Borderlands 2 Review (PC)

Give me guns… lots of guns.

Borderlands 2 is everything you expect of it and maybe a little more. A sequel to Gearbox’s success story ‘Borderlands’, the sequel is an open-world RPG-esque FPS that blends horrific violence, steampunk post-apocalyptic cel shaded stylings and a Diablo mimicking loot system into some kind of delicious yet morally bankrupt smoothie.

Story-wise the game picks up where Borderlands left off. You’re on the alien world Pandora, where the huge Dahl corporation had attempted mining operations but given up when it realised everything on the planet wants to kill people during the ‘Summer’ phase. This leaves us with a world that appears post apocalyptic, but has elements of the Old West, as well as corporate cities brining to mind Deus Ex’s urban landscapes. In the last game you were part of a bunch of four ‘vault hunters’ going for guts and glory with the overall aim of opening the grand prize. Along the way you realised all is not what it seemed and a giant tentacle monster erupted from the vault, forming the game’s end boss. The story was simple, albeit with some memorable characters, but like in Diablo it was really window dressing to cover up the addiction-based loot mechanics that drive the game.

All of the game’s advertising focuses on the insane number of guns and again, like Diablo, there is a procedural generator of sorts that allows for millions of potential combinations. You’ll find shotguns that fire rockets, pistols that are reloaded by throwing them like grenades, and machine guns that talk to you no matter how much you don’t want them to. It makes for surprisingly compelling gameplay if you’re of a certain mindset, and judging by sales figures for games like this, gamers mostly are.

It would have been easy for Gearbox to rely on what is tried and tested and pump out another game with a few new weapon parts or new areas to explore. Thankfully they’ve gone much further and what we find is a compelling adventure with excellent writing and incredibly refined mechanics.

The visuals are nothing less than breathtaking. I’ve always been a fan of the cel-shaded look, and while it has always been more subtle in Borderlands than games such as Wind Waker or XIII, Gearbox have created their own slightly gritty look for the games, and the refinements to their engine have really done wonders. Many of the criticisms levelled at the first game revolved around repetitive scenery, surprisingly claustrophobic areas for an open world game and a lack of detail. Straight away in the opening section to Borderlands 2 you find yourself in an expansive Icy wasteland, and you soon start realising you can really go to all those fantastic places you see in the distance. I picked this up on PC and en my moderate to budget specced PC auto-detected to 1080p and everything on high (except PhysX which we’ll talk about later) and it runs at a steady 40-50 fps. With the 22-60fps smoothing feature enabled I couldn’t even tell it wasn’t running at 60fps and it looked gorgeous on our HDTV. Everything is incredibly sharp, draw distances are huge and the amount of detail on scenery and characters is staggering. Gearbox have obviously been practicing the same voodoo as the developers of Just Cause as this engine is pumping out visuals well beyond what I thought my system was capable of. The game doesn’t look too shabby on consoles but PC is definitely a step beyond and the support for PC gamers to tweak their settings is certainly commendable.

The interesting ‘PhysX’ setting strikes me as more of an experiment that a fully fledged feature. Although touted as an Nvidia only setting, it actually works on a wide variety of cards. At a basic level it churns out many more physics-based objects at the expense of framerate. On a more powerful rig this won’t be an issue but on mine it cut it by about 10fps when turning it from low to high. Unfortunately one of the effects is giving liquid properties to acid and blood. Neither of these materials works particularly well in the world and come across as a weird thick jelly type substance that does run down hills and interact with objects, but is also fairly distracting as it looks as if it doesn’t fit in with the world at all.

The plot is much more involved and the characters more interesting than I would come to expect based on the last game. Some of the old favourites such as Zed and Claptrap are back, and there’s a whole cast of interesting and cooky supporting acts to draw your attention. You’ll have to play the game to find out specifics (no spoilers here when we can avoid it!) but in many of the numerous side missions there are some real oddballs and laugh-out-loud references and jokes (Ash from HAWP has so of the best lines, and the writer just so happens to be her brother who also stars in the show) but there are also moments of serious drama which go a long way towards making the game more than just a throwaway distraction. You’ll grow to like a lot of these characters, which is par for the course, but if you’re anything like me you’ll also grow to hate some of the villains, which is something I’ve been missing from a lot of from fiction lately. Many of the characters have a surprising amount of depth buried away if you look out for related quests or audio logs and I found myself taking sidequests way below my level just to hear more of their stories.

Mechanics wise Gearbox have evidently listened to fans of the first game and made a lot of necessary changes. All the weapon classes are much more viable this time and on forums you regularly see people arguing about which weapon is most overpowered. In a game like this it can only be a good thing and the anaemic rocket launchers and sniper rifles of the first game are a distant memory. I regularly found myself focusing on one or two great shotguns, only to come across a few great SMGs, and then a spectacular rocket launcher, changing my mind about what was most effective every two levels or so. Loot is evenly distributed so you get just as much choice at level 10 as you do at level  40, while this may be difficult when you’re staring at stats for the 15th time in a mission it’s ultimately rewarding as you always feel you’re gaining something for every bit of progress, even if it’s just more cash to buy ammo and equipment with. The new classes are probably the least noteworthy innovations as for the most part they play in a similar way to the classes of old. The big exception is the Gunzerker whose special ability is dual wielding any weapons in the game. Since this scales with the more powerful weapons you find he becomes a real powerhouse on the second playthrough, with videos appearing of players tearing through the ultimate boss in less than 7 seconds.

Everything can be played with up to three other players and this works much as you might expect. One word of warning though, loot is not individual as in Diablo 3, so other people can take ‘your’ stuff. This means playing with randoms can be a frustrating experience and it might be worth taking the time to find some buddies to join up with. Playing solo isn’t as lonely as it was in the first game, with much more voice acting and an excellent soundtrack filling out the lack of other players’ voices.

The game took me 25 hours to complete, and I plan on spending many more trying out different classes and making my way to the level cap ready for the upcoming DLC. Through the review there have been comparisons to Diablo and honestly if you enjoy that type of gameplay, you’ll find a lot to love here. Similarly anyone burned out on strong story-based FPS titles like Bioshock or Deus Ex should also pick this up.

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