Elsewhere, every possible aspect of the Borderlands experience has been improved. The environments are far more diverse than the overwhelming Thunderdome browns and tans of the first game, boasting frozen caverns, pools of caustic goo, glowing mines, and volcanic arenas. Traversing those environments is also more efficient, with a refined transportation system and two new vehicle configurations, which trade speed for heavier artillery: why shoot bullets when you can shoot flaming saw blades?. Like character customization, vehicle paint jobs have been overhauled and an incredible number of customization options (all aesthetic, mind you) can be unlocked while exploring Pandora.
Brand identity of weapons has been thrown to the forefront, so that seemingly trivial differences between manufacturers in the first game have become immediately identifiable, and you know what to expect from a gun just by the name on the item plate. Dahl guns burst fire when zoomed. Tediores become grenades when reloaded. Maliwan makes elemental weapons and nothing else. Bandits can’t spell.
Diversity in equipment is also at an all-time high, with grenade mods, shields, class mods, and artifacts playing a far more interesting and dynamic role in character strengths and weaknesses. You are no longer upgrading in a linear fashion, and will find yourself keeping a couple shields and mods in your pack in case the situation calls for different buffs and rebuffs. The RPG elements are far more obvious and important, and weapon stats play a huge role in your decision on what to keep and what to sell at the nearest vending machine. The added ability to store unneeded items in a vault to which you can return at leisure (rather than being limited to your backpack’s capacity alone) is a great relief, as is the “secret stash” locker which permits you to transfer expensive or awesome loot from one character to any other that you may have.
Of course if you want to exchange loot with another player, you’ll have to locate the items you wish to trade and then toss them on the ground for that player to pick up — or that’s what you used to have to do, before Borderlands 2 introduced a much-needed trade functionality, which permits inventory-to-inventory transmission of loot and money and even affords the entertaining prospect of backstabbing, as any item put on the table can be dueled over instead of waiting for mutually-acceptable terms of trade.
Most players lauded the original Borderlands, but among the detractors the general consensus seems to be that the game was all style and lacking in story. You were asked to spend hours running around and killing things, but it mattered very little who you were killing or why you were doing so. For many, Pandora felt a little flat, a little too barren, a problem vastly more noticeable when playing the game — which was designed with four-player cooperative play in mind — by yourself.
Gearbox really outdid themselves with the sequel, flooding the player with so much new dialogue and exposition that at times it could be considered excessive (one character early on actually finishes a long backstory monologue with the words “but I’m spouting exposition again, aren’t I?”). To the extent that the game is self-aware, this excess will probably not bother most people (unless of course you work for the Wall Street Journal).
While shockingly black and occasionally very off-color, the humor in this game demands that its offenses be taken with much salt; we understand that these are grotesque parodies of actual people and relationships. The game even jokes about its own excesses, with Claptrap early on feigning horror at your willingness to gun down hordes of bandits without considering ramifications before he quickly dismisses that as a joke. You chuckle, but for just a moment a part of you considers those who truly worry about the dissociation of violence and consequence, who see mindless slaughter in games and wonder how long until the next Columbine.
And therein lies a question worth at least momentary pondering, for despite the excellence of the craft and the brilliance of the writing, some will approach this game from a worldview that is irreconcilable with the bloodbath and innuendo that constitute very much of the Borderlands 2 experience. Some filtering options are there, as is the ability to circumnavigate some of the more questionable side missions in the game, but at the end of the day this is a Gearbox game, from the house that unflinchingly gave us Duke Nukem Forever, and we can’t expect that morality was a standard held in high regard when crafting it.
If your conscience doesn’t ail you, though, there’s much fun to be had here, particularly with friends who are tired of just another night of Slayer or Team Deathmatch. With extravagant customization, addictive looting, and a gorgeous, expansive universe to explore, Borderlands 2 will be an experience hard to surpass in the months, perhaps years, to come.