The core differentiation between classes instead lies in their core abilities, and you’ll find many options to explore them when you finally have maxed-out skill trees. The Assassin, for instance, can keep Deception going if you chain together one-hit melee kills, a skill that trades on the keen design point that the longer you stay cloaked, the bigger the melee damage bonus you’ll get. The Commando’s turret is more adaptable than the Soldier’s, fulfilling a defensive role and also an offensive one once you can shoot it into right into a cluster of enemies. (Tip: hang back with a sniper rifle while they set about it.) It also works well with Borderlands’ masterful Second Wind feature, which grants you a full return to life if you can get a kill while incapacitated.
If you hadn’t noticed, Borderlands 2 puts more emphasis on offence, something corroborated by its level design and AI. While combat in the first game was often at long range and relatively static, it’s become a lot more personal in this sequel. Though the levels are just as expansive, your paths through them take you into more confined discrete rooms as well as clearings that accentuate proximity, often presented on different elevations. The result is more intense encounters, and they’re supported by more aggressive and dynamic AI. Many of the colourful enemy types dodge, many more relentlessly lumber or run towards you, and most toss grenades with abandon. Luckily, on your side are weapon drops that seem to offer more variety and power than in the first game, and thrilling multi-faction battles that throw new tactics into play. And there’s also the seemingly minor detail that at last you don’t have to manually pick up ammo, health or cash drops from the ground, keeping you in the action.
Given the glorious sense of flow to most of the game, it’s a pity that bosses present spikes in the difficulty level. It was an issue with the original, too, and one Gearbox has said that players actually liked, but it’s a preference that’s hard to understand. Bosses’ large health bars and propensity to both respawn standard enemies and regenerate health makes them frustrating, especially for those playing alone. Their design is better tuned for co-op, where you have extra hands to take care of clearing grunts and reviving fallen comrades while damage-dealers can keep putting fire down, but the difficulty scaling means that their health bar is even more unassailable when four players are on the case.
The world of Pandora, the planet on which both games are set, is laid out in a similar manner as before: a set of large connected open areas. Their geography is intricate – rolling plains bisected by crevasses, for
instance – and sending you on routes that tour the full space. But, once again, it’s hard to feel Pandora is a coherent world, its distinct regions divided by loading screens. There’s diversity, of course – your adventure spans tundra, precipitous highlands, desert ripe for vehicle combat, a wildlife park, a city – but the cut-and-paste approach to the details within them means they inspire little desire for exploration.
The main hub is Sanctuary, a full town of shops and the home to a roster of gleefully colourful characters. Almost as if to acknowledge how similar Borderlands 2 is to its predecessor, the cameos come in thick and fast. The full original team of player characters crops up – Roland, Mordecai, Lilith and Brick – as do Mad Moxxi, Dr Zed, Scooter and, of course, Claptrap. The new characters are just as vivid, however: Sir Hammerlock, the gentleman hunter; an obese mechanic called Ellie; the psychotic Tiny Tina; and the villain of the piece, Handsome Jack. They’re all voiced as vividly as they’re realised visually, from Jack’s glib sarcasm to Tiny Tina’s unstable teen sass.
They make up for a throwaway plot that involves Jack, president of the Hyperion Corporation, trying to open the fabled Vault. Though sharply written, the story is little more than an excuse to throw you through missions, and just the sort of thing you’ll ignore when playing co-op, but it hardly matters when the heart of the game is such gleeful, schlocky tactical combat. Borderlands 2 might not develop extensively on its forebear, but it has even greater power to hold you for hours on end, deftly weaving RPG stat development with skill-based play. It’s enough to make every decision you make meaningful and fun, and lend the realisation that Gearbox knows more about the fundamentals of the shooter than almost any other developer. Did we take the Widow Maker? Yes, but we soon ditched it for a Purging Anarchist.
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