Borderlands 2 picks up five years after the original game ended. The Vault promised advanced alien technology and untold riches but all it delivered was (as the intro refers to it) 'tentacled disappointment'. The opening of the Vault did cause one unforeseen development; the discovery of a new and valuable mineral known as eridium. The Hyperion Corporation, led by the villainous Handsome Jack, has come to Pandora to control the planet's reserves of said mineral. Needless to say Pandora hasn't thrived under Hyperion and Jack's iron-fisted rule. Rumours of a new Vault containing great rewards have started circulating again and that's where you, as a Vault Hunter, come into the story.
Axton is extremely similar to Roland from Borderlands because his special ability is being able to deploy a powerful turret. Roland could only dream about the destruction Axton has at his disposal though, because Axton can launch small nuclear missiles to go along with the bullet storm Roland had. The last character on the roster is Zer0, who favours a stealthy approach to killing his numerous enemies. His special ability is to briefly turn invisible, leaving a sword-wielding decoy in his place, before re-appearing to unleash major damage on unsuspecting victims.
The basic structure of the game remains unchanged, which is to say you still run around killing enemies, leveling up, and picking up as much loot as possible. One of our criticisms of the first game is that it lacked much in the way enemy variety, but that's been improved here. While plenty of enemies will be familiar – skags, bandits, psychos and shotgun-wielding midgets – there are also plenty of new enemies such as Goliaths (who get stronger if you shoot their head off), the Bigfoot-like Bullymongs (if you don't like the name you'll enjoy one of the quests), Threshers (large worm-like creatures who pop in and out of the ground at will) and Buzzards (low-flying enemy copters). Overall it's a much more diverse group of enemies for you to mow down.
Loot, and the desire to find ever better loot, remains one of the biggest drawcards of Borderlands 2. There's a huge variety in weapons, despite the fact there are only five or six gun-types. Each weapon has attributes like damage, accuracy, reload speed, magazine size and whether or not it has an element effect. And there's more to it than that, because the level of the weapon and the manufacturer also have an impact on its usefulness. The same goes for shields and grenades, so trying to find the perfect gear will be a challenge, even after the main story is complete.
While those three gameplay elements remain unchanged, there are a host of improvements in the game. The most noticeable and appreciated is the introduction of a mini-map. In the original game you had a marker on your compass pointing you in the direction of objectives. Suffice to say the mini-map is a significant improvement. Another thing you'll notice early on is the ability to move (slowly) when fighting for your life, that is just after you die you're given a few seconds to kill an enemy and get a second wind (i.e. stay alive).
You can also trade items and cash with other players while playing online. Menus are much improved too. After completing the game you can enter True Vault Hunter mode, where enemies have more than just scaled skills, they also have shields more often, or appear in their Badass version rather than regular. When you add it all up, these make for a much-improved gameplay experience compared to the original Borderlands.
Borderlands 2, like its predecessor, can be played in multiplayer, both online and locally. If you play locally it's split-screen, and you get the choice of either horizontal or vertical split-screen. Whether you're playing alone or with a friend you can also go online and form a group of up to four players. The game is a stack of fun online, particularly with friends and people of roughly the same level. There have been improvements here too. Now any quest you complete online can be fast-forwarded when you get to it in single-player. You're no longer limited in what quests are available either, making online play that much better and smoother.
The only knock I have on Borderlands 2, and it's a very small one in the grand scheme of things, is that it's a little too similar to its predecessor. There are a huge number of improvements here, and the game is much better for it; however there is no home-run, game-changing improvement in evidence. That may sound a bit frivolous (heck, it does to me as well), but I did find the experience a bit too familiar at times, and would have loved at least one out of the box surprise.
Visually the game is a delight, with the beautiful cel-shaded graphics improved on the original. More emphasis has been placed on the outlines of objects which in turn making everything clearer and more defined. Just about everything has more detail now too, from character faces, to enemies, to random objects out in the world. The game oozes style and the post-apocalyptic world is wonderfully realized. The only knock on the visuals is that there is some texture pop-in at times, so objects occasionally look blurry and grey, but then the proper texture pops in and they look normal again. It's something Borderlands suffered from too, and while it's noticeable it's not too frequent or problematic.
Borderlands 2 is the rare kind of sequel that eliminates almost all of the faults from the first game, and makes improvements in other areas as well. While I can sit here and say I'd have loved at least one game-changing improvement, the reality is that Gearbox has done a truly fantastic job with the game. The characters are funny, and the tone of the game (i.e. irreverent, funny and over the top) is perfectly pitched and suits the game world perfectly. If you enjoyed the first Borderlands then picking up the sequel is a no brainer. If you didn't grab the first game then there's no better time to join the fun.
Review By: Mike Allison