I don’t like what I’m going to say about Borderlands 2 because it’s difficult to objectively support. I’m going to say it anyway and do my best to provide evidence.
The game is arrogant in its brash humor and elegant in its systemic execution. It falls well below the mechanical plumb line for shooters, and the art style reinforces the gorgeous cartoonishness that binds its spoken character and its emergent character. It’s monotonous and riotous and salacious and gratuitous and not just because those words rhyme. Borderlands 2 is an orgy of many of the elements of game design I write to offend and scores of components I desperately try to defend. While it drafts closely behind its mediocre predecessor, it sometimes succeeds where the first iteration failed through the welcome, occasional element of surprise. It demands company. It’s fun and it’s stupid, and it’s stupid that it’s fun.
The return to the gut-slicing, face-burning sci-fi planet of Pandora as another generation of vault (loot) hunter in Borderlands 2 takes much the same approach as the original Borderlands. The action happens mostly in first-person (save the forced driving bits), a perspective that preserves the player’s vicarious self-portrait while tossing movement mechanics to the wolves. Borderlands made its mark as one of gaming’s first hybrids of shooter and open-world RPG, and the blend is remarkably addictive in its sequel. Gathering goods and upgrading characters in a game is as time-honored a hook as it is reliable. If competitive online shooters could figure it out AND balance it, then certainly a campaign-oriented badass training camp could pull it off. Borderlands 2 loves the word “badass” more than it loves teenage humor, which is a whole fart-ton (fart sound).
The trick to making the role-playing element work is variety and empowerment, which the Borderlands series has cornered. Procedurally generated weapons and loot make for a silly number of potential combinations that only a publicist or math guru might bother with, and three tall, branching skill trees for each of the game’s four box-in classes keep the mind entertained with possibilities. Frequent level ups, a new kind of leveling system awarding Badass Tokens (fart sound), and a steadily widening web of grenade mods, elemental effects, and upgradeable equipment keep the player in a stupor of pink mist. That is, if it’s played with others.
Borderlands 2 supports up to 4-player online co-op, but it also, more meekly, supports single-player offline solo runs like the kind I had. I do think it’s an asset to a game to make the experience collaborative, or at the least inclusive of interpersonal interaction. We are social creatures, after all. I don’t think this should be incentivized. After playing Borderlands 2 for well over 20 hours by my lonesome, I tried a bit of cooperative play, and the difficulty dropped dramatically. That is, enemies gain more numbers and health with the introduction of new players to a game session, but the affair involves appreciably less dying and respawning with a little backup, which makes sense given the buddy-healing system.
For the price of a modern console shooter, though, I’d hope that the single-player experience would be more comparable to the multiplayer one. It seems an oversight, especially for a support character like the Siren (my choice), but at what point does Borderlands 2 cross over into a categorically “multiplayer” game? A healer in an MMO is dependent on the other player classes to gain experience and cause damage, which seems like a fair contract for the genre predicated on always-on servers brimming with thousands of players. For an online/offline, campaign-driven game like Borderlands 2, the single-player support class suffers, edging on unpleasantness. It’s not over the genre hump, and there’s nothing wrong with a game being hard, but shoehorning players into multiplayer sessions seems out-of-place for Borderlands 2 and left sourness all over my time with it.
If misery loves company, comedy needs it, which manifests as another unfortunate slight to the solo player in Borderlands 2. The id fueling all of the game’s madness is a polarizing, ultra-violent, dogmatically irreverent beast that’s as magnetic as it is repulsive. Here are a few anecdotal examples:
- Killing bullymong (many-armed gorilla) in order to discover their new scientific name, Bonerfarts
- Receiving Face McShooty’s request for a shot in the face, followed by shooting him in the face, rewarded with an achievement or trophy
- Getting drunk to infiltrate an Irish clan to later murder the Irish clan at a wake for an Irish clansmen you killed in the previous mission
- Mowing down waves of bandits to protect a psychotic 13 year-old while she slangs her bandit torture victim with insults and electricity, eventually killing him
- Breaking into a bandit camp to steal a supply of statues of an overweight redneck to deliver to the overweight redneck who tells you not to stare at her chest
- Take pictures of porno mags, a graveyard suicide, a spooning bandit and robot, and a lone flower to inspire a bucktooth mechanic to write poetry that you then deliver to his female affection who, upon hearing the garbled verse, commits suicide
Here’s the kicker: none of these missions are even mandatory. The outrageous side quests comprise the majority of screen time in a full playthrough, and they reflect and attitude that lies at the heart of Borderlands 2’s development. I can almost hear the pitch around the design table. “Bonerfarts, right? I mean, come on guys. Boners. Farts. It’s funny. I swear. And if not, then we’ll just make it bloodier.”
And I hear that voice resounding over every splayed psycho midget and oh-so-witty achievement. On any given day, I’d probably laugh at the notion of a bonerfart, because I am immature and there are certain combinations of things that will almost always make me laugh (fart sound). But there’s a forced angst behind the humor of Borderlands 2, a rebellious spirit saying, “Screw the censors, our fans will love this because they hate the censors.” It feels mostly inorganic, and at times outright disappointing.
Handsome Jack, however, is rarely a letdown, and does a lot of the heavy lifting in grounding Borderlands 2 in plot and character. Borderlands badly needed a clever villain, and the well-written, well-acted audio transmissions from Handsome Jack do the trick. He’s got that omnipresent, Andrew Ryan infamy that works well in conjunction with some occasional light-hearted mercilessness, and at times dives into some serious villainy that turns the narrative and tugs at the player. He’s a likeable, composed overlord, and the delivery of his lines conveys that almost flawlessly. Other Borderlands staples like Claptrap, Moxxi, and Scooter return in Borderlands 2, but rest too heavily on some single conceit or play on the obvious (“Hey, my boobs are big!” for example). Handsome Jack never seems to devolve into that simplicity, and his interactions are far more rewarding for it.
Maybe Borderlands 2’s greatest achievement is the unabashed cohesion of spirit and gameplay – unabashed because of the strength and pride in its loud voice, but cohesive because shooters are, by their nature, noisy and brash. It doesn’t presume to have some quiet, tender character moment just seconds after a cold, targeted bloodbath, and maybe that’s for the better. At least Borderlands 2 is being honest about the minds that created it, even if it seems to try too hard. I can still hear it yelling at me, “Pandora will light up with explosions and crap, whether you’re on board or not. But, if you are, you know, remember to bring a friend… or else (fart sound).”