Borderlands 2 PC Review
Borderlands was a huge hit, but to many its success was a big surprise. Maybe it shouldn't have been one, though, as this action-RPG from Gearbox Software was released at just the right time with an excellent mix of exciting loot to grab, great action, and loads of charm. People were just starting to get sick of Call of Duty, and here comes this game with graphic novel-style art, a sense of humor that you so rarely find in action games, and loot and RPG systems that kept players coming back and looking for that better gun. Over the three years since the release of Borderlands, Gearbox has taken everything that made Borderlands such a huge success, addressed pretty much every complaint gamers have levied at it, and then poured a ton of effort into making this sequel more ambitious than any game they've ever made.
Borderlands 2 takes place a few years after events of the first game. The vault was opened and only a big tentacle demon came roaring out rather than a bunch of nice gear, but something else happened - an alien element called Eridium started to flow. The Hyperion Corporation's nihilistic leader, Handsome Jack, was the one that has been orchestrating it all, and now he's here on Pandora to take advantage of this stuff - but in mining it, he got wind of another vault on Pandora, this one with an even bigger, crazier secret buried inside. Vault Hunters from across the galaxy are trying to make their way to Pandora, but Handsome Jack has eliminated all that have tried - well, all but four. These new characters - Salvador, Zer0, Maya, and Axton - are the new playable quartet in Borderlands 2. The original vault hunters are still around and you'll be interacting with them quite a bit, but they serve as quest-givers and temporary companions now.
Each of the four new characters still only has one action skill, some of which are based a bit on ones from the first game, but most of the skill points you add this time go into new or redesigned ways to improve your character and action skill. With the variety of weapons, items, and skill points you set up, you'll find that this game gives you those RPG hooks to addict you, calling you back to continue building your character how you want, both in appearance and in firepower. But that's the RPG stuff; what's even more important here is that Borderlands 2 never loses focus on the most vital part of a first person shooter: having fun firing that weapon that's taking up a sizable chunk of real estate on your screen. As much as the new Vault Hunters are Borderlands 2's protagonists, Gearbox has not forgotten that the gun is the star of the show in a first person shooter.
Weapon variety was the biggest and most innovative single feature of Borderlands, where an under-the-hood system was piecing together guns with a large collection of parts and modifications, then spitting out its semi-randomly-generated results all over the place. Enemies constantly dropped guns much in the same way Diablo monsters dropped loot, and it was up to the player to decide what was an improvement over what they already had, and what was destined to be left behind or sold to a vendor. As players went on in the game, they could tell a few things about the manufacturers making some guns: Maliwan guns did lots of elemental damage, Jakobs specialized in hard-hitting revolvers and shotguns, Atlas made powerful heavy weapons, and the like. People had favorite manufacturers along with favorite weapon types, and would repeatedly pass on weapons that others would swear by.
All of that stuff is back in BL2, but it's been taken to a whole new level. Now, there are more "manufacturers" (including groups like the Bandits) that are making guns, and they all have very distinct looks and properties to them. For example, Tediore has throw-away guns that aren't reloaded; when you tap the reload key, you toss the gun out in front of you, it explodes like a grenade, and a new, portable Digistruct system (originally used in the first game to explain how you're making cars at Catch-a-Ride stations appear out of thin air) builds a fresh gun directly in your hands. These guns are hilariously fun to use, but be careful: every time you reload, you're throwing a live grenade at an enemy, so the blast can hurt you if you are too close to it. Other manufacturers have signature properties, too; Maliwan again specializes in elemental damage and sleek looks, Bandit weapons have huge ammo capacities, and Jakobs now makes a range of powerful, conventional semi-automatic weapons that fire as fast as you can pull the trigger.
In an FPS, the players' interaction with their guns is vitally important. That spin of the chamber on a revolver reload, the muzzle flash from a powerful minigun, the way new shells are added to a double-barrel shotgun, and even just the idle animations while standing around are key parts of engaging the player in games like these. In Borderlands 2, you'll see a massive variety of gun properties, like magazines that stick out the side (with a proper animation for turning the gun on its side and reaching over with the left hand to reload), clips that are inserted in the top of the gun with a digital sight or physical scope actually sliding out of the way during the process, and various drum- and cylinder-based designs for ammo. New special effects make it abundantly clear what kind of elemental damage you're using, too. What you see is pretty much always what you get, too, so if you see a gun with a huge drum on its side, you can be pretty sure its magazine size will be high. No, not every randomly-constructed gun can be held against the painstakingly-crafted weapons made by veteran FPS developers that put five to twenty guns in their games, but you'd be surprised how close Gearbox have come to that, even as they're randomly generating guns left and right.
In the first Borderlands, one issue was that most rocket launchers just didn't do enough damage to be worth using. The problem has been solved here by making rocket launchers much more powerful, but the ammo is more expensive to buy and harder to find. This makes rocket launchers important for all players to carry and use, but you'll only want to pull them out during the more challenging fights. Those who wanted to "main" a rocket launcher will be disappointed, but everyone else will find their immense power to be very useful.
And speaking of having more power, vehicles now have a lot more oomph, both in the sounds they make and in the punch that their mounted weapons can deliver. New vehicle types allow four players to occupy the same vehicle and still swap around positions in the seats, while new designs allow people to fling explosive barrels, fire out spinning sawblades, and more - or just go with the classic roof-mounted cannons or rocket launchers. The bandits have upgraded their vehicular arsenal, too, bringing in hovering flying machines called Buzzards, although their ground vehicles are mostly the same. Also, I found most vehicle-based portions of the game a bit easy, as your car now seems to take much less damage than before - but I still had a blast, because the enemy types you come across while driving are plenty of fun to kill.
The new weapon types are fun as hell to use and that goes a long way to making this sequel an improvement, but the very basic shooting mechanics have been improved over what we got in the first game. Both humanoid and alien life will react more appropriately to your actions, both at a distance and up-close. Enemies can lose track of you if you sneak around behind something, they will spread out to attack when you allow yourself to get flanked, and they animate more realistically when they're shot, too, often throwing in hilarious quips and comments when they get hit or see one of their buddies die. Of course, the new guns help a lot, too - with more statistics to compare on each gun and a distinct look for each manufacturer that will tell you who made a gun just by glancing at it on the ground (or at least, that'll start happening once you've been playing a little while), you'll get a better idea of what gun is better suited for your playstyle without even having to pick it up. Of course, there's no substitute for scooping it up anyway and firing off a few test shots, especially since the stat card now omits whether a gun has a scope, how much it zooms, how much initial "sway" you get on a gun while zoomed, or how some burst-fire modes or other small (but important) properties operate in practice. Overall, though, the stats and appearance will still tell you more about any given gun than the first game did.
Just like with the first game, every enemy in BL2 has at least one weak spot that generates critical hits if you pinpoint that area. But now, sometimes plugging an enemy in the right spot has a bit of a downside, like the Goliaths that can be sent into a rampage when you shoot them in the head. Sure, a rampaging Goliath will run around killing anything - even his own buddies, doing your work for you - but with every kill he gets, he enrages even further, making him even tougher to kill once it's just you and him standing opposite each other. You've got to decide that if you do knock his helmet off, what the right time is to turn your guns onto him and take him out before he gets too dangerous. These additions of strategy will make some firefights in Borderlands 2 initially strange and situational, but it helps elevate the killing above being utterly mindless. And hey, a lot of shooters do mindless action very well, but it can get tiring if the campaign's longer than five hours - and this game will take much, much longer to go through than that, even just on the first playthrough.
Borderlands had one of the most original visual styles of any game in the last five years, with its concept art-style appearance and thick black lines evoking the look of graphic novels. Those visuals make their triumphant return here, and on PC, things are looking even better compared to its console brethren than what we saw with the first game. You'll see more detailed environments, wide open spaces, and tons of wonderful, new enemy and character designs. No, not every single texture is of impeccable quality - in fact, there are a few rather muddy ones left around the new Pandora that can stick out like a sore thumb, and there are a few pop-in issues that remind us that yes, BL2 is running on the venerable Unreal Engine - but a few small issues like this are pretty forgivable considering just how original and unique this game looks compared to anything out there.
The soundtrack in Borderlands surprised me with how it would smoothly transition from ambience and atmospheric tracks into thumping combat music, then slide back down to the original song when a fight ended. Contrary to what the trailers might tell you, Borderlands 2 is not full of dubstep; the first game's style of music has been continued here with a wide range of very unique tracks that really match the aesthetic of Pandora well. I really like how the game can ramp up and then cool down the music without missing a beat - compare this to overbearing soundtracks seen in many RPGs that have great exploration-themed tracks, then immediately go to the top shelf for the most ominous, hardest-thumping combat music they can make every time some weak little creature attacks you.
Throughout all of Borderlands 2, Gearbox Software's sense of humor really shines through in the characters and situations the Vault Hunters find themselves in. Building on the fun of the first game's Claptrap robot and nearly all of its more memorable characters, the developers spark laughter pretty often with a range of jokes and situations along with an excellent use of proper comedic timing. That last bit - the timing - is a crucial part of making comedy work, yet many developers fail to get it right. It's the combination of humor based on RPG and FPS stereotypes that work the best for me, but there's plenty of crude jokes that are often based on sex and violence, and plenty more. For some, this will become the cornerstone of motivating you to keep playing just so you can see what happens next, or to hear what Scooter will say when you have to make the long drive back to Sanctuary to turn in a quest. It helps that Handsome Jack is a great villain, too; his unpredictability, his ultra-violent stories, and his extremely vain attitude show us a bad guy with depth, humor, flaws, and eventually even a little fragility, something that I really appreciated after rolling my eyes repeatedly at the stereotypical extreme-evil villains in Diablo III.
Borderlands 2 continues its system of using quests to move the game from one plot point and location to the next, but the world of Pandora is bigger here than in the first game, meaning that travel times can sometimes be longer. It can get frustrating when nearly every living thing outside of the cities is trying to kill you while you're just trying to get back to a quest giver, but then you get into a really fun fight, loot a new gun that's better than one you've got, and all is right again. As far as civilization goes, friendly faces are still pretty tough to find here; Pandora remains a desolate backwater planet that's mostly full of hostile creatures and factions. You'll find tons of bandits of the first game's variety as well as plenty of new ones, and only very rarely is there a situation where you won't immediately start trading bullets with them on sight.
There are some new RPG systems designed to keep you coming back to BL2 repeatedly. Sure, you've got a massive variety of guns and plenty of skill points to add, but now the Eridian artifacts from the first game unlock convenience perks on your character like storage space and ammo capacity, the shields and grenade mods have nearly as many unique properties as the guns, and a new Badass Ranking system has been introduced. The new Challenge system works similarly to Achievements, but they work outside of achievement systems on Steam, PS3, and 360. These challenges number in the hundreds and include lots of kill objectives along with a few unique ones for each zone or for specific silly activities in the game, and they now reward you with Badass Points which you can use to add passive bonuses to your characters. What this means is that BL2 offers a broad, game-wide system that rewards you for completing achievements - few FPS games have even tried something quite like this.
So how do Badass Ranks work? In a normal RPG, the stats you'd probably be improving are things like Strength, Dexterity, or Vitality, but in Borderlands 2 you're making small increases to things like Gun Damage, Fire Rate, Shield Recharge Rate, Recoil Reduction, and many more. What's nice about Badass Ranks is that a player can keep getting them infinitely, and they work on every character on your account. (There's also a way to disable Badass rewards temporarily if you're starting fresh with friends in cooperative mode and they're complaining that you're killing everything too fast.)
The PC version of Borderlands was maligned for its inflexible interface and lack of tweaking options, so for BL2, Gearbox went back and added tons of new options like FOV tweaks, VSync control, adjustments for HUD placement, mouse acceleration controls, additional detail settings and more, along with a better UI that's more well-suited for the mice and high-res screens over on PC. New visual options have been added, like some truly impressive PhysX eye candy for Nvidia users along with features like ambient occlusion and antialiasing to challenge the most powerful of gaming PCs. With some excellent mouse-and-keyboard controls along with great gamepad support, the PC version is by far the best one available, and it won't even take that much of a gaming PC nowadays to break the 30fps barrier and get even smoother gameplay than you'll get on consoles.
I played through on PC with a Core i7 950 CPU overclocked to 4GHz, 8GB of cheap DDR3 RAM, and a GeForce GTX 660Ti video card. The game actually played very well in pretty much all configurations I set up, even in the ridiculous triple-monitor setup I tried (with a screen resolution of 5760x1080, which is 1920x1080 across three monitors), even with plenty of settings on high. At 5760, I could play at around 30fps with Ambient Occlusion, Depth of Field, and FXAA turned on and PhysX on medium, or I could disable those features and get right up to 60fps. Without PhysX, the game runs significantly faster, but I do have to say that I haven't seen a game take as much advantage of PhysX as this one does, and it adds some serious eye candy to weapon and explosion effects - liquids splash around, run down hills and pool at the bottom, particles fly out everywhere, flags and tarps blow in the wind and tear appropriately, and additional explosions will affect all of that matter realistically. PhysX is a huge drain on resources, though, and even at 1080p, I couldn't run the game at a solid 60fps with all details cranked while I had PhysX on high settings. I could once I added an old GTX460 card back into to my PC that I set in the Nvidia drivers for dedicated PhysX processing, but that's a bit excessive.
Of course, Borderlands 2 ran like a total dream if I played at 1080p without crazy performance-murdering special effects like PhysX or ridiculous multi-monitor setups, and that's even with everything else cranked to the maximum. The basic system requirements are about the same as we got in the first game, although the larger environments and generally more detailed world might tax a PC that could only just barely get away with running BL1.
I also played a good chunk of the 360 version of the game; it's a very complete package over on 360 with the same online and offline play, and it also includes split-screen play unlike the PC version. Unfortunately, the Unreal Engine is being pushed to its limit on 360, so you'll find of issues over there with blurry textures and pop-in. On PC you'll see it only occasionally which I find manageable, but on 360 it can really distract you and pull you out of the experience - especially if you're sick of seeing this same issue for years in Unreal Engine-based games.
Online play is ridiculously easy to get going in BL2. Part of it is that the Steam integration works so well, but also because the game supports an excellent range of options for multiplayer modes. Anyone on your Steam friends list that's online and playing BL2 can be joined in a couple of clicks on the game's main menu, joining sessions with game browsing and matchmaking is quick and smooth, and yes, even old-school direct LAN connections work properly with Steam in offline mode entirely. You can configure precisely how "joinable" your game is - random internet people, just your friends, just the people you send invites to, or you can insist on playing in single player by making your game non-joinable entirely. All of this comes together with the usual Steam integration that includes cloud saving, achievements, and the overlay for quick access to the usual Steam interface.
Four-player games are fun as hell and very challenging, requiring players to actually work together to feel like they're not just slogging through the game; otherwise, they'll spend half the fight reviving each other or running back from the nearest travel terminal. Playing alone is fine and it's a total blast to play, but I really do recommend getting together with friends to play this, as the fun is just multiplied when playing together and you won't miss a single story-oriented bit unless your buddies can't shut up during dialogue or something. Quest progress in multiplayer games is much more fluid here, too, where you can join a session with someone who's progressed further into the game than you have, and you'll still get quest progress that's technically out of order in the story - although it's best if you're at least roughly the same level as the other people in the game, because enemy levels are tuned to whoever is hosting, and even just a few levels' disparity (between an enemy and a player, that is) can be the difference between one-shot-cakewalk, to actually challenging, all the way up to making enemies impossible for you to even damage. So if you're of the proper level, you won't have to worry too much about exact quest progress, and when you leave that session and start another, you can skip the quests you've already completed if you like, or choose to go through it again.
Unfortunately, like the first game, Borderlands 2 is only capable of hosting games on client machines. There's no true online infrastructure that runs games entirely online and saves characters only on the server, so I feel like the same kind of hacking and cheating we saw in the first game will eventually happen in BL2 public games as well. I've already confirmed that duplicating weapons for a friend (by dropping them in a session, immediately hitting Alt-F4, then restarting and rejoining) still works, and while I don't really have a problem with that since it's still a legitimately found item, truly hacked characters can really spoil the fun. At this point, the only way to be absolutely sure that people aren't cheating with hacked save files is to play with friends that you know wouldn't do that. That's not a perfect solution, but after some thought, I also don't believe that implementing a true Battle.net-style online-only mode is really the right solution for a game like Borderlands 2, either. The problem is that Gearbox already has a wide range of multiplayer modes and if they did this, this mode would be online-only, run exclusively on Gearbox-operated servers, and would only work with characters kept separate from the ones you use offline or on a LAN, requiring more explanations packed into what's already a fairly complex set of front-end menus. Some will say that all of that is worth it anyway, but I'm not sure I agree.
As someone who fell in love with Borderlands on PC (notwithstanding its UI issues), got disappointed by its ending, and then fell back in love with its amazing DLC, I eagerly jumped into this game with very high expectations. Gearbox Software has met them all, though, and even exceeded them in quite a few ways through its insanely diverse gun selection, continued use of the right kinds of humor to keep me laughing, and a fun-oriented style of play that can challenge me properly without making things so tough that I can't progress at all. The world's bigger and badder, the visuals are more impressive, the best characters return alongside plenty of great new ones, and the endless search for new loot proves to be even more addictive than before. Borderlands 2 on PC is just plain awesome and will definitely be one of my candidates for Game of the Year.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a final PC version of the game provided by the publisher.