During the development of Borderlands 2, Gearbox's focus must have been on making the sequel better without screwing with the formula too much. Borderlands 2 offers numerous improvements over the first game but still manages to feel very much like a natural continuation of the original gameplay.
Once again, a band of four vault hunters rides mass transit across Pandora. This time, they're doing so under the banner of Handsome Jack, whose employer, the Hyperion Corporation, has identified a newer, larger vault and has been hiring vault hunters to locate it. It ends up being a ruse, as Handsome Jack has been luring hunters into a deadly trap so he can be the first one to find the vault. Our four vault hunters nearly fall for the ruse and get into a gunfight aboard a hover train that explodes, sending their car careening onto an icy glacial surface.
It's immediately noticeable that a lot of effort has been expended on the graphics engine. Even at the top-end settings, the original seemed to be a little bit muddy, whereas graphics in the sequel have much higher fidelity and make great use of it. Snow and ice blows across the frigid surface, and special effects are used to a much greater extent. Areas are also larger, and they're peppered with plenty of interesting spots that usually end up being quest destinations.
There is also a lot more going on in the game world to make things feel more lively. It's hard to put a finger on specific examples, but the original game felt a little static. Other than enemies that you found wandering around, nothing really moved, making an obviously dirty environment feel too rigid. The sequel throws a lot more life into the environments, making you feel like you're roaming an actual world rather than one that is a baked-in backdrop for your gunplay.
There's more variety to the quests this time around, both in terms of objectives and how well the system works. You grab quests from specific quest-givers or bounty boards, but some quests have optional bonus objectives that you can complete for larger rewards. As they were in the original, objectives mainly consist of either kill X or fetch Y, but new ones have been thrown into the mix, such as killing an enemy with a melee attack to harvest some untarnished fur. Finally, some quests let you choose among two rewards, so you can get something you want or just avoid getting something you won't use.
Minor tweaks to the gameplay formula are all over the place. You can change your character's appearance by swapping out the head model and skin, either from what's available at the outset or whatever you find/purchase during gameplay. At the same terminal, you can also re-spec your character's skill tree for a small fee; this feature was notably absent in the original. You can also find new vehicle skins for some cosmetic flair.
The four classes and their skill trees are mere shadows of the setup in the original game. For example, though Axton and the Commando class are quite aesthetically similar to Roland and the Soldier class from the first game, the skills have been completely remixed. The new skill trees are largely a mix of improvements to your stats, such as damage dealt or shield capacity, but they also consist of new abilities. The new Siren class can briefly deflect bullets after phaselocking an enemy to hold him in place, and her phaselock can be upgraded to pull in entire groups of enemies.
There is also more emphasis on class synergy in Borderlands 2. Salvador the Gunzerker has an ability that is as an area-of-effect taunt, making nearby enemies more likely to shoot him but also making him more resistant to bullet damage. At the same time, Zero the Assassin has the ability to deal more damage to targets that face away from him, and his melee attacks can deal increased damage from behind. These abilities work well enough to be worth picking up, but they can be absolutely devastating when used in groups with other players.
The trailers have touted numerous guns, which are even more varied than they were in the original game. You'll find elemental and other special weapons much more quickly. A new weapon modifier makes the gun more accurate the longer you fire it, so when you're near the end of the magazine, even firing from the hip is ridiculously accurate. Another modifier makes guns explode after reloading them, so you must throw the weapon like a grenade; after that, a fresh copy of the firearm teleports into your hands. It takes some time to get accustomed to the fact that the modifier treats manual reloads the same way and consumes the remaining bullets in the magazine.
The title also introduces changes to some item functionality. Shields can have modifiers, such as dealing spikes of explosive damage to melee attackers, or having increased capacity while reducing your maximum health. Class mods are more prevalent and reasonably accessible, so you can get them more easily and keep a couple on hand if you want to swap them. There is also a new damage type in the form of Slag, which makes the target much more vulnerable to any other damage type. This encourages players to work closely together.
Alas, there are a few areas in which Borderlands 2 falls short. Much as in the original, there isn't a system for fast travel within a particular zone; this becomes painful when vehicles are unavailable or blocked, as completing a quest might require a few minutes of walking. The UI has been redone for tasks such as looking at your skill trees or inventory, but the new UI makes it cumbersome to switch between skill trees even though there is enough screen real estate to show them all. You can press a key to see all three trees, but in that mode, the tooltips don't work. Finally, switching weapons still seems like a "pick until you win" scenario, as there are no on-screen elements that show your gun order as you scroll through the options. This gets more frustrating when you can equip four guns and you wonder — in the midst of a gun battle — if your shotgun is after your sniper rifle or your assault rifle.
Gearbox has also addressed some recommendations about the first game, such as incorporating field-of-view control and screen-shaking into the options menu rather than relegating them to console commands. In the same vein, the developers have proactively added some nice options, such making it so when the Gunzerker is dual-wielding, the left mouse button fires the left gun and the right mouse button follows suit. The inclusion of a minimap in the upper right-hand corner is a nice touch so you can more easily navigate without constantly checking the main map. However, it has the drawback of showing enemy locations, which is an unwelcome change and can make gunfights feel like you must find and kill the dots rather than sweeping an area to find the stragglers. The title also features a bank to store items that you want to keep but not necessarily lug around, and you can now trade items with other players.
The game offers challenges in a variety of categories, such as killing enemies of increasingly higher ranks. Completing these challenges nets you badass ranks that provide you with badass tokens, which can be spent to unlock a permanent stat boost, such as increased gun damage or reduced recoil. These bonuses are applied to all of your characters, but they have diminishing returns. The first time you spend a token in an ability category, it nets you a one-percent bonus, with subsequent tokens getting you smaller and smaller fractions of a percent.
Overall, Borderlands 2 takes what wasn't broken and builds on it, but it does so in a way that feels very much like the original game. At the same time, the gameplay is different enough to not feel like a retread, as practically every area of the gameplay has been tweaked to some extent. Despite a few flaws, Borderlands 2 is another fantastic trip back to Pandora, and it's packed with the same level of humor and action that made the original so memorable.
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