Back in 2009, Gearbox Software’s “Borderlands” arrived with little fanfare. Released alongside such blockbusters as “Assassin’s Creed II,” “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” and “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves,” the game didn’t start to pick up buzz until a month or two after release.
All that’s changed for the sequel. “Borderlands 2” is the first big game of the fall, with a massive marketing budget, an eye-catching, live-action national TV ad and an appearance by its signature robot Claptrap on Fox’s Sunday football telecasts. It also arrives to a laundry list of expectations, and though it’s superior to its predecessor in virtually every way, Gearbox still has polishing to do for the inevitable “Borderlands 3.”
The game takes players back to the inhospitable mining colony planet of Pandora. Once again, you play the role of one of four “vault hunters,” but this time you’re trying to stop a psychotic madman from unleashing a fearsome, long-dormant warrior upon the world. Though the plot is similar to its predecessor, Gearbox has invested a lot of time crafting diverse, memorable levels that use the entire color palette. (The first game featured a lot of desert settings and drab grays and browns.)
Like its predecessor, “Borderlands 2” fuses first-person shooter gunplay with the sort of quest/mission structure and loot gathering you’re used to finding in role-playing games. You talk with secondary characters, who give you jobs to complete. You go complete the jobs and return to the quest giver for a reward.
As in role-playing games like “Diablo III,” virtually every enemy you kill drops some kind of reward as well, whether it’s a new gun, ammunition or cold, hard cash. With your character constantly gaining levels and finding new loot, there’s an addictive metagame of outfitting your character in optimal combinations of gear.
Adding up to three players to your game increases the difficulty level and results in better loot. It also helps paper over a few of the game’s minor flaws. You’re less likely to mind the backtracking some quests require if you’re bantering with buddies.
The “Borderlands” games’ true joy, though, comes from using each character’s unique power in combination with the game’s seemingly infinite number of guns and grenades. Each of the four playable characters features a different special ability, usable for a limited time. Finding ways to combine and optimize these abilities with the various weapons is what makes “Borderlands” memorable.
I played as Maya the Siren, a modified version of the Lilith character from “Borderlands.” Typically, players chose to level up “Borderlands” characters largely along one of three trees, as the abilities at the ends of the trees are the most powerful. In “Borderlands 2,” however, Gearbox has encouraged players to dabble in more than one path. Each features an unlockable ability about 40 percent of the way up the tree that requires one point to unlock. For my siren build, for example, I progressed up the Harmony tree just far enough to unlock the ability to revive my downed squadmates from afar, using Maya’s action skill. Once that ability was within my grasp, I switched over to the Cataclysm tree to unlock abilities that did damage over time via elemental effects. The combination of damage over time and squad revival abilities allow me to feel more diversified than a straight-up combat medic, a role I rarely choose.
Despite everything it does right, “Borderlands 2” can occasionally feel like an extremely robust expansion of the first game. The secondary characters, enemies and the bulk of the game’s containers — lockers, chests, lockboxes, cardboard boxes, clothes dryers and refrigerators — look exactly as they did in 2009’s game. The gunplay and vehicle handling feel about the same, allowing “Borderlands” veterans to jump right in and feel instantly comfortable.
For the sequel, Gearbox has put more emphasis on the game’s story, dialogue and overall writing, and for the most part, “Borderlands 2” feels richer for it. Played solo, the original “Borderlands” often felt tedious and slow-paced; its world didn’t feel lived-in, even if it generated a few laughs. Not so with the sequel. The first game’s quartet of vault hunters serve as important secondary characters, and we finally get to learn more about Roland, Lilith, Mordecai and Brick as we complete missions for them.
Puzzlingly, though, the playable characters in the sequel are nearly as bland and personality-free as the original vault hunters were in the first game. With the exception of a few audio recordings, I know roughly as much about Maya as I did about Lilith in “Borderlands.”
Maybe we’ll find out more in downloadable content or the inevitable “Borderlands 3.”
Whereas “Borderlands” was mildly amusing, “Borderlands 2” is frequently hilarious. The game is packed with comedic video game and pop culture references, and the way in which secondary characters openly wear their derangement or pathos like a badge still generates laughs after a few dozen hours. My favorite? The psychopaths who yell, “I smell delicious!” as they slowly burn to death.
At times, though, “Borderlands 2” can fall into a bit of a comedic rut. Like the first game, it relies on midgets, nudie magazines and pizza for laughs. After awhile, it can feel a bit like listening to your friend who repeatedly recites the same quotes from “Monty Python” episodes or Will Ferrell movies.
“Borderlands 2′s” biggest flaw is perhaps a returning problem from the first game: The first five levels before you unlock your character’s action skill aren’t very fun. You’re generally playing a tutorial that goes on for way too long, and seasoned “Borderlands” players hoping to sample all four classes will quickly grow tired of playing the same introductory chapter, minus action skills or exotic weaponry, over and over. Failing to unlock the action skills from the get-go only underscores that the series’ gunplay lacks the “oomph” of more action-oriented shooters. Yes, the pre-action skill portion of the game lasts maybe 30 to 60 minutes, but it feels like an eternity.
Still, on consoles, where it doesn’t have to compete with massively multiplayer online games, “Borderlands 2” is likely to go down as the best co-op game of the year. Despite a series of minor missteps, it’s a polished, deeply satisfying co-op game that’ll keep you and up to three friends occupied for a good 30 to 40 hours, minimum. Even then, that’s only if you play the game once, then put it down. As with “Borderlands,” finishing the game once unlocks a more difficult second playthrough.
The PC difference: In addition to the Xbox 360 copy of “Borderlands 2″ that I picked up at retail, I have a PC copy provided by publisher 2K Games. I put in a few hours with the PC build and, overall, prefer the game on PC. The comic book-style cel-shaded visuals pop, even on my budget-priced gaming rig. Using Microsoft’s wired, Xbox 360 controller on my PC essentially makes the game play as if it would on console, only prettier. And, of course, if you prefer the precision of keyboard and mouse, that’s going to be a huge draw. My preference would be to play on PC, but most of the folks that I game with regularly are playing the game on Xbox 360. Once a buddy of mine catches up to me, I’ll likely co-op the second playthrough on Microsoft’s console.
“Borderlands 2,” rated M, costs $60 on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 and $50 on PC.