I’m not quite sure how to properly express how I feel about Borderlands 2.  I had a considerable amount of praise for the first game in the series, and so Borderlands 2, when it was announced, automatically became one of the very few games I considered buying at full price this year.  This is something I generally do only if I can be reasonably assured that I will get a considerable amount of play time and enjoyment out of a game, as otherwise I am usually content to wait for a sale on AAA-priced games (last year’s exceptions, Skyrim and Saints Row 3, both more than delivered on their purchase price for me).  If you’re measuring simply by time spent in the game, Borderlands 2 certainly delivers: I’ve spent well over 30 hours in the game so far, spread across a couple of different playthroughs, and have yet to reach the final boss in either.

Getting into the gameplay, though, things are…  considerably different than the previous game.  If you take the expansion packs for the original into account, the difference is somewhat more evolutionary, as certain aspects of the game seem to follow on more from the gameplay in the Knox expansion (most notably the humor, more tightly-packed combat environments, and the more frenetic pace of combat).  The new game certainly has a number of improvements and optimizations for the PC (including better netcode and a much-needed field-of-view setting).  However, I’m not entirely certain that the core gameplay itself is necessarily improved: rather, it’s different, in occasionally frustrating ways.

As this site is primarily focused on difficulty, frustration, and accessibility, I’ll cover that first.  Simply put: this game is much more difficult than the original, although I do have to qualify that.  Like the original, the player levels up with experience, and the enemies also have levels – fight one a few levels lower, and your weapons can destroy them easily, but fight one a few levels higher, and they can one-shot your character while your weapons can barely scratch them.  Because of this, you can in effect set your own difficulty levels: jump ahead with the main questline, and you’ll have a very tough fight on your hands, but if instead you do zones multiple times and grind through every side mission, the main missions (which also usually contain the toughest fights) can become significantly easier.

That being said, though, the actual gameplay itself is generally tougher.  In the original, while there were some rushing enemies, most were quite happy to hunker down behind cover, which generally allowed you to duck behind cover yourself and regenerate your health and shields.  In many cases battles turned into glorified shooting galleries, but it made for a somewhat more relaxed style of gameplay.  The enemies in B2, however, have considerably more AI, and they are usually constantly on the move, steadily advancing to flush you out of cover, throwing grenades more often, flanking you and firing at you from any break in your cover.  This means that you usually need to be on the move too, constantly engaging in combat, and constantly exposed to the risk of gunfire.
By itself, this new enemy behavior definitely adds some additional challenge to the game, but part of the challenge has nothing to do with combat changes, and everything to do with unnecessary changes to other aspects of the game, namely the methods by which one can recover health.  In the original, there were several ways to do this: some classes had special abilities that allowed for recovery, and for others there were various shield classes that also restored health over time.  Additionally, if you were willing to sacrifice a backpack slot, you could carry a health pack with you for an instant recovery.  The sequel, however, eliminates many of these methods.  As far as I can tell, there are no healing shields (or if they are, they’re exceedingly rare), and you can no longer carry health packs – you can only stumble over insta-health vials on occasion.  Furthermore, of the new classes, only the gunzerker has a special ability that immediately features health recovery.  While the mechromancer class does have a recovery option available early on (although it’s only available as DLC or for preorders, a gripe I’ll get to in a moment), most of the others don’t have a health recovery option available until many levels later.  Couple this with the fact that your shield (unless you luck out) will generally be much smaller than your health, absorbing only a few hits and usually taking several seconds under cover to recharge, and all of a sudden your character’s survival is very precarious, often hanging on with tiny bits of health and constantly needing to duck out of combat to let the shield recharge.  If the game featured the original style of combat, this might be a viable strategy for survival – however, with newly aggressive enemies advancing on your position from all sides, you can quickly be overwhelmed.  Taken together, these factors represent a significant spike in difficulty, and anyone used to the somewhat leisurely combat of the original may be unpleasantly surprised here.  Even if you were good at the original, be prepared for the sequel to mop the floor with you.  Unless you are incredibly good at FPS games, you should be prepared to die – a lot.  (And don’t even get me started with the tightly-enclosed areas with no cover, where enemies ambush you by spawning all around you at once – not fun at all.)

That being said, death is not a phenomenally huge problem in the game.  Die, and you’ll be resurrected at your last save point, minus a fraction of your in-game currency.  Given that you’re far more likely, it seems, to come across decent equipment from loot chests than you are at the in-game vending machines, the currency loss doesn’t have a hugely dramatic impact.  More annoying is the fact the the save points are often too few and far between, which means that a death can involve a minutes-long slog across a sizable map to get back to where you were, something that is decidedly less than fun.  Your experience, though, isn’t affected, and so you can, should you desire, keep throwing yourself at a difficult area, dying repeatedly, until you finally level up and/or loot better weapons, grinding the area down slowly (although I personally find this approach incredibly boring).

One distinct problem for some classes, though, beyond the health and shields issue, is one of ammo supply.  True, there are ammunition crates scattered liberally around, but the pickups from those only contain a small fraction of your supply, less than a clip’s worth for some types of guns.  This is compounded by several factors: a very small ammo reservoir to start off with, no guaranteed ability to buy upgrades (which can now only be bought with a separate “currency” that drops only rarely, and must be shared with other upgrades), and the fact that most of the harder-hitting weapons can now consume anywhere between 2-4 rounds per shot.  Taken together, you can easily get into a situation where you can run out of ammo for your primary weapons during a prolonged boss fight, leaving you with backup weapons that don’t suit your play style, or no weapons at all.  Some classes may have ways to regenerate ammo (the gunzerker, and possibly the commando), but for the others, you can be easily stuck.

Probably the worst situation involving this I’ve seen so far involves a boss fight against a constructor at the bloodshot ramparts.  While you have an opportunity to restore your ammo at the start of the map, you then have to fight your way through a ton of robots, with ammo appearing only sporadically.  Then, at the end of the map, there’s the boss fight, with no vending machine that allows you to reload before it, as there almost always was in the original.  You’re then placed up against a tough bot that’s constantly creating more robots, each of which take many shots to destroy, and the constructor itself features a tough shield that takes many round to whittle down even with the appropriate weapon.  You’re soon locked into a battle of attrition, and if you die during the battle, the constructor returns to full health – you, meanwhile, don’t resurrect with full ammo.  Eventually, you run out of ammo entirely and have to retreat from the area, one you can’t fast-travel back to…  meaning you have to redo the whole set of maps to get back to the area and take on the final boss again.  (Oddly enough, in my first playthrough, there was no option but to retreat as I was never able to take down the constructor’s shields before running out of ammo.  Playing through with another character, though, after a certain amount of time the constructor fled to another map entirely, one which did have an ammo vendor reasonably nearby, and where I was finally able to take it out after another monumentally frustrating battle).  Needless to say, the additional backtracking was immensely frustrating (along with the fact that going through the fortress on the second try saw a mid-boss being randomly handed a gun that just about obliterated my character in one hit, shields and all, which made it that much worse).  The thing is, as I mentioned earlier, the original game got it right, always giving you a chance to restock your ammo and heal up before a big boss fight.  Why the sequel doesn’t do this, I don’t know, but it’s the opposite of an improvement.

Another thing that seems to have changed a bit from the original is the distribution of loot.  It is true that there is somewhat more loot variety now, but the way you acquire it is much more frustrating.  For starters, it used to be the case that when you were fighting an enemy that had a really tough gun, or grenade mod, that it would often drop that weapon for you to use once you defeated it.  This, sadly, is no longer the case: many enemies will take you on with a randomly-assigned, fearsome weapon, and then go on to drop nothing at all (which was the case with the enemy from earlier: upon defeat, he dropped a little bit of ammo, no awesome railgun in sight).  This takes away from one of the fun aspects of the game: knowing that you could get decent rewards from defeating enemies, because you could see them in their hands.  Now, the rewards are completely random, and are usually few and far between: sometimes a badass enemy will drop something interesting, but for anything else, you’re lucky to even see a green drop: only occasionally will an enemy even drop a common shield or weapon, and mostly won’t drop much of anything at all.  Furthermore, rare items are now really rare: even in vending machine items of the day, you’ll be lucky to see anything green, and most items are near-worthless.  As in the original, “common” items, the lowest rarity tier, are almost completely useless, most not even worth picking up.  You will find the next tier of items, the green ones, on occasion, but the “rare” tiers above that really are rare: while in the first game I’d racked up several blue, purple and orange weapons, even now I have mostly green ones.  This is partially compensated for by the fact that green weapons can now actually be decent, instead of barely adequate as in the previous game.  Still, it’s not nearly as fun to play a loot-driven game when it’s a rare day that anything at all interesting shows up.

This is compounded by the fact that there are no longer any areas that you can “farm” for gear easily.  In the original game, there were several easily accessible loot chests scattered around, which you could visit to reliably get decent new equipment.  This is important because chests have randomly-generated gear, and if you’re playing a pistolero and get several chests full of shotguns, you need to be able to have chests you can get back to in order to try again and get what you need.  In the sequel, however, the chests are almost all at the end of extensive combat areas, and given the lowered enemy drops, there are no longer any places like Old Haven where you can reliably get new equipment through combat.  Add this together, and you can be stuck using crappy equipment for quite some time waiting for something good to drop.  (Oh, and for those of you who say “that’s how it’s supposed to be, play co-op to get better gear,” consider this: if I have to spend an evening working instead of playing, I’m all of a sudden too different in level to play with my friends, and doing matchmaking simply means that without a proper loot system, you have to fight with random strangers over every cool piece of gear… no thanks.  The game needs to be able to hold up under singleplayer too, and in this respect, it doesn’t.)

These loot issues also affect how the game is to play, from aesthetics to combat.  Admittedly, given the randomness of the game the loot you find can vary between playthroughs, but get stuck with the short end of the stick and you can be left struggling.  As in the previous game, accuracy is by far the most important statistic on any weapon, and most of the common weapons aren’t so hot at it, meaning you miss more shots, which means your ammunition drains without doing damage, and you’re stuck whittling down enemies as they charge you relentlessly.  Or, to put it another way: get crap loot, die constantly and gnash your teeth in frustration.  Add to this the fact that aside from the bandit weapons, the common items are generally boring to look at and boring to fire: compare a plasma caster, with a futuristic design, wild colors and metallic glints, to your average gray or beige SMG, which might not even have a scope.  Admittedly, even the more common weapons do have better designs and more variety than in the original, but it’s so rare to find anything interesting or game-changing that loot is rarely anything to look forward to.  And as far as the rarest weapons go?  So far, I’ve found about one per playthrough, and while that one has often been awesome, it’s far too rare to get a gun that actually does something particularly different that you look forward to using it over something else.  (This is compared to at least a half-dozen or so per playthrough in the original).

Actually, as far as easily accessible crates with rare weapons in them… well, I suppose that’s not quite accurate.  There is, in fact, a large, golden crate sitting in the middle of the primary town, which always gives out various types of rare weapons and items.  The catch?  It requires the expenditure of a special key every time you open it, a key that can’t be acquired through actually playing the game.  How do you get one?  Why, by preordering the game, of course! (Or, to be fair, signing up for Gearbox’s totally pointless and so far feature-free “social gaming” thing, but that’s not something that’s particularly obvious in-game).  This is what was on offer for those who pre-ordered the game, along with a handful of weapons that you’ll discard about a half-hour into the game, an item that barely increases the rare drops in the game, and a pretty decent fifth player class that was released several weeks after the game shipped.  Again, if you happened to buy the game at release date, at the exact same price, you would not have any of these things.  Would you still have a complete game in itself?  Technically, yes, but it’s still aggravating to go without parts of the game, or pay an additional fee for them later, simply because you didn’t want to plunk down cash sight-unseen.  Oh, and if you didn’t buy it through X specific retailer?  Then you didn’t get some extra arena thing.  There’s also a season pass for the expansion packs, and more DLC things beyond that, which I don’t mind so much, but this preorder nonsense is beyond ridiculous.

Okay, so I’ve just spent a couple thousand words largely slagging this game.  So, now that it’s dripping all kinds of purple goop off of it, let me tell you why I’ve spent 30+ hours with it so far, and will probably continue playing it for quite some time.  Despite all my grumblings and frustrations, the game is still fun: the gunplay itself, assuming you get ahold of some good weapons, is quite enjoyable, and the quests in general are more interesting than those of the previous game.  The areas of play are quite expansive (in some cases a little too expansive), and while there’s not a ton of variation, there are a lot of places to explore, and various secrets to find.  The humor is on the whole pretty decent, and the ambience is better – NPCs are still not particularly interactive, but they’re no longer rooted to the spot.  The classes themselves, at least the ones I’ve tried so far, are quite fun to play – the gunzerker is great for no-holds-barred shooting, and I’ve gotten enough weapons to put together a viable sniping mechromancer that I’ve had a good time with so far. (yes, I did admittedly get the pre-order stuff, but as I was going to preorder this about as soon as it was announced based on my experience with the previous game, I can’t say that the inducements had a major effect on my purchasing decision.  Still, I feel a bit guilty about it, and it doesn’t change my opinion that this kind of nonsense has to stop.)  Weapon-for-weapon, rarity aside, the weapons are generally more fun to use than their counterparts from the previous game: sniper rifles aren’t so insufferably wobbly, you can find more accurate pistols and SMGs, and there are some nice variants including minigun-style weapons, double-barreled sniper rifles, and an assault-rifle variant that rapid-fires grenades.  There are also some interesting “E-tech” guns, such as the spiker pistols, along with the mythical railguns and plasma casters that I have only encountered while using a key on that golden chest in Sanctuary (btw, preorder or not, there are ways to get at that chest if you want, although such things are beyond the scope of this article.  As an aside, though, it does seem strange to keep your coolest weapon designs hidden away where most players will seemingly never encounter them during the course of the game).  The enemies are also generally interesting, with a much wider variety of enemies than were present in the first game, alongside most of the old favorites (assuming you for some reason really, really liked skags and rakks a lot).

All together, it generally adds up to a fairly fun game, and there’s rarely a moment where you don’t have something to do.  If Gearbox had kept some of the things that worked well in the first game, instead of introducing mechanics that served to frustrate rather than do anything particularly interesting, I think this game would be a vast improvement over the already generally good original.  As it stands, balancing both the cool and frustrating parts together, there’s a fun and interesting game there overall, but I’d like it far better if I could complete more of my play sessions with a feeling of fun and accomplishment, rather than a sense of frustration and boring grinding to get around unpredictable spikes in difficulty, with game mechanic changes that only add to the problem.