The basic conceit of the Borderlands series is simple: take the classic action RPG formula of endless monsters, randomly generated loot and character progression (such as found in Diablo III), and make it a first-person shooter. Borderlands adds a few more twists on this, namely a pseudo-post-apocalyptic setting filled with a cast of colourful characters, some (well-written for the most part) humorous dialogue and a cel-shaded art style. Ultimately though, this is a celebration of guns, and you’ll get to use an awful lot of them.
The story picks up five years after the events of Borderlands, and sees you as revered “vault hunter” left for dead following a failed heist, by the pantomimical Handsome Jack, who is trying to drain the planet’s natural resource of “Eridium” for his own nefarious purposes. You’re revived by a “Claptrap” robot and aided by an enigmatic artificial intelligence in order to get revenge on Jack (and saving the planet’s inhabitants in the process).
If the original Borderlands was the awkward new kid with some strange ideas, its sequel has donned a pair of shades, and become effortlessly cool and self-confident. Borderlands 2 knows exactly what sort of game it is, and it’s a game about shooting things with guns in order to collect better guns to shoot bigger things with. Everything has been ramped up to some extent, with the overall feeling of having more purpose. That’s to say it’s more of a directed experience, without feeling like a linear one. You still choose which quests to do, you’re still free to just roam around the maps as you please. Whereas the first game could feel stale at times, whereby (particularly when playing solo) you could just lose interest in the gameplay after a while, here there’s more sightseeing to be done. The boss fights are particularly varied (although one or two of them can feel cheap) and there’s enough variety (and humour) in the optional missions to keep you playing.
Once you get several hours in, that is. Perhaps the biggest issue with Borderlands 2 is that it doesn’t take the training wheels off for a very long time. Naturally, not everyone will have played Borderlands before tackling this sequel (hence the need, in theory at least, to introduce new concepts at a slow pace), but it seems that a good balance has not been struck. I doubt new players will have an easy time learning the core mechanics through the game’s message-based tutorial system, whilst veterans will likely be put off by having to grind out the early levels to reach familiar territory (5 levels before you get to unlock a class skill, and slightly more than that before you reach the main hub and the game properly “opens up”). More than that though, the early game just feels extremely monotonous (and exhausting!), because there’s literally nothing to do except shoot and loot.
Coupled with this is the sometimes problematic levelling system. Each area in the game is intended to be tackled at a specific level, so if you go to a high-level area too soon, you’ll have a very difficult time (enemies will soak more damage, and dish out more punishment), whereas if you level up too quickly (by spending a lot of time doing optional quests, or just rampaging and killing lots of random critters) you’ll find the story missions too easy. As such, each mission has an optimal level (which it tells you in your quest log), and it’s best to tackle these within a couple of levels of your current level. That said, it’s up to you; if you want more of a challenge, then why not take on a difficult mission earlier, likewise you can do more optional missions in order to make the other ones easier (it’s a shame that the difficulty can’t be changed mid-game either as this would help alleviate the problem a little). You’ll probably want to do many of the early optional missions too, as these are the best way to get access to certain types of guns (such as the sniper rifle).
Ah, the guns. More than anything else, the stars of the game are the guns. There are several distinct types of guns, from pistols through SMGs to sniper rifles and rocket launchers. For each of these, there are several manufacturers, each of which confer a set of advantages and disadvantages. So a Tediore shotgun for example will be thrown at an enemy when spent instead of being reloaded (with a new loaded one materialising in your hand). At higher levels, the shotgun might explode like a grenade when thrown. Weapons can also confer “elemental” damage, with fire being particularly effective against organic enemies, corrosive damage being good against machines, and so on. You’ll eventually accumulate weapons (as well as other loot in the form of shields, upgrades, mods and cash) at a steady rate, so much so that you probably won’t get a chance to try many of them out and instead just compare them based on their statistics. Although this is largely unchanged from the previous game, the guns here seem to have far more personality. The random nature of the guns does mean you can be dealt a bad hand in terms of not getting useful guns that you want to use, but there are several mechanisms to mitigate this, such as the choice of rewards for certain missions as well as (later on) Moxxi’s slot machines and the (slightly game-breaking) golden keys.
Because of the game’s focus on guns, some of the character classes tend to be more enjoyable than others in the early game when playing solo. As mentioned earlier, you don’t unlock a class skill until level five, meaning that the game doesn’t really do much to encourage you to try out the different classes. Having to play through what’s essentially the same gameplay for the first 2-3 hours of the game (shooting Bullymongs with an anaemic assortment of weaponry) to get to the point where you start unlocking the key differences between classes (“gunzerking“, deploying a turret, creating a decoy, and “phaselocking“) is not particularly enjoyable. It’s a pity there isn’t a “fast start” option or something similar to skip the mindless content after having completed it with another character. It helps tremendously that every character class can effectively use each weapon type, though some will clearly favour certain weapons, such as a sniper rifle for the assassin class.
The skill progression is a bit underwhelming. Unlike the action RPGs Borderlands is modelled on, there’s simply not enough variety in the skill trees. Each level gained gives you an additional point to put into skills, but these are almost all incremental upgrades to stats you already have, or that just modify your class skill. I’d have much preferred to see you being able to unlock entirely new (activated) skills to use in the game, but I guess that will have to wait for the inevitable sequel.
There’s a lot of gameplay to be had here. There are dozens of “chapters” in the base storyline, with even more optional missions (to say nothing of the DLC). There are vehicles to drive, which act a both a quick way to transport you (and your buddies) across a map, as well as just mow down a lot of roaming enemies quickly. There’s a lot of places to explore too, as well as numerous challenges to complete. Completing challenges nets you “achievements”, but in an interesting twist, these actually server as currency (“badass tokens”) that can be used to upgrade all the characters in your profile with minor stat improvements. You can also customise your character and vehicles with a variety of “skins” that can be found as loot or earned as rewards, all very Grand Theft Auto.
Even death does little to slow you down. You can fall long distances without suffering any damage. If you do get shot to bits, you’re given a chance to get a “second wind” by killing an enemy within a time limit. Do so, and you’ll be back on your feet with full health. Some of the most exciting moments I had in the game were being able to finish off a boss whilst in this downed state. If you don’t manage to (usually because you gun just wouldn’t reload fast enough…), you’ll be instantly revived at the last checkpoint (which do seem frequent enough for the most part) with a fraction of your money deducted, with time to get back into the fight (any enemies that you didn’t eliminate will also be back to full health).
What Borderlands 2 does really well is makes you feel empowered, and keeps your excitement level up. Whether it’s the ever-increasing numbers billowing out of bullet impacts, or the flashy cutscene to introduce a new foe, you’ll feel like a badass right from the start. Most of the blandness from the original has gone, leaving you with a game that’s fun to play with friends or solo (despite reports to the contrary). Though it doesn’t particularly break any new ground (conveniently leaving lots of action RPG mechanics to pillage in Borderlands 3), it does do everything much better. Once you get over the initial hump, Borderlands 2 is feisty, frantic, and most of all, fun.
Performance & Quality
Aspyr have really done a great job, with the performance almost up to the level of the Windows version. It’s a drastic improvement over Black Ops, and will give Diablo 3 a run for its money in the graphics performance department. Not bad at all for a game that launched less than two months ago. The art design is phenomenal, much improved over the “samey” feel of the original, with detailed locations, varied environments and great character designs.
We maxed out all the settings on our Nvidia 670-enabled Mac Pro (which in theory means the new iMacs will also run it at maximum spec), and on the MacBook Pro with Retina, the default settings worked fine. The only settings that can’t be adjusted are PhysX (which is only applicable to Nvidia graphics in Windows in any case) and ambient occlusion, which seemed to cause us some extreme edge artefacts when enabled. It’s probably best to set the frame-rate to “uncapped” for maximum performance. Some other minor glitches were noticed through our lengthy playthrough (such as some problems with textures) but these were rare, and in any case there are many, many settings to experiment with, so you should be able to find a good compromise on your particular hardware (but as always, check the minimum specifications below).
Note that your Mac saves are not compatible with the Windows version, so your profile, multiplayer stats, and unlocks are not transferred between the Mac and Windows versions of the game.
We couldn’t get the Xbox 360 wired controller to work, despite the requirements specifically saying that it should. See this article for details on controller support.