If you’re a regular listener of our monthly podcast (and if not, why not?), you’ll be aware of the fact that one of the games that dominated our time throughout the first half of this year was actually one that was released in September of 2012, and the reason for the fact that its relevance was prolonged for almost a year is arguably the most consistently brilliant stream of downloadable content packs ever released for a single title. Sure, Skyrim had a couple of absolutely mammoth expansion packs that sat alongside the main game wonderfully well, but Gearbox’s support of Borderlands 2 since its launch has been nothing short of excellent in both the consistency of its quality and the consistency of its release. With four beefy expansions, alongside two new character classes, new weapons, an extended level cap and plenty of other goodies, it’s one of the few occasions whereby setting down the cash for a season pass represents practically no gamble whatsoever. Of course, with so much downloadable content added to what was already a significant main game, it seemed inevitable by the time the second and third pieces were released that a collated package would soon become available, and Gearbox have obliged with the release of the Borderlands 2 Game of the Year Edition.
Whilst I would be among the many who may dispute the nature of this collection’s title, what it amounts to in terms of content cannot be questioned. There’s no discount on offer here in terms of paying the full standard retail price of £39.99, but when you consider the bang for your buck on offer here there’s little reason to complain if you’ve been waiting for the perfect opportunity to sample what Pandora has to offer this time round, and seeing as that most, if not all, of those interested in purchasing this version of the game will be those who have yet to experience the game at all, this review will be sure to encompass all of the content that the Borderlands 2 GOTY Edition has to offer.
So, I guess we’d better get started, this could end up being almost as long as the game itself.
No matter how much you may want to just get cracking on investigating Captain Scarlett’s Pirate Booty (steady) as soon as you boot up the game, anyone playing Borderlands 2 for the first time will have to jump into the main game first, which is no bad thing at all. Right from the off it’s clear that everything you loved about the original game is here, but it’s all on a much grander scale, whilst still managing to feel tighter and more refined, mainly due to better writing and a more engaging central story. Whilst the first game was fueled by the somewhat vague and not particularly interesting search for a vault filled with the promise of fantastical loot and valuables, the sequel actually tries its hand at delivering a proper antagonist and a far more significant cast of ensemble characters of both the new and familiar variety.
Handsome Jack is the antagonist I speak of, a villain who, like the vast majority of the characters in the Borderlands universe, can’t help but be endearing despite the assortment of outdated internet references and crude teenage humor that dominates the vast majority of the dialogue. You come into play because Jack is what stands between you and the discovery of the last great vault of Pandora, and you’ll have to defeat him and his army of Hyperion forces if you want to sample its delights. It’s as simple as it gets in terms of a narrative concept, but it’s admirable in its attempts to feel more grandiose than its predecessor, and there are a few genuinely memorable story beats along the way, and you will likely be shocked at, despite the goofy writing, just how evil Gearbox are willing to make your primary foe.
Of course the concept of who you are in Borderlands 2 is decided on by, well, you. The mission to defeat Handsome Jack to me was just another quest line, one that was strewn across my mission log alongside countless other quests of equal relevance because they all promised new guns and some mighty fine experience points. Weapons and experience points represent the very beating heart of the Borderlands experience, with you deciding upon the body that surrounds it by choosing just how you want to equip your character, spend your skill points and, rather importantly, pick which class you want to play. Those who played the first game will be forced to remove all ties to their original character, as the sequel relegates the likes of Lilith and Brick to the roles of non-playable story figures, with an entirely new cast to choose from for your questing this time out.
Salvador the Gunzerker, Zer0 the Assassin, Maya the Siren and Axton the Commando were the options before the additions of Gaige the Mechromancer and Krieg the Psycho, but, naturally, all six of them can be chosen when you boot up the GOTY Edition and choose to start a new game. The classes are all highly distinctive and fun to play in their own way, with each offering three skill trees to commit points to, with a single class-specific ability acting as their signature move during combat. The Gunzerker’s allows him to temporarily wield two guns at once and, well, go berserk with them. Zer0 can send out a decoy in a similar fashion to the armor ability in Halo: Reach and sneak up on enemies for significant melee damage with his trusty katana. Maya’s key skill works differently to that of Lilith’s in the first game, with the phasewalk ability replaced by the phaselock, a move which allows her to hold enemies suspended in midair for some serious indefensible punishment. Axton, meanwhile, can deploy a turret, which can become so powerful that it almost feels like having an additional player there fighting alongside you, which is a similar sensation when the Mechromancer makes use of her ability, which summons a robot called Deathtrap to her side to aid in the battle. Krieg, the most recent addition to the cast, can enter a fit of rage with a trusty axe to take advantage of the benefits said rage provides. They’re a varied bunch of characters both in terms of how they play, but also how they’re designed visually, which can be taken advantage of further with customization options that have been added to thanks to the new heads and skins included in the package.
This variety in terms of the character’s play styles and appearances really come to the fore in co-operative play, which can be experienced both locally and online with up to four players. Borderlands 2 took the award for Best Co-op Game during our deliberations for our 2012 GOTY Awards at the end of last year, with us describing it as making the questing, shooting and looting ‘more efficient, but also more challenging and rewarding’. Beyond the ability to trade items there’s nothing much new to the co-operative options within Borderlands 2, but diving into the harder quests with a well balanced team of souped up enthusiasts certainly adds to the fun of both the main game and all of the main four DLC packs.
Quest and class variety would amount for nothing if the shooting itself missed the mark, though, so it’s of course great that Borderlands 2 ensures that sending flurries of ammunition towards hapless enemies never gets tiresome. There is a countless assortment of firearms to play with, all easily identifiable by the differing qualities provided by each of the fictional manufacturers that supply you your arsenal. The Jakobs guns, for example, lend a Wild West feel to the shootouts, whilst Tediore weapons ensure an explosive flurry to the simple action of reloading. Pistols, assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers and SMGs are all present and accounted for, and there’s plenty of room for experimentation thanks to the four weapon slots and an expandable inventory size, which you’ll want to keep spacious at all times to ensure that you don’t find yourself leaving behind a potentially fantastic new toy that may drop during your travels. Rare new firearms can also be found by means of Golden Keys, used to unlock a chest full of randomly generated awesomeness. These keys have been given out by Gearbox over the last 12 months via download codes on their Facebook and Twitter pages, and they will continue to do so, but you also get a few keys included in the package to ensure you can start life with a healthy assortment of guns to play with.
Guns aren’t the only thing that you need to equip your character with, though, as shields, modifications, grenades and relics all acting as further options with which to improve your chances of triumph. Shields and grenades will often offer interesting properties such as releasing an electrical current upon depletion or exploding with fire upon detonation, whilst modifications may alter the stats behind some of your skills and relics provide bonuses such as an increase to the overall amount of experience you earn for killing enemies and completing quests. They all combine to ensure that you can fashion your character to be truly unique both in function and in appearance, which ensures that the role playing aspect of Borderlands 2 is just as solid as the shooting.
The true test of your character’s setup comes via the much improved enemy AI, which makes the aforementioned experimentation in weapon loadouts all the more vital. Enemies behave in different ways depending on the shape and size they come in, with boss battles feeling as grand and challenging as they should. The only disappointment comes in the number of different enemy types you’ll face off against, with many recycled from the original game, and many of the foes found in the additional content packs are simply re-skinned versions of those you have already faced in the main game. Quest variety does make up for the relatively small pool of enemy types, though, and this is where the creative license afforded to the designers for the downloadable content really shines through. It’s fair to say that facing off against Handsome Jack’s tireless array of robots does become slightly tedious at a point, and so being able to dip into any of the expansions once you’ve unlocked the ability to fast travel is very welcome indeed, especially as the enemies will scale to provide a suitable level of challenge depending on how far through the main game you are.
Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep is the undisputed top dog as far as the additional content for Borderlands 2 goes, but all four of the main content packs do a great job of completely changing the look and feel of the game whilst still ensuring that the essence of what makes the game so good remains intact. Having all four of them available to you at a relatively early stage also means that the game’s pacing can be completely set by you, which is welcome and liberating in equal measure. Dragon’s Keep is staged as a Borderlands take on Dungeons and Dragons starring both you and the cast of the original game. There are plenty of neat references to the likes of Skyrim, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and even Disney’s Fantasia, and the setting is so far removed from anything else across anything ever seen in a Borderlands game that at times you really do feel like you’ve booted up a completely new game. Grenades are replaced by magic spells, for example, whilst massive dragons light up the sky above. The look and feel of the fantasy genre is embraced fully, which makes for a delightful experience, and a decently lengthy one at that.
In fact, each of the four expansions are of decent length. Whilst it may be possible to blitz through the main quest line of each one in about four hours, if you set out do everything than that number could easily be trebled, which results in over 40 hours of game across the four. When you add that to the already massive main game, you can see that there’s tremendous value here for the asking price.
Asking prices are the focus of Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt, an expansion which plants you in a Pandoran take on the African Sahara as you hunt the local wildlife in exchange for handsome cheques and new loot. Big Game Hunt is appreciated as it shares Dragon Keep’s enthusiasm for its new setting and enemy types, but in terms of quest design it’s probably the weakest expansion. Fetch quests are far too plentiful, and many of the new witch doctor esque enemies are nothing but a chore to face off against. The continued presence of the wonderfully voiced Sir Hammerlock does make it slightly easier to plough through, but, like some of the more tedious portions of the main game, you may find it difficult to shoot your way through the entire adventure without breaking it up with a dip into one of the other expansions or a different portion of the battle to defeat Handsome Jack. Having said that, the interesting take on a final boss is definitely worth experiencing, and makes Big Game Hunt worth playing through.
The aforementioned Captain Scarlett and her Pirate’s Booty was the first expansion to be released, way back in October, and as such is perhaps less ‘out there’ than Dragon’s Keep, Big Game Hunt and Mr Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage, but does deliver enough in terms of the writing and performance of the titular pirate herself to make it a memorable enough romp through an assortment of appropriately themed quests and environments. The addition of the new sand skiff vehicle is also welcome, if only because it resembles Jabba’s execution barge from Return of the Jedi. Vehicles still handle pretty poorly, and it’s one area of the game on the whole in which there hasn’t been much improvement from the first game, but the sand skiff still represents a nice change to the four wheelers of the main game. Combat is also given a mix up, with enemies making use of mines and harpoons to deliver death upon you and your band of co-op partners, but many of the lower level foes resemble little more than main game bandits with an eye patch here or a peg leg there. Having said that about the core enemies, Pirate’s Booty does deliver two enormous new raid bosses, which are up there with any of those from the main game or subsequent expansions as some of the best battles in the entire game, and is a fitting finale to what is the longest expansion on offer, clocking in with over 30 missions and six massive new areas.
Mr Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage provides perhaps the funniest series of adventures to be found across any of Borderlands 2’s main game or expansion missions, mainly due to the wonderfully voiced enthusiasm of Mr Torgue himself, who is probably the loudest human character you’ll meet in any game this year. He takes great joy in the unadulterated violence of intense arena combat, which whilst is leaned upon a little too heavily throughout the expansion considering Borderlands 2 thrives upon its more open encounters, serves to deliver a set of missions that you can’t help but surge through with a smile on your face. Campaign of Carnage also deserves major kudos for providing a home for the best side quest across the entire package, in which you are hired to hunt down a games journalist for judging Mr Torgue’s favorite game as being worthy of ‘only’ a 6/10. It’s truly brilliant.
What’s also brilliant is just how small a dent these expansions really leave in the armor casing that is Borderlands 2. When placed alongside the main game, these four mostly excellent expansions ensure than there’s well over 100 hours worth of game on offer here if you choose to experience it all, and the game does its utmost to make experiencing it all as easily enjoyable as possible. A well designed quest log, coupled with a welcome hub in the form of the compact city of Sanctuary, means that, despite all the content on offer, you never feel too overwhelmed. Having said that, if the questing ever does become too much for you, Pandora is a pleasant enough planet just to explore, as the vistas on offer here are infinitely more varied than the barren wastelands that dominated the original. Frozen landscapes dominate the early part of the main game, but there’s still plenty of time to take in volcanoes, sci-fi tinged resorts and plenty more, as well as the fantasy pastiches of Dragon’s Keep, the African Savannah of Big Game Hunt, the deserts, outposts and arenas of Campaign of Carnage, and the tropics and sand dunes of Pirate’s Booty. The art style ensures that, despite the variety, there’s a real consistency to the game’s look. Cel shading is nothing new in games, but few pull it off with the confidence, proficiency and coolness of Borderlands 2. Characters and weapons look great, whilst even the look of the HUD and menus is pulled of with a slick panache. The framerate can take a bit of a nosedive when the action intensifies, but that’s not enough to stop Borderlands 2 standing firm as a really nice looking game, especially on PC.
Ultimately, though, if you’re looking into the possibility of picking up the Borderlands 2 Game of the Year Edition then it’s probably because you knew you’d want to play it eventually, you just had the foresight to wait for this inevitable compilation. If that person is you, then go right ahead and place your order because unless you wait until long into the next generation of consoles you’ll never find so much value packed into one Borderlands 2 shaped box. If you’re genuinely looking into this package as a new game to play before the new consoles hit, with no previous attachment to the idea of picking it up in any shape or form, then just know that Borderlands is one of the most creative, addictive and genuinely enthusiastic new IPs to emerge during the era of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and this package delivers all that in absolute abundance. Its tone and character isn’t for everyone, and there are some annoyances that have carried over from 2009’s original, but if you just consider the Borderlands 2 Game of the Year Edition as a value package, it’s pretty much as good as it gets.
If you’ve been holding off for this since last year, or if you’re a total newcomer just looking for one last disc to keep your console whirring until the dawn of the next generation, then plop down your cash, loosen your trigger finger, and clear the next month or two in your calendar – it’s a long road to level 72.
Borderlands 2 Game of the Year Edition is released on October 8th.