Ah, Pandora. A world of wonder, of beauty, of majesty and riches beyond your imagination. And also, just a little bit, a world of midgets and murder.
The first Borderlands introduced players to this crazy, dangerous world through the eyes of one of four Vault Hunters — mercenaries cut from the same cloth but dyed different colors, united (or alone) in their quest to open the fabled Vault and bask in its glorious booty. And as anyone who finished the game knows, that didn’t exactly end as planned.
Borderlands 2 picks up several years after the events of the first game. The Hyperion organization — whose “Angel” served as guide, friend, and sometimes seeming turncoat in the last game — has taken over Pandora under the iron grip and masked watch of a man named “Handsome Jack,” who in his path to the annals of ostentatious heroic history has killed anyone he considered “savage” and driven those lucky enough to escape him to take refuge in a shielded city appropriately called Sanctuary. This bastion is the player’s first destination, as he or she steps into the shoes of a new generation of Vault Hunters, in search of a new (and hopefully less lethal) Vault.
Knowledge of the first Borderlands is hardly a prerequisite for play, though certainly not a hindrance either. Most important NPCs are holdovers from the prequel, including its four Vault Hunters — Lilith, Roland, Mordecai, and Brick — whose liberation from player control and interpretation affords a wonderful (and mostly realized) opportunity for truly fleshing their personalities and skill sets out. All the people you love (or love to hate) are back, including Scooter, Dr. Zed, Marcus, Moxxi, and of course your good friend Claptrap (whose newfound affinity for dubstep is forgivable in the wake of a nigh constant supply of hilarity).
Thankfully, Borderlands 2 is far more than a rehash. In addition to the smattering of familiar faces we meet a very colorful and memorable new cast, with noteworthy standouts like Scooter’s sister Ellie, the rambunctious but lethal Tiny Tina, and the hilariously evil Handsome Jack himself. The new Vault Hunters, too, are far more compelling, due both to a wider variety of callouts (things said when reloading, sorting inventory, getting kills, etc.) and to the inclusion of in-game audio diaries which give insight into the histories of each character and what led them to Pandora.
These four (five, if you preordered or have since purchased Gaige, the Mechromancer) avatars are far more than the husks you occupied in the first game. Hundreds of customization options can be won, earned, or found throughout the game and then applied to your character (namely color schemes and face/hair/head modifications), allowing a far deeper level of visual expression than before.
More importantly, the leveling system has been vastly improved, and each character has three distinct skill trees to be explored. Each tree provides very specific advantages which promote specialization in play style and guide the player in deciding where best to spend the precious points they earn over the course of the game; for example, Zer0, the robotic ninja assassin, has one skill tree which emphasizes stealth and close-quarters combat and another which emphasizes sniping and long-distance attacks. The sparseness of points requires the player to choose one route or the other to avoid having a character with mediocre abilities, as the most beneficial skills must be accessed by pouring points into the specific skill tree of which they are a part.
The result of this set-up is that the path you choose feels far more important, and you must play to your chosen skill-set. Thus two people may play through the game as Zer0 and have radically different experiences, for one may be constantly weaving in and out of enemies on the battlefield while the other remains completely out of the danger zone. Situations which prove challenging for one may be a pushover for the other.
Moreover, in a stroke of brilliance, Gearbox offers players the chance (at a negligible in-game fee) to reset their skill points at will and redistribute them elsewhere, meaning that a player who regrets going the sniping route halfway through the game can instantly become a melee powerhouse and, in a word, begin playing as an entirely different character. To that end there are more like 12 Vault Hunters than 4, and the desire to experience all those permutations keeps the game feeling fresh regardless of how many times you revisit a storyline or begin a new game.
As such, reviewing a game like Borderlands 2 is a bit of a fool’s errand. It’s a vast, sprawling experience with so many avenues for deviance that hundreds of hours of play leave you feeling like you’ve only scratched the surface. That proves to be the game’s only real problem: you’ll never have enough time to play it all the ways in which you’d like. It seems there really is no rest for the wicked.