive as more in depth RPG’s such as Fallout. Multiplayer changes all that.

Sight seeing

Pandora is once again beautifully rendered, and although the obviously console oriented GUI’s (despite Gearbox saying they wouldn’t be) are a bit annoying, the actual graphics of the game are beautiful. The art-style is once again unique and innovative, and although it relies on Direct X9 and not the newer Direct x11, it runs well and looks fantastic.

This time, Pandora features four different environment types: grassy, snow, desert and urban. The grassy zones juxtapose the the theme really well, and offer at least some break away from the normal tone of Borderlands. The areas are vast and spacious, but because your reliance on loot is really only subject to the quality of the boss you’re fighting, you won’t be desperate to search every nook and cranny for that secret hidden gun. It’s usually just a bunch of $5 boxes, and maybe something that has great damage but fires 360 degrees around your target.

All of the quests are enjoyable, because they’ll have you out in different areas, using one of the few vehicles the game has to offer. You don’t have to do all the side-quests, but doing some of them and focusing mainly on the story will run you around 17 hours to complete the main story. The game has 15 chapters in total, which offers quite a lot of bang for your buck.

Streamlined or monotonous?

The changes in Borderlands 2 compared to the first indicate that Gearbox played it pretty damn safe. I suppose they didn’t know what made the original sell, so they didn’t tinker too much with the fabric of what might have made it a success. They increased the charm ten-fold and produced a wonderfully comical script for a backwards and bizarre game world that serves as the biggest departure from the first, but their more stream-lined automatic switching of questing means that players no longer even really need to look at that quest log, and those who confine themselves to multiplayer might not have to even think at all.

Multiplayer doesn’t really offer anything over the single player, other than banter with friends, and you run the risk of ignoring all of the subtle improvements Gearbox have made over the original if you play it this way – and that’s just a bizarre and unfortunate truth about Borderlands 2: the story and narrative are brilliant, but multiplayer can, perhaps, serve as a detriment to their changes.

For 20-30 hours of entertainment and tons of replayability, Borderlands 2 earns its cost – but with slightly dated shooting mechanics, no loot system and a bunch of frankly terrible guns to supplement few very good ones, your enjoyment will peak and dip quite considerably during your play-through.