Interestingly enough, postmortems are not something you often see in the gaming press.  Unless you count nostalgic flashbacks written years or decades after a game’s release, the coverage that games mostly receive are previews based on demo code, or reviews based on a quick and (maybe) complete playthrough of a game.  That, for the most part, is true of the reviews that I have posted here as well, and only a few of them are based on hours or days spent immersed in the world of a game.  One thing that I haven’t seen anywhere, though, is a review of why a once-enjoyed game ended up relegated to the pile of ones that haven’t been touched in ages.  Sadly, though, this is the case for Borderlands 2.

While it’s true that many games have in fact ended up there, I chose B2 for this review for a couple of reasons.  The first one is because I purchased the game based on my experience with its predecessor, which, while having a handful of flaws, was a game that I found sufficiently enjoyable to to play through (the main game, at least) multiple times.  While I perhaps should have taken note of some of the less desirable turns the game took in some of the later DLC, I had very high expectations for the sequel, as it promised to be everything the original game was, but more and better: bigger environments!  more awesome weapons!  better everything!  However, in attempting to deliver all that, it missed out on other things that were arguably more important, and which leads me to my second reason.  While there are many games that I have played through to my satisfaction, set aside, and occasionally fire up again to enjoy their memorable experiences, Borderlands 2 received one playthrough, a couple halfhearted attempts at others, and then sat untouched as I tried to expunge the bitter taste in my mouth that the game left me with.

There are certainly things that I could point to as to why this happened, and I’ll get into those in a moment, but the overall issue is that while the game took a small step forward in visual fidelity, and a large step forward in terms of sheer amounts of content, it was unfortunately accompanied by a large step backwards in the core gameplay mechanics – i.e. the things that actually set the game apart from its peers and makes it a fun and interesting experience to play.  By stripping away many of the fun mechanics that gave the first game its strengths, and substituting ones that were different but ultimately not all that interesting, I was left with a game that was far more of a chore than a joy to play.

It is also important to note that a good number of the changes appear to have been made to focus the game’s core gameplay more towards co-op than single-player, something that I think was a fundamental blunder.  The reason it was such a blunder is this: co-op gameplay, as a mode of play, is the hardest to actually arrange.  Individual play, of course, is the easiest, and adversarial play in most shooters is nearly as much so, usually a couple of extra clicks and a couple of minutes away.  Co-op play, on the other hand, requires getting one or more of your friends to actually buy the game, coordinate a time to play, and to only play with you and at exactly the same rate (due to the fact that there is no “sidekicking” mechanic in the game, if any one player levels up too much in regards to the other the co-op gameplay has problems).  The alternative, doing a sort of almost MMO-style drop-in-drop-out co-op with random people online, is equally as flawed due to the same broken mechanics that were present in the first game: specifically, the free-for-all loot distribution for the weapon and item drops that are essentially the game’s lifeblood.  While a proper MMO that does random grouping has various “fair” ways of distributing loot, such as round-robin, “need or greed,” or similar weighted or unweighted schemes, having every battle turn into a mad scramble with strangers for the one good drop provides a massive disincentive for this style of co-op play.

And, if co-op with strangers is a disaster, and it’s a futile cause to get your friends to play when they’ve rushed through it on launch and have long since moved on, you’re left with the option of single play.  That’s something which, in most games, I’m completely fine with.  The problem is, Borderlands 2 is so heavily tuned for co-op play, with essentially no real tuning in the other direction if you’re playing on your own, that the gameplay turns rapidly into an awful mess.

This trend becomes apparent when you start looking at the characters’ abilities.  Before, my favorite characters to play were Brick and Lilith, because a combination of their powers and decent gear meant that I could play the game continuously without having to spend a lot of time cowering or running away, blasting through like a proper shooter.  Playing with Brick was a ton of fun: run in screaming and blast away, and when your health and shields finally run low, punch the power button and keep charging, punching enemies to pieces while your health restores instead of retreating and boringly retracing your steps.  Or, with Lilith, fading into a phased world for a breather while sneaking around your foes, to burst forth in their midst in a fiery explosion of shotgun-fueled vengeance.  Were both of those abilities a bit overpowered once they were enhanced?  Sure, maybe a little.  Did they make it so that by the end of the first playthrough, and most of the second, actually dying was an incredibly rare occurrence?  Yes, perhaps.  But was it incredibly fun to play?  You bet it was!

In B2, however, there are no such abilities.  The “Lilith” in the new game gets to phase out certain creatures to lessen the threat – a power that is heavily tuned for co-op – but without any method of recovering while staying in the fight.  The new “Brick” in the game is the gunzerker, with the supposedly impressive ability to dial-wield two weapons at a time while in a frenzy… but only from the hip, with awful accuracy that meant it was only useful in close proximity to an enemy.  Unlike with Brick, though, the health regen and damage reduction are frail and last only seconds, which means that using the ability in any serious fight means that it usually fails long before its duration as you phase into “last man standing” mode.  That mode was, at least somewhat, an interesting mechanic in the first game, but here it is mostly useless: given that there is no accuracy at all in this mode, and the enemies either immediately hide behind cover upon seeing it or have far too much health to whittle down, you might as well just give up and respawn (often a good distance away).  Oh, but wait – why would you actually try to do that?  Surely it makes more sense for one of your teammates to just revive you, right?  Oh, right, you’re playing single-player.  Sorry, you’re screwed.

Seriously, staying alive in single-player is a phenomenal challenge.  Enemies are often swarming all around you in enclosed areas, making cowering behind a turret an exercise in futility (and negating yet another power).  There are certain enemies that had weapons that will literally one-hit-kill you, making certain areas an exercise in insane frustration (and this was doing the area at the proper par level).  There are many missions that involve waves of enemies that were never intended to be dealt with by one player, where literally losing just by running out of ammo is a very real possibility.  And while it’s true that dying in the game isn’t heavily penalized, it does mean repeating certain sections ad infinitum, which is both phenomenally boring and frustrating.  Compare this to the original, where I can only think of one mission at the start that required a frustrating number of attempts.  Overall, the enemies are more vicious and numerous, and your character is more frail – maybe not a problem in co-op, but it means that the single-player has insane difficulty spikes.  This isn’t helped along much by the fact that you can’t kludge through any build weakness or limp ability with decent gear – while a panacea shield can go a long way towards making any class work in the original, there’s no such thing in the sequel, and many other shields are weakened considerably – not only are extra-capacity shields agonizingly slow to recharge, they also actually cut your health, significantly negating their benefits and making you even more frail.  In fact, there are some character classes and ability sets that either do not regenerate health upon ability use, or lock it away far down in the skill tree.  This, combined with the fact that most shields fail within the first few seconds of combat, mean that your character will die, a lot, all the time, and you will have to replay boring encounters, all the time.  As I said before, maybe this works in co-op, but in single-player, it’s agonizing.  (Oh yeah, and you can’t even sacrifice a precious inventory slot to carry around a health-pack anymore – i.e. even more pointless deaths.)

However, speaking of items, that brings me to the most serious flaw in the game, and the one that probably tipped the scales for me towards never wanting to pick up this game again.  First, though, let me make one thing clear: this game, above all, is about the loot.  Take that away, and it’s an okay shooter with boring MMO-esque fetchquests.  The loot, in fact, is one of the main selling points of the game apart from the semi-open world: the possibility of coming across a huge variety of awesome weapons, letting you blast apart the enemies with efficiency and style, is the promise on the box.  Heck, what’s the main splash-quote for the game on steam?  Something along the lines of “this is the grand, loot-filled adventure you’ve been waiting for.”

Except it’s not.  Let me put this into perspective: By the end of the first playthrough of the original game, I had a lot, and I mean a lot, of cool weapons.  I had a good half-dozen or so orange weapons, the rarest category in the game, including a submachinegun firing absolutely devastating elemental ammunition with speed and accuracy, a sniper rifle whose shots detonated in huge explosions of fire, and powerful, quick-reloading revolvers that hit with fire and acid and constantly regenerated ammo.  Heck, one of the guaranteed mission rewards was a pistol that fired as fast as a submachinegun with incredible accuracy, never used ammo, and never needed reloading.  The rest of my inventory was filled with purples and blues, and rounded out by a few green weapons (still rarer than the default) that had particularly good random stats.  The weapons might not have been quite as varied as those in B2, but they were all slick, fun to fire, and impressive – by the end of the game, it felt like I was playing with some serious stuff.

Contrast that with what I ended up with at the end of B2: One, just one, impressively awesome orange weapon, with a shot that was awesome but rather limited in usefulness given the way it ate rare sniper ammo.  Maybe a half-dozen purples and blues, and maybe a half-dozen greens, if that.  The rest was white, common, and while the game does in fact make common weapons slightly more useful, they’re still pretty lame and un-fun to use.  (Oh, and by the way, several of those were weapons that only dropped as the result of the final boss fight of the game.)

So, you might ask, why is that?  Well, several reasons.  One, there is essentially no farming that can be done in the game.  There are just about no leveled crates in the game, and those that are are a long and violent trek away from any travel hub.  Well, okay; I know that there are mixed minds about farming to get cool gear, but in a single-player game, I don’t much care – I just want to have fun blasting cool weapons.  In the original, though, even if you didn’t do that, there were still plenty of opportunities for awesome gear: vending machines offered impressive items as specials if you were careful with your money, and various monsters and elites had a chance to drop all sorts of cool stuff (heck, one single run through Old Haven could net you a bonanza of high-level, impressive elemental equipment).  In the new game, though, good luck.  Vending machines usually have only common stuff, and most enemies drop nothing, and I mean nothing at all – you’re lucky to even get a common drop from anything short of a miniboss, and sometimes not even then (the game also, annoyingly, does away with the mechanic of enemies often dropping the high-quality items they have equipped – in the original, if you are pinned down by a goon with an awesome weapon you at least have the expectation that once you finally take him down, the weapon will be yours, but sadly in the sequel this never happens).  And the crates you do find after fighting through a long and brutal area?  You’ll be lucky to even find a solitary green piece of equipment.  The solution, of course: play in co-op, where the enemies are tougher but drop better, shinier weapons.  Which you will never see because the strangers you’re playing with run over and take them all because you decided to engage with a ranged weapon and can’t get over to the loot fast enough.

So, sure, the guns are varied in style and operation, but as the vast majority of the ones you’ll find are awful crap, and you won’t want to use them.  Except… you’ll have to.  Unlike the first game, where some weapons I found at the end of the first playthrough were fun and useful most of the way through the second, the sequel has dramatically different scaling on weapons, health, and damage.  This means that gear is no longer useful throughout the course of much of a playthrough – rather, it will be so weak as to be useless within five or ten levels, if that.  This means that the tiny, tiny amount of cool guns that you find, unless they are incredibly rare and beyond overpowered, will be useless in a matter of maps – and so will that one shield you found that’s finally decent.  This means that, in practice, you are constantly on a quest to find gear that will allow you to survive, which means using the few drops that you get that are basically rubbish, with lousy accuracy and slow reload times, but the only things with the damage output to actually take down an enemy at your new level before it mops the floor with you.  Let me reiterate: this is a game about loot, loot is its main selling point, and not only does the game dole out that look with distressing paucity, it takes the scant few pieces of cool gear that you do come across and makes you chuck after you’ve played for a few more hours.  In short, this is a game that completely and utterly fails in the core mechanic and the one selling point that sets it apart from other games.

Okay, so it’s got a kind of fun story, and some interesting dialogue, and the character of Handsome Jack is fun – for the first playthrough.  Everything else, though, quickly becomes a chore, from the badly-tuned difficulty to the lack of the game’s primary currency and mode of engagement.  Admittedly, some of these things are already touched on in my initial review, but it is these things in particular that, as I played through the game, drove it more and more away from fun and over towards grinding agony.  Simply put, while I slogged through to get to the ending, after a time, the game just became un-fun: more cookie-cutter encounters with artificially-inflated difficulty, boss fights that were less fun and more boring battles of attrition, and a slog that wasn’t worth it at all for the complete lack of reward at the end of just about any of it.  They made a game that is (maybe) only fun to play in co-op, with a co-op mode so broken that it’s not worth it either.  In short, for all of its improvements, it was only worth a single playthrough to get the whole experience, and even then I was more just slogging through rather than having much in the way of fun towards the end.

Frankly, it’s a shame that a sequel with so much promise, building on a game with so much potential, can’t actually stand up to the test of being played due to a plethora of stupid decisions regarding the core gameplay.  In fact, it almost certainly cost them; while I bought every single DLC pack for the original game, individually at full price or close to it, they got my day-one purchase on this game on the merit of its potential, and then nothing else… well, nothing else besides my determination not to make a day-one purchase on the inevitable sequel because of how short this one fell over the test of time.  And it really is a shame, because this is the type of game I should, rightly, love and look forward to replaying endlessly: a huge open world, limitless combinations of weapons and items, tons of classes and abilities and ways to come at the game.  The problem is, if the open world is not really all that open, the cool items promised by the first game never show up (and when they do are quickly taken from you), and the abilities are nerfed to the point where all combat becomes a frustrating pile of failure, the game simply will not withstand the test of time.

In conclusion, while I don’t normally agree with Penny Arcade’s assessment of anything, their branding of Borderlands 2 as an “arrow-comparison engine and a mediocre shooter bolted onto a medieval quest system” isn’t one that, after hours of play, that I can exactly disagree with.  How I wish it were not the case, as I found the first game to be brilliant fun, but the sequel simply took everything that felt awesome in the first game and diluted it so much that it fell away to reveal only the basics of the game underneath… which are, sadly, middling and uninspired shooting and near-pointless quests that are really only tolerable to get through once.