Review: Borderlands 2

At times tightly designed and brilliantly executed, while at other times uninspired and juvenile, Borderlands 2 is an idiot savant of a first-person shooter.

On the lawless border world of Pandora, four “vault hunters”—a soldier, an assassin, a brute, and a powerful sorceress—are on a quest to find an legendary alien treasure. Guided by a mysterious artificial intelligence and assisted by a bizarre cast of supporting characters, these four brave adventurers battle feral creatures, psychotic bandits, and the forces of an evil corporation as they search for the mythical Eridian Vault and its promise of immeasurable wealth and power.

This little tale was the premise of the original Borderlands, and having sunk a lot of time into the first game, it is a story with which I am quite familiar. Consequently, I was somewhat disappointed when I realized a few minutes into the introduction of Borderlands 2 that this was also the premise of the sequel.

However, after spending a lot more time with the second game, I realized how wrong I was. Borderlands 2 isn’t really about vault hunters, nor is it about “Handsome Jack” (the game’s narcissistic, sociopathic, endlessly chatty villain), nor is it a commentary on imperialism and corporate greed, nor is it about murdering lots of dudes to snag color-coded loot. (Well, maybe it’s a little bit about that last thing.) Rather, Borderlands 2 is about expectations, and why you should put yours aside when you play this game. It’s also about an inbred chubby-chasing mechanic named Scooter.

I’m convinced that understanding this man is the secret to understanding Borderlands.

Like the original, Borderlands 2 is a self-styled “role-playing shooter” (RPS), combining the gameplay of a first-person shooter with the kinds of leveling systems, random weapon drops, and quest structures more traditionally found in role-playing games. Throughout the game’s fairly linear mission structure (“go to point A, kill thing B, repeat”) you’ll encounter a variety of bizarre characters, such as an unbelievably annoying and foul-mouthed tween of a demolitions expert, a cyborg anthropologist who comes across more or less like a black Rudyard Kipling (how’s that for irony?), and the four vault hunters from the original Borderlands (formerly a bland collection of nearly mute player characters, now somehow infused with distinct personalities).

However, the character I found most intriguing was Scooter, who reprises his role as the redneck proprietor of the “Catch-A-Ride” vehicle creation system. Scooter is friendly, talkative, funny, secretly romantic, and likely quite inbred, which is unsurprising given the occasional allusions to his incestuous urges. Despite his affable nature, he’s got a casual murder or two under his belt, indicating that he’s achieved the same level of moral flexibility exhibited by everyone else on this brutal wasteland of a planet. Also, he’s a savant when it comes to engineering, and he seems to be one of the only people around capable of dealing with Pandora’s incredibly advanced technology. In short, Scooter is Borderlands 2: an uninspired, frequently predictable stereotype full of crass behavior and juvenile dialogue, but one that also exhibits flashes of true technical genius, genuinely funny comedy, and uncharacteristic emotional depth.

Borderlands 2 may be the smartest dumb game I’ve ever played.

All of this brings me back to my original point about expectations. It would be easy to say that Borderlands 2 is simply “more Borderlands“, because on a certain level that’s the truth. It would be similarly easy to view it as yet another first-person game with RPG elements (à la Mass Effect, Bioshock, Fallout, or Deus Ex), with a repetitive mission structure and too much hand-holding. Likewise, it would be perfectly reasonable to take in the game’s gratuitous violence, meet its over-the-top characters, and listen to their many jokes that fall flat more often than not, and then find yourself turned off by a title that seems like it is simply trying too hard.

A better approach, though, is to put your expectations aside and leave yourself open to the true moments of brilliance that can be found in Borderlands 2. It can be found in the expertly balanced combat, the amazing diversity of weapons (with their impressive array of custom reloading and firing animations), or among the many subtle improvements Gearbox has made to the enemy AI. It can be seen in the franchise’s unique “concept art” graphical style, which feels more lovingly hand-drawn yet stylishly hyper-real than ever. It can be found in a ninja assassin who speaks only in haikus and emoticons (which is who I played most of the game as), and in a villain who turns out to be a much more complicated brand of douchebag than he originally seems. And of course, sometimes that brilliance can come from a porn-addicted hillbilly mechanic and amateur poet named Scooter, who helped me save the world of Pandora while making me laugh out loud more than once.

What Do You Think?