Sunday, September 30, 2012

Borderlands 2

A Return Trip to The Borderlands.
Review By AllegrettoCain

3 years ago, gamers from all realms were treated to a journey across the desert-wastelands of Pandora. Guided by a Guardian Angel, we tracked down pieces of the Vault Key in order to unlock the legendary Vault, which promised us fantastic rewards of money, fame and women.

Along the way, we rescued many Claptraps, looted rooms of chests, fought off droves of skags, bandits and rakks, toppled the Atlas corporation, and fire many, many guns. And, most importantly, we felt a sense of accomplishment with each new weapon we found off the dead bodies and copious loot chests throughout Pandora.

Now, after a year of hype, commercials, promises of Dubstep and lots and lots of gameplay footage, the big question is: Did Gearbox step up the fantastic all-in-one, genre-fusing masterpiece that was the original Borderlands?

After a week of playing the game, glued to my computer and/or PS3 (depending on whether or not I was playing with my brother), after a full year of anticipating the game and after 3 years of enjoying the ever-living crap out of the first game, I have one word to summarize my entire experience with this sequel: Damn.

Not only has Gearbox increased the fun of looting the endless piles of weaponry that we will find, but they also stepped up every other aspect of this classic, taking what worked and improving what needed work.

STORY: Most notably, for those of you who simply could not make sense of the mess of events of the first game, a new story has been introduced that makes for a much more dramatic setting. And this is probably the biggest change of the game.

It has been 5 years since the original Vault Hunters opened the Vault. With the Atlas corporation severely crippled from their personal war with our heroes, Hyperion has seized control of the Borderlands. And their leader, Handsome Jack, has discovered another Vault. In order to avoid conflict with other would-be treasure hunters, Jack has enlisted the “help” of every Hunter Pandora has to offer, only to eviscerate them in a huge train explosion. You, however, have managed to survive the trap, and are found by our friendly neighborhood Claptrap. With the very fate of Pandora hanging by a thread, you have been enlisted to stop Jack from uncovering the secrets of the Vault and dominating the universe.

Old and new faces help you along the way. The original four Vault Hunters return, and for those of you who have always wanted to know more about them, this is your chance. The storyline, along with many different ECHO recording devices, lets us have a bit of insight as far as their backgrounds go and what has happened since the first game. Thankfully, Gearbox has also added a few hidden recorders for you to locate so that you learn a bit more about the current heroes. 

One very important part about the plot is that it never assumes you have completed any of the original game, and drops plenty of context clues for you to figure out what happened back in the day. Yes, it is more awarding for you to have completed the first game before jumping into this one (you'll be more emotionally wrecked throughout the storyline, and the references to the events will make more sense), but it is not necessary for you to have ever touched the first game.

Through all the pleasant twists that appear along the story, the game's gutter humor and sharp wit remain consistent. However, side missions will lead you down some pretty dark alleys, so be cautioned, as Pandora is, after all, a very dangerous place to be.

Now that we've established a reason for your rampage across the Pandoran landscapes, let's talk about the gameplay. This is where Borderlands shined the brightest, and it is where it will continue to amaze. With our previous heroes now acting as quest givers to fuel the story, your new characters will step onto the fray with new skills, skill trees and plenty of customization.

Like the first game, the biggest element to consider is which game-defining Action Skill do you want to use? Each new Action Skill provides a unique twist on how you handle each character, and they differ greatly from the original Vault Hunters. Zero's Deception allows him to become a lethal, invisible warrior that, when fully built, is either a bloodthirsty ninja-sword wielding flash or a super-accurate sniper that can blow the heads off of the toughest foes. Salvador steps up on Brick's Berserking, instead preferring to whip out a second gun, flinging himself into a Gunzerking rage that is nigh impossible to stop. Although sharing the same class name, Siren, Maya's Phaselock acts as a prison for any enemy caught within, allowing her to deal either massive elemental damage to numerous foes, or even confusing enemies to fight each other for a period of time. Lastly, Axton's Sabre Turret, while somewhat like Roland's Scorpio Turret, is no longer a place to hide behind when you need cover immediately; it is a devilish war machine that will pin down enemies with missile barrages or even allow for a second turret to be deployed.

Unlike the first game, however, the skill trees provide for much more differentiation between each one. Not only do you have the new classes, but all three of their skill trees give them a different feeling, like having 12 classes instead of just 3. The addition of marvelous one-point skills that change the function of your Action Skill, and a final skill that further augments your abilities, adds for plenty of variation between your characters.

In my first play through, I went with Maya. Upon reaching level 5, I was Phaselocking enemies for moments at a time; and while the progression felt slow at first, I felt deeply rewarded for continuing on the path of my choosing, the Cataclysm tree. Once I had reached the game-changing one-point skill, I found that my strategies suddenly began to expand; not only was I dealing fire damage to all enemies within range of the Phaselocked foe, but I was also dealing constant corrosive damage, too. Once I reached the end of the skill tree, I was given Ruin, a skill that dealt continuous Slag (a new element, which I'll be explaining below), shock and corrosive damage to all enemies near the Phaselocked target. And that was only at level 31. As you continue to level, you'll be able to make it halfway down another tree to a second one-point skill. Maya's other skills, Res, which allows for an instant revival of a downed friend if you target them with Phaselock, and Converge, a skill that pulls enemies towards the centerpiece of your Phaselock, provided me with more customization options than I could have bothered to ask for.

In solo play, I might snag Converge to stack upon Ruin, dealing all four elemental types (save Explosive, which, personally, I do not count as an elemental damage) to multiple enemies, while in group play, I would get Res to save my teammates if they get into a stick situation. Changing your build is just as quick and convenient as visiting a Quick Change Station, dropping a few in-game dollars and restating. 

Fellow Vault Hunters share the same convenience of being able to drop in and out of your game at any point, and a new feature to be able to take your split-screen game online has been added to the console versions, which is a good improvement for anybody that enjoys playing on the couch with another friend. Of course, this game was meant to be played by friends. The only problem is that loot is shared, so be careful who you're playing with, as aggressive or gun-hording ninjas can easily steal anything that is dropped as long as they have the bag space for it. Regardless, you are encouraged to play with friends: not only do the monsters become more challenging and the loot more rewarding for felling them, but the way the classes synergize can lead to some pretty epic gunfights.

As I mentioned before, Slag is a very important new element that, when applied to an enemy, causes them to take double damage for a period of time. In combat, this becomes a huge consideration, as you should always have one Slag gun or component of your inventory that allows you to Slag a foe, whether it's through skill trees or a grenade, or some other method. In a team, someone should always be considered the devoted Slag-shooter, as this will allow you to take down foes much faster. Later portions of the game, and especially in a 4-man group, enemy health numbers go shoot up into the hundreds of thousands, and in Play Through 2 (officially named True Vault Hunter Mode), bosses and Badasses can reach the hundreds of millions. 

The introduction of Slag, the necessary teamwork and gradually more difficult challenges adds plenty of fun and strategic consideration that you will need to plan if you want to be truly successful as you progress the game. However, building your skill trees and playing with friends are not the only ways that the customization levels have increased. The game not only hosts an endless bounty of new guns, but unique variations of other armory components have been added, as well. New shields, grenade mods, relics and class mods have made their appearance, and each one feels as unique as your own character, so adjusting them to your playstyle will be very important. As with the weapons that you choose the wield, the type of grenade and shield you have equipped with alter your strategy. Are you going to use Slag singularity grenades in order to save a gun space for a more powerful SMG than that Slag one you have? Do you plan to be able to deal extra melee damage when your shield is depleted, or prefer that your shield's capacity is within the ten thousands? These considerations are as deep and meaningful as when you consider the damage on your new sniper rifle versus that utility of your old one.

Speaking of guns, the manufactures have been given a new breath. Each line of weaponry, whether it be a Hyperion pistol or a Bandit pistol, feature their own unique looks and traits. For example, a Vladof spin gun may share a lot of what makes a spin gun across the board, but its fire rate will far surpass that of the always-explosive Torgue weaponry. In contrast, the hit-critical damage, high-fire power Jakob's leave an enemy beheaded in a short moment, but the Hyperion line promises to always hit its mark. Developing your strategy around the brand names is a lot of fun, so taking the time to test every Blue, Purple and Orange weapon is something that should become second nature for you. After all, you might find a magnificent gun that pales in comparison to your current equipment because of that specific trait, or vice-verse. 

Diversity does not stop there, as the challenges that we became familiar with in the first game (killing a certain amount of enemies, using an SMG for x-amount of kills, running over this many creatures, etc.) not only offer fun goals to meet as you play, but also incentivizes you with new Badass Ranks. Accumulating these Badass Ranks through gameplay awards you with Badass Tokens, which, when spent, give you options to further develop your character. If you aren't satisfied with that, these bonuses are profile-wide, so any new characters will be rewarded with them, and any more Badass Tokens you spend to increase your capabilities will also be reflected in every other character on the same profile. Simply speaking, you never stop growing, even after hitting the final level cap.

Not only are you rewarded for pouring hours and hours into a single character, but now you are encouraged to play through with different characters and use equipment you might have otherwise avoided in order to complete challenges and gain more Ranks. Some challenges are also area-specific, so taking a stroll through each area and finding the numerous hidden challenges can be a reward in itself.

What this game best, though, is making you feel like you are constantly accomplishing something. Whether you just blew that skag up to Kingdom Come with a fancy new rocket launcher, or killed an enemy with fire damage, you get a small rush, even if they didn't necessarily drop a cool new gun. But that sense of achievement that comes from building your character is deep and endless, so enjoy it. Everything gameplay-wise makes you continue wanting to play, so how are the other factors of the game?

SOUND: This is, unfortunately, where I found a few bugs, and cannot quite give this game a perfect score. Although they are sometimes small and infrequent, there were a few parts where it simply got annoying. One example of this is the talking guns. Given to you through various quests, the talking guns are quite amusing…for a few moments' time. One gun in particular, that was useful and powerful, simply seemed to glitch and wouldn't shut up. I dropped the gun, unequipped it, sold it to vendors and ultimately had to leave the game in order for it to stop talking to me. Other sound glitches include sprinting for a long time, causing your character to pant, and then opening the menu. Your character will continue to pant, even though your sprinting has stopped, and will continue to make the noise until you close out of your inventory screen.

Other audio is pretty impressive. The battle music was always tense and fun to listen to, and a few tracks make me want to buy the soundtrack, especially a particular Slaughter Circle's battle theme. The voice acting is spot on and familiar, and the new villain and allies' voices add a good amount of talent to the piece that keeps you wanting to listen to the hilarious dialogue or bleak and dramatic breaks that the plot often drops in for you. Gun sound effects, and even the walking, sound wonderful. The E-Tech guns, which are the new variation of the old Eridium weaponry, in particular provide interesting firing effects, both visually and audibly.

However, the biggest step up is in the enemy behavior. Bandits in particular react very well to what is happening to them. The new Goliaths, with their helmets on, sound like mentally handicapped hulks, but when you shoot of their helmets, they become enraged, vicious beasts that instruct you to bleed for them. However, nailing them with Slag makes them react differently; some of the Loader enemies, robot-war machines developed by Hyperion, will call out for help when being corroded. One in particular, the Rats, scream that their flesh “smells delicious” when you have set them on fire. All-in-all, the game feels much more alive in combat, since enemies are constantly reacting to the things that you, whether you are unloading on them with elemental weaponry, shooting them in their critical points, or throwing out your Action Skill.

VISUALS: Oh, this annoys me. I want to give this game a perfect score, but the sound glitches and the load time for the textures prevent me from doing so! This was a problem back in the original Borderlands, and for anybody that hated it then, this game is still plagued with it. The textures take a while to load again, whether you are on a high-performance PC or a console, and its irritable that they didn't address this issue. Oh ,well.

For the most part, however, all of the small, nuanced changes make this game look so much better. To begin with, the new UI is fantastically crafted; it feels really cool to simply open up your inventory and take a look and how much cleaner it is. The menus just seem to literally pop out at you, because of the effects that have been worked in. Considering the amount of guns that are in the game, so many of them look outright gorgeous; I haven't had a single complaint about any of the items that I have looted.

Even the addition of a mini-map in the corner of your screen sets this game a step higher than where it was three years ago. Enemies look visually different and the new enemy types makes you feel like you're never fighting the same mobs too often.

A big change visually is that the scenery of Pandora is extremely different. While you were riding around in your Runners, along the sands of the Borderlands, I bet you never stopped to think that there were more environments than the deserts and mountains of this post-apocalyptic world. Well, there are. Lush green plains extend throughout the locations; the opening of the Vault has left much of the land scarred with purple ooze, Slag; you even wake up on a glacier that is surrounded by nothing but more icy graves.

Lastly, the developers decided that they wanted to make each character not only feel unique in gameplay, but also in looks. Throughout the game, you'll find and unlock skins and heads that are purely cosmetic, but allow you to at visually individualize yourself from the remainder of the pack. For those of you who enjoy inspecting every nook and cranny of the video game, you will also be rewarded with special reference heads.

OVERALL: All in all, this game provides you with a huge time sink. You'll spend hours and hours in its endless customization, enjoy a story that makes a thousand times more sense than the original's events, and explore more of the beautiful and sometimes grotesque world of Pandora. Be prepared to clear up at least a months' worth of schedule time to play this game, as it has a lot to offer with numerous replays available. Whether played alone or with a group, this game offers an enriching, fun and unique experience that cannot be found in any other game, as far as I know. So, what are you waiting for? Pick your gun, pick your best friends, and cause some mayhem. 

SYSTEM: PC, PlayStation 3, XBOX 360



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