Borderlands 2 review: Hyperion strikes back

Like the first before it, Borderlands 2 is a game mostly about really big, really crazy sci-fi weaponry. As a sequel, the game offers up a clearly improved yet faithful experience for the familiar. For the first-time player, here's a good a place as any to get into Borderlands.

The Story So Far

Borderlands 2 finds a group of heavily armed Vault hunters once again pitted against an intergalactic corporation on a backwater planet. This time it's the Hyperion Corporation led by the verifiably evil Handsome Jack, who has mounted a massive mining operation to uncover a powerful tool for destruction. The fortune seekers have formed a rebel alliance with their foes from the first game, the Crimson Lance, and the fate of the very universe could be in their hands. You know, or something — Borderlands 2 doesn't take itself very seriously.

The sequel dumps the cast of the first game and brings in four new challengers. In an interesting narrative experiment, the four original characters are now fleshed out persons of interest in Borderlands 2 who you interact with regularly. For better and worse, these returning faces never get too deep: for better, new players don't need any real prior knowledge of Borderlands to get into the plot; for worse, returning players may find the characters shallow as a tradeoff, especially since main characters do little more in Borderlands than grunt and laugh their way through each firefight. Yet with some digging, returning players will find more depth than the game initially presents.

For those who want to explore it, Borderlands 2 offers a whole lot, with a story that's broken down into many little pieces and narrated by a bunch of oddball characters, innumerable tweaks that enhance the gameplay found in the original, and loads of side quests that dangle rewards all around you. There's a lot to discover here, so much so that it's almost hard to collect the complete picture if you want to: the game makes it easy to follow a narrow path to the finish by marking story missions and optional quests, and the game's characters will even talk over one another if you move along at a steady enough clip. This is by design, in fact, as Borderlands 2 is meant to be played over and over, and throws more quests at you than you need to complete its campaign. Still, it's a shame when characters cut one another off: you're often missing something funny. Worse, you'll miss great, like when the game quietly reveals something further about a character you thought you knew and deepens the plot.

For all its deceptively frenetic action (more on that in a minute), Borderlands 2 is best enjoyed at a deliberate pace. Beyond the rewards, the optional content in Borderlands 2 is well worth seeing, and really makes the game.

Self-Perpetuating Firearm Factory

The gun is the goal in itself in the Borderlands series. You'll spend a lot of time crafting your character, but ultimately what you're after is an arsenal of powerful guns. Thankfully, they're interesting to collect.

Guns in Borderlands 2 are procedurally generated from various components, some of which will modify performance. A minigun-like barrel on the front of a rifle, for instance, will increase its rate of fire but also make it slower to wind up. Firearms are given further character by the fictional manufacturers that made them, and differing brands change the way weapons look and fire. Guns made by Maliwan, for example, look iPod-sleek and use high-tech ammo that lights targets on fire or burns them with acid. Alternatively, weapons cobbled together by bandits are often powerful and crude, and bear misspelled names (one I picked up and chuckled at: the "carbinated carbean").

It's good, then, that the guns are so interesting. You're constantly upgrading your grip of firearms (you can have four at the ready), and guns drive the gameplay. You're always being rewarded with money and experience for almost anything at all, and even the levels you earn are supplemented by challenges, which hand out "Badass Tokens." Tokens are awarded for playing more deliberately, and challenges will give you extra if you're taking targets out at point-blank range with a shotgun or you're exceptionally accurate at long range with a sniper rifle. These tokens increase a selected skill of any of your characters by fractions of a percent, and will eventually amount to a meaningful bonus, which will in turn make starting a new game — something Borderlands 2 encourages — more appealing and ultimately easier.

These skills also go a long way to differentiating your Borderlands 2 experience from any other. For instance, my character — I chose to play as Salvador the Gunzerker — grew into a gun-swapping machine who never has to reload. Every time Salvador scores a kill, any guns he's holding are magically reloaded, meaning I could rotate my weapons without pausing to refill any of the guns. This is an example of how Borderlands 2 doesn't play quite like anything else out there: I was juggling my arsenal to maximize the effectiveness of my character, and the game suddenly became far more engaging because of that.

Borderlands 2 is a first-person shooter first with roleplaying as a close second, so it's fitting that shooting is the star. When first-person shooters are almost all about head-shots, Borderlands 2 adds shields and invulnerabilities and enemies lacking proper squishy heads into the mix, making it stand out for how it plays, especially when having fun is prioritized over all else — even uncovering plot.

An RPG Shooter Space Western 3D Comic Book Thing

Borderlands 2 moves pretty fast if you let it, and yet will keep you entertained for dozens of hours if you take it a little slower. The game isn't interested in forcing you down any path, though it is nice enough to tell you if you've missed a quest. You'll find the game luxuriating in toilet humor right before a highbrow allusion to Bright Lights, Big City. Borderlands 2 is all over the place, but it works.

Like so much of the plot that's hidden away, the gameplay in Borderlands 2 really finds its stride when you get further into it, and your second run through of the game (you can take your powered-up character and dive right back into a fresh start) will most likely be more satisfying than the first. Luckily, Borderlands 2 works harder than the first game did to make you want to go back through the whole thing all over again, with even crazier skills waiting for you and constant micro-rewards. The guns aren't only fun to collect, but the way they drive the progression in Borderlands 2 makes them fun to use, too.

If you enjoyed anything about the first game, you'll find it improved in Borderlands 2. If you're new to the series, the sequel is very friendly to new players. The game is faithful to the flavor of the original Borderlands almost to a fault, though players who are picking up what Borderlands 2 is putting down will find a matured, solid offering with plenty of fun to pass out.

This review is for an Xbox 360 copy of Borderlands 2.

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