If a guess had to be made about subtitles that almost made the cut for Borderlands 2, one top contender would be Borderlands 2: The Game You Wanted Last Time. The original 2009 release, a loot-heavy blast of cel-shaded violence, was a hybrid that combined a first-person shooter approach with a Diablo-inspired drive to amass an endless collection of weapons and gear. But while the game worked well when adventuring as a four-player team, solo play didn’t shine as bright, and the somewhat unstructured game world eventually turned into a grind.
Borderlands 2 is similar to the first game in many respects: same action, same loot, same relentlessly escalating violence. The difference this time is that Gearbox Software has given the underlying systems a huge overhaul. The environment is bigger, the weapon load-out more varied and ultimately more powerful, and character classes are customizable to suit your play style. Borderlands 2 may superficially look like its predecessor, but it’s a bigger, more addictive, gun-blazing beast.
Once again players start as a “vault hunter,” freshly arrived on Pandora to score fortune and glory. The planet has become an even more hotly competitive zone than before, with the Hyperion Corporation seeking to control its riches. Hyperion’s point man is Handsome Jack, who is a lot like the animated super-spy Sterling Archer with extra-unhinged homicidal tendencies. Players set off in search of Handsome Jack and ultimately join a resistance effort that employs characters from the original game as officers.
The story provides more directed exploration of Pandora’s tundra, deserts, hideouts, and other areas, but story is just an excuse to wander; the real narrative here concerns weapons and the evolution of their use. Borderlands 2’s view of Pandora sometimes seems a little more broad and a little more varied than in the original, but mostly it just offers better ways to kill everything.
You start with one of the four character templates. There’s the Gunzerker, who can dual-wield weapons. The Siren is possessed of abilities that are essentially telekinetic, with the ability to lift enemies in the air (and to their death). The Commando has access to machine gun turrets. And Zer0 (The Number) is a slick assassin who can earn bonuses for sniping‚plus he can turn invisible for a moment, which is a nice trick.
So each character has a core skill. But beyond that there are three prongs of development to refine their abilities. On the assassin’s foundation you can create a ninja able to sweep unseen into battle and deliver a single lethal blow or a sniper able to provide the best cover known to man. When you complete Badass Challenges (essentially requests to kill lots and lots of people with a variety of weapons) you can tweak your character in more subtle ways—so that she loads a gun more quickly, maybe, or fights a little better with her fists.
Working in tandem with the skill system is a weapon set that is more fun and devastating than the original. Some of the weapons offer a mild twist—guns shoot flames or explosives, or you might find a “bouncing betty” grenade that breaks into a dozen baby explosives—while others are even less conventional. There are pistols and rifles that spit out a bonus grenade every time they’re reloaded, and others that become more accurate as the trigger is held down.
In keeping with the game’s combination of Mad Max and Alice In Wonderland humor, weapons are divided according to manufacturer, with Jakob building steampunk-looking gear, while Bandit foists off misspelled, occasionally misbehaving knockoffs of other swag. The manufacturers offer colorful detail, and they help players organize their massive Pandora experience, as you’re likely to find that one make is better for your tendencies than others.
While there is an in-game money system, weapon loot becomes the game’s major currency, and it provides a reason to push forward. Playing cooperative multiplayer still has some rudimentary treasure-hunter aspects, as you still race your compatriots to grab new gear before they can reach it. But a new trade screen makes it easier to swap and divide accumulated stuff, and the drop-in multiplayer system makes it easier to get into co-op in the first place. Play with a crew you know and trust, and everyone can get what they want.
Enemies are more powerful in co-op, but the game ensures that even a team with the vaguest coordination of members and specializations can counter that challenge. If anything, the game is so driven toward making the action and violence bigger with every passing hour that there is little room for nuance—it’s all about who can blow stuff up best, and fastest. But Borderlands 2 is more than capable of accommodating anyone ready to get on board with that “kill ’em all!” mentality, multiple guns in tow.