I’ve made a mistake in my treatment of the Borderlands series. I rated the original based on the fact that it was a very bad single-player game that became tolerable once you added a couple of friends to the mix, and while this is more-or-less true it’s not really how the series should be approached. Borderlands isn’t a single-player game with a co-op mode, it’s a co-op game you can play on your own if you want — although you never ever should because it’d be a lot like playing through an MMO on your own; without other people to distract you the soul-crushing pointlessness of what you’re doing comes to the fore and drives you insane. If the game is approached from this perspective then the dull and repetitive solo experience suddenly doesn’t seem like such a big problem1. So there’s a disclaimer on this review: I’m not reviewing the single-player mode of Borderlands 2. It’s not awful but it is painfully average, and I don’t think you should play it if you’re without a group of friends who can carry you through it.
If you do have that group of 2-3 friends, though, then Borderlands becomes… not good, precisely, but more of an entertaining diversion; a braindead way to spend an hour or two of an evening shooting things that drop guns2 which you use to shoot bigger things. Judged by that standard, Borderlands 2 does improve significantly on Borderlands 1 by addressing several of the big problems I had with it despite being largely the same game. The character archetypes are identical even if the workings have been slightly rejigged (Big Guy, Sniper Guy, Guy Guy and Woman Guy) and the different types of elemental damage and many of the weapon attributes also make a second appearance, resulting in a very familiar feel to the gameplay. It’s a typical FPS with one extra button that activates your character’s signature ability – in my case stealth mode and deployment of a decoy to distract the enemy – with the rest of the RPG system merely providing passive/automatically activated situational buffs depending on what you’re doing. It’s not badly designed but it is very hands off, and it does ensure that Borderlands 2 plays in a fundamentally identical fashion to Borderlands. If you hated Borderlands then the sequel probably isn’t going to change your mind on the concept as most of the differences lie in the non-shooty parts of the game.
So what changes has the sequel made to the Borderlands formula? Probably the most obvious is the introduction of Handsome Jack, the game’s actually halfway-decent villain. An effective antagonist is something that the original game was sorely missing, and while Handsome Jack isn’t scary or intimidating in any way he does at least make his presence felt by regularly phoning you up to taunt/insult you. This is an approach to villainy that wouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does3 if Jack’s writers hadn’t apparently spent the last year doing nothing but watching 24/7 Archer marathons. Jack is Archer as a villain; a comically vain and egotistical cock who totally would break into the player’s private comms systems just so that he could call them names even if it makes no narrative or practical sense, because that’s just the kind of guy he is.
Borderlands is a series whose decidedly lighthearted approach to the FPS has made its paper-thin gameplay mechanics almost feel like they’re part of the joke. If the game doesn’t take itself seriously then that makes me less likely to feel annoyed when I’m asked to kill the one-millionth bandit clone for one of the game’s dozens of sidequests. The writing and humour is often crude (well, always crude) but never awful, and it goes a long way towards counterbalancing the game’s flaws. Which is why I’m a little bit surprised that Borderlands 2 is the second comedy FPS I’ve played this year (the first was Bulletstorm) that’s tried to go a little bit deeper with the character introspection. Jack is a man who truly believes his own propaganda about being the most awesome person in the galaxy, and any evil deed he carries out is justified because it’s him doing it. This results in his behaviour becoming increasingly unhinged as the plot unfolds, culminating in an encounter about two-thirds of the way in where he acts the part of concerned family man where only hours before he attempted to blow up an entire city just because it was in his way. It’s never played as anything other than absolutely ludicrous, of course – unlike Bulletstorm, Borderlands doesn’t expect me to treat Jack as anything more than a pantomime protagonist – but that part of the game still didn’t sit quite well in context with the rest of it. It wasn’t bad, as such; I actually thought it was a fairly logical progression for the character. It’s just that your comedy FPS with toilet humour and dick jokes probably isn’t the best arena for a study into the motives and psychology of what makes a narrative villain tick.
Anyway, that one blip aside the writing is uniformly okay, sometimes even straying into “pretty good” territory, and it acts as a bit of a stimulant to counteract the fundamental repetitiveness of what you’re actually doing; a “Kill 30 monsters” quest is much easier to swallow when it comes in the form of crashing an Irish gang’s wake for a dead guy you killed in the previous quest. It also helps immensely that Gearbox have introduced some much-needed variety into the level design, apparently after discovering the option in their rendering program that let them do colours other than brown. Borderlands 2 has blizzard-stricken ice floes, arctic tundra, toxic caves, brown wasteland (sigh), and even a gleaming sci-fi city under construction that you get to blow up just to annoy Handsome Jack. The game is at least somewhat interesting to look at now, and it’s also populated by a much wider spectrum of enemies. Rubbing shoulders with the inevitably generic human bandits are gangs of mutants, robots and those annoying invisible bastards up in the highlands, as well as a lot of the native wildlife from the first Borderlands. I’m not saying I was ever excited to be entering a new area in Borderlands 2, but the increased range of stuff you can encounter did at least ensure I spent far less of my time in the game bored to tears.
Unfortunately no matter how good the writing, and no matter how varied the enemies and visual design, that creeping feeling of tedium does begin to make itself felt towards the end of Borderlands 2, and it’s mostly because of this.
This is how long it took me to complete Borderlands 2 once. We were doing most of the sidequests and backtracked a couple of times to let people who had been absent catch up to where we were4, but even accounting for that the game is a good 25-30 hours long. Thirty hours. No matter what metric you measure Borderlands 2 by – whether you treat it as an FPS or an ARPG – that’s way too long. FPSes tend to pack things up around about the six hour mark but that’s usually when my attention starts to wander anyway. By hour fifteen I’m starting my second playthrough of the average ARPG. If I’d done all of Borderlands 2 in a couple of days it’d probably be natural that I’d start to feel a bit burned out on it, but I completed it on and off over the course of about a month. Playing it the way it was supposed to be played, in other words. I shouldn’t ever be looking at my watch and thinking “Isn’t this finished yet?” I mean, it may seem weird to be asking for less content in a game, but there is such a thing as pacing and it seemed to me that Borderlands 2 was about half as long again as it really needed to be. It’s especially puzzling given that one of the big design features of the ARPG is the New Game + mode where you get to do everything again with harder enemies and better loot; if people want to play for more than twenty hours then New Game + is there to accommodate them. There is simply no need to make your game this long even if it does have heavily grindy RPG influences.
And of course because it’s so long it’s stretching out the existing content far, far beyond breaking point. It doesn’t matter how many enemy types you populate a game with; after thirty hours you will have killed every single one of them hundreds of times and they’ll have lost their shine. It doesn’t matter how nice the locations are when you’re muttering truculently under your breath as you backtrack through them again for yet another sidequest. Even the writing starts to peter out towards the end and you just want to be done with this damn game already. In this situation having co-op partners can be both a blessing and a curse; on the one hand they carry you through it, but on the other you feel kind of obligated to finish the game even though you stopped having fun with it a couple of sessions ago.
It’s not like this is a problem that’s been introduced in the sequel, either. As I recall5 the original Borderlands took us 26 hours, although it was more offensive through dint of its three enemy types and its depressing brownitude. As an iteration on the concept Borderlands 2 is a definite improvement – the gunplay is tighter, there’s more weapons, more baddies and more colours – but it’s still an idea that needs a lot of work before I can really call it a good game. Gearbox could do with a development approach like the one they have at Valve, where they’re not afraid to cut functioning content if its presence is detrimental to the overall game experience. Until they get someone in who is capable of taking somebody’s baby and killing it like that then I think the Borderlands series is always going to be a collection of bloated experiments; they have a lot of good ideas and some impressive technology, but those features will end up swamped in the sea of bland and repetitive gunfights required to pad the game out to a 25-30 hour playing time. Borderlands 2 is worth playing if you have some friends willing to take the plunge with you, but it’s not going anywhere and I can guarantee you it’ll be on sale on Steam for a quarter of its current price at some point in the next year. And let’s face it – if you really wanted to play it you’d have bought it by now. If you haven’t, you’re better off waiting until it’s discounted.
- And it is dull and repetitive, as I discovered when I had to play catch-up on my own from the start of the game through to level eleven. ↩
- I just realised I went through the entire review without mentioning the guns, which are pseudo-randomly generated by sticking together a weapon from several different parts, so you can get an assault rifle that’s actually a drum-fed grenade launcher or a triple-barrelled shotgun with a TV screen attached to the top of it. It’s a really impressive piece of work. ↩
- It was one of my biggest complaints about Diablo 3 that the villains kept calling you up on the batphone to tell you about their plans and how to stop them. At least in Borderlands 2 it’s supposed to be ridiculous and absurd. ↩
- Not to mention spending a quite astonishing amount of time in Sanctuary using the gambling machines. ↩
- This is a huge lie; my Hours Played in Steam are right there. ↩