Borderlands 2 Review: A Much-Improved Shell

To this day I have played approximately 250 hours of the original Borderlands. I maxed out two characters, played through all the DLC packs twice, and got almost every single achievement (damn you Robot Revolution DLC collection quest!). The one question I had when Borderlands 2 was announced was, “When can I actually play this game?” The one question I have after completing Borderlands 2 is, “Why aren’t I wanting to sink another 250 hours into the sequel?”

The answer is a complicated one to explain. On the surface, Gearbox has created a sequel that is better in just about every way. The visuals have a fresh coat of paint, the gunplay is far more satisfying, and the enemy variety and AI are monumentally improved over the original. But for some reason I find myself at odds with Borderlands 2.

The one major complaint I keep coming back to is the writing. On a surface level the main story arc is vastly improved, and the game is funny most of the time. Now, I like fart jokes, and I’ll laugh at politically incorrect humor, but Borderlands 2 treats comedy as a juvenile open-mic night at a comedy club. For example,Bonerfarts” is a shocking and funny word used in an early side-quest, but toilet humor is used so profusely that these comical words cease being funny and start being incredibly annoying.

Every time the joke didn’t land was because they took it multiple steps too far. Handsome Jack is a villain you hate for all the wrong reasons. Sure, halfway through the game he actually has a moment where his villainy becomes something you strive to defeat, but before that point he’s just an irritating guy talking to you on your ECHO device far too often.

It’s not to say that Borderlands 2 has bad writing, because it doesn’t. For the most part, the dialogue is funny and the characters all have unique traits. The insistence that every exchange needs a punch line is the real fault here. Borderlands 2 tries too hard to get the laugh and three-quarters of the time it does, but that last quarter is just sad. Characters like Handsome Jack and Tiny Tina are funny in minute doses, but the writers seem to find a joke and stretch it as far as it can go, breaking the momentum.

Everything else about Borderlands 2 is vastly improved over its predecessor. The shooting is even better than the first with improved aiming and sound effects. Even enemy AI gets a facelift with more realistic behaviors. If an enemy gets shot in the leg, he will stumble to the ground and pick himself back up. If a player is aiming at an enemy long enough, that enemy will do their best to dodge out of the way of incoming fire.

Borderlands 2 steers away from the vast desert locale of the first title. Now, players will trek across a snowy tundra, some grassy hills, and even modern cities. Gun manufacturers all have a unique look and feel, allowing players to pick up a gun and immediately know which manufacturer made it and what kind of status effects it may have. Jakobs weapons have a western look to them and are highly accurate. Tediore weapons are a cheap grey and when players reload them they throw the gun as a grenade and a new one materializes in their hands. Maliwan weapons look futuristic and always have Elemental effects. I would always want to show off my cool weapons and make my friends jealous.

The soundtrack of Borderlands 2 is one of the best and most surprising parts of the game. Battle music has a fantastic, almost dubstep quality to it that constantly amps up your adrenaline and makes you feel like a badass. Calmer moments in the city of Sanctuary have a western/sci-fi sound, as if inspired by Firefly. Even while writing this review, the soundtrack is stuck in my head.

As a whole, Borderlands 2 is a better product than the original, as a sequel should be. Every aspect; from graphics and music, to quest structure and gunplay, sees considerable improvement. But still, Borderlands 2 feels soulless. I don’t have a nagging urge to turn on my Xbox and play more than the 34 hours it took for me to complete the main story and most of the side content. Borderlands 2 is a much-improved shell of a game, where all the components line up and make a compelling product. It’s a technically improved version that has sacrificed some of the original’s rebellious spirit for a more refined experience.