In the stagnant cesspool that is the first person shooter genre, it's always nice to see a game try to break the mould by trying something new. Borderlands accomplished this by infusing western RPG elements into the genre, expanding the world and giving the player options as well as a rather substantial randomized loot system. The original may have had an interesting premise, but my first impression was that it looked dull and repetitive, and the barren wasteland setting made it look even more depressing. Upon playing it, however, I found it was addictive and fun, had plenty to do, and the sense of humor helped offset the gloomy feel to make it an overall enjoyable package, even if the plot was basically an afterthought that you causally stumbled upon as you explored. Borderlands 2 took everything that was good about the first one and amplifies it to 11, as well as giving you a villain you love to hate and a plot that actually drives you forward rather than just acting as a backdrop for your adventures.
One the biggest concerns with any sequel is nailing down the ideal balance between familiarity and change; some games, like Resident Evil 4, manage to completely change the genre of their series, where other franchises like the Pokemon make a few tweaks but keep the gameplay virtually identical and still retain huge fan bases. Borderlands 2 doesn't change much in the way of core gameplay, but there are so many minor tweaks which make the whole experience richer that it truly does feel like a proper sequel for the fans. Most of these changes are small, like how you have to eliminate shroud on the maps to unlock locations, the minimap in the corner of the screen, some new enemies, and the vastly increased list of potential guns, but some changes make a more substantial impact on the core gameplay.
In addition to having elemental bonuses on some weapons and armor, there's also a new material called slag that, when used, will make your character weaker against normal attacks but have better defense when being hit by slag weapons. There's a new form of currency that the story revolves around called eridium that you collect and can use to buy black market upgrades to improve your chosen character's carrying capacity, both for items and ammo. In a trade-off from the first game, weapon proficiencies are no longer tracked and are replaced by 'badass' ranks that accumulate as you accomplish predetermined tasks from a list of hundreds; these badass ranks can be redeemed for percentage bonuses to your various stats such as health, shields, aim, recoil reduction, etc.
One of the most pleasant upgrades to Borderlands 2 is the overall level design. While the original was grounded in earthly tones such as brown, grey, and the occasional bit of dulled yellow, Borderlands 2 is colorful! Sure, it's still got a lot of darker, dull colors in the appropriate locations, but it's also got a lot of blue, green, red, yellow, orange, purple, and even pink! The entire game map seems to be far larger now, and the different areas seem to be directly linked to one another in a much tighter knit. When you're in most of the open plain areas, or the highlands, you can actually see your hub home known as Sanctuary as though it was all one area.
The player characters are also notably different this time around. While the basic classes remain the same, the details are changed so that their play styles are actually different; this is especially true the assassin class - Zero - but there are also important changes to the Berserker (now known as the Gunzerker), whose special ability is to equip two guns at the same time for double the bullet-spewing madness. Each character's skill trees are divided in much the same way, but focus on individual aspects of the class, just like the first time but more refined this time. Many of the background characters also return with their extended family and friends all making important storyline appearances. Scooter's sister Ellie and a psychotic thirteen year old known as Tiny Tina are both exceptionally funny and remain two of the high points of the game's humor. Moxxi returns, as do Zed and Tannis; in fact, pretty much every character that survived the first game makes an appearance here. But really, the main attraction is Handsome Jack; I was pleasantly surprised at how effective of a villain he was.
The first Borderlands had a pretty rudimentary story meant only as a bit of motivation for the vault hunters to blaze their way across the barren wastelands of Pandora rather than it being the driving force behind you actions. Borderlands 2 fixes this by means of a charismatic, deliciously malicious, genocidal entrepreneur known as Handsome Jack. While jovial and only somewhat malevolent in the beginning, Handsome Jack quickly turns into one of the most devious, mean-spirited, and sometimes flat-out evil entities I've ever had the pleasure of calling my nemesis. Initially gaining his fortune by mining the iridium that was released thanks to the opening of the vault at the end of the first game, Handsome Jack and his company Hyperion are out not only to rule the world, but to brutally and violently crush all opposition who may stand up to him. This means that you, as a vault hunter, are his direct competition and, unlike in the real world, when he says 'crush the opposition', he means it literally. At first, Handsome Jack's opposition to the vault hunters is purely professional, but as the plot moves forward it becomes very clear that this rivalry has become a personal war between your team and his, and the stakes are constantly raised with some pretty impressive set-pieces and emotional moments.
It's not often a game has a truly memorable villain anymore (at least not in my experience), so it's a pleasant surprise to see that Handsome Jack is one of the easiest men to hate in videogames in the last couple years. Not only has he been looking to rule the world with an iron fist, but he's also personally wronged many of the allies you meet, some more than others. He is willing to kill, torture, and punish people on a whim, and also engaged in a war with the previous vault hunters for years. Yes, in Borderlands 2, the original four vault hunters play a vital role in the plot as living legends who are all revered by the resistance movement, and if you're a returning player it gives you a bit of satisfaction to see something of an epilogue for your characters as they work together with the new team to save the world from a problem they inadvertently caused. There's also a lot of exposition explaining some of the events in the first game, making Jack seem even more devious, knowing that he was an entity and villain long before you knew he existed.
Despite being a truly wicked man, Handsome Jack has tonnes of charisma and is actually pretty funny too. Evil, yes, but still incredibly funny. For all his horrible actions and intentions, Handsome Jack ends up being the funniest character in a game filled with memorable, humorous characters. The fact that Borderlands 2 flip-flops between serious and silly makes both extremes seem even more intense; the events that transpire seem even more dire by comparison and the humor is even more unnerving when you realize that the people making the jokes are legitimately scared for their lives and doing all they can to cope. It's a surprisingly pleasant balance that works in both extremes even though some of the gameplay and story elements are at ends with one another. If you take each element on its own merits it is deeply affecting, which is an amazingly pleasant surprise when you consider how cheap and inconsequential the plot was the first time around.
While Boderlands 2 improves on its predecessor in nearly every way, there are still a few glaring issues that haven't been resolved. The graphics, save the more colorful palette, haven't improved at all and it suffers from constant framerate issues and glitches. The technical problems will almost certainly be fixed in future updates, but it's very frustrating to be in the middle of a frenetic battle and get killed thanks to the game freezing up for a moment. It doesn't happen often, and you can still save yourself by getting a kill while fighting for your life, but the issue remains and it shouldn't exist. I also take personal ire with a game that claims to have co-op play as an option when it's incredibly frustrating and annoying without at least one partner, making it almost required. It's a given that almost any game is better when played with a friend, but to take out entire gameplay mechanics such as ally revivals when playing single player makes some of the later challenges incredibly frustrating.
Borderlands 2 is, in my opinion, pretty much exactly what you should expect from a sequel. The core gameplay has barely changed – it's still a co-op, loot based first person role playing game – but there are plenty of improvements and minor changes that keep it fresh, not to mention a far more involving plot featuring one of the most memorable villains in recent memory. More astute players will pick up on a lot of references and if you're a PC gamer and are at all familiar with Minecraft, keep an eye out for a segment of a level featuring Minecraft blocks and creepers as enemies. Gearbox have given players a great deal and they seem to legitimately care about this franchise, so this is definitely worth picking up even if you have no emotional connection to the characters or the world of Pandora. It's also a nice bonus that the campaign is 18 missions long, and each of those missions are much longer and more involving than any mission in the first game, resulting in a campaign that lasts 15 hours or more even without completing any of the side quests. It won't bring anyone new to the series, but if you were a fan of the first one and you aren't yet sick of looting every chest and box yet, this is precisely what you're looking for.
This review is based on a retail copy of Borderlands 2 for the PlayStation 3.