Perhaps it’s best to just get this out in the open right away: Borderlands 2 is more Borderlands, and if you liked the first, it’s extremely likely that you’ll end up loving the second. It seems a pretty safe wager – after all, Borderlands 2 is essentially its predecessor in nearly every measurable way, just more full, like the same suitcase stuffed with twice the clothing. A joke every ten minutes has become a joke every five, those six types of bandits you faced in each base are now twelve, and the millions of guns available to your first Vault Hunter has become hundreds of millions for your second. In that sense, Borderlands 2 isn’t much of a “new” game at all, simply a more saturated one. And honestly, there’s just nothing wrong with that.

The game picks up five years after the first, a short enough time gap to make sure nearly every character that didn’t wind up dead on your last go-around gets to make an appearance. Despite a few nuances here and there, the general flow of the story should feel pretty familiar. A group of vault-seeking mercenaries has shown up on Pandora just in time to get on the wrong side of nearly everyone else who’s looking for the same thing. A primary antagonist is a bit more defined from the start this time, but for the most part, the main quest still serves as little more than what’s often a greatly entertaining vehicle for the true reason you picked up your controller or keyboard: killing everything in your path.

There are a few surface improvements – like the addition of mild character customization and the removal of fall damage – but the soul of Borderlands 2 is still seated squarely in the series’ famed frenetic gunplay. Quests force you across giant swaths of Pandoran terrain, each peppered with varied battle zones. Most encounters aren’t random; each zone has telltale markings of what you’re likely to face there. Jagged holes along glaciers are a sure sign of the car-flinging yeti-like Bullymongs, while slipshod tin housing covered in signs reading “Piss Off!” generally point to a resident clan of psychotic, gun-toting bandits. While these area landmarks take the surprise out of what’s coming, they do let you stop and consider the fight ahead. If the whole of the game’s combat experience was a series of ambushes, you’d probably never take the time or risk to change from your favorite tricked out weapon to something unproven, but by always letting you know where and what the next fight is going to entail, Borderlands 2 consistently encourages you to take that five minutes of pre-battle inventory shuffling to experiment with new skills, items, and tactics.

Once you fire that first shot, though, you’re in it. Because 90% of the enemies “enter” each zone instead of starting there (suddenly emerging from area nests or housing), you never know exactly how many monsters to expect or exactly long a fight’s going to last before you can breathe again. Some of the game’s best moments involve skirmishes that go on too long, when your best three guns have been drained of ammo and your shield’s been dangerously depleted for what feels like an eternity. It’s a phenomenon that can’t and shouldn’t happen with each encounter (that would suck all the fun out of it) but when it does, almost nothing makes you feel like more of a badass then the moment when you mow down the tenth wave of rampaging Varkids – a full seven more than you’d been expecting.

When sheer volume isn’t enough, Borderlands 2 throws a variety of technique at you – something the first game had tried with far less success. This time around, more enemies require thought to defeat, ranging from something as simple as matching elemental damage types to preventing a thief from permanently absconding with valuable items from your sorely-limited backpack. One of the most interesting additions is the Goliath, a new, hulking, bandit-style enemy that flies into a rage when decapitated (and who wouldn’t?), attacking everything in sight – other bandits included. The Goliath becomes more powerful with each bandit he kills, and while his XP value soars exponentially, you consistently have to consider how much is too much, and just how troublesome he’s going to get when the bad guys are gone and you’re the only meat left on the menu. Choices like these keep the combat in a controlled chaos, forcing you to master an adrenaline-driven mash of reflex and quick-thinking to come out of the scrum in one piece.

When the last enemy hits the dirt, it’s time for Borderlands‘ other driving force: loot, loot, loot. Like the rest of the game, treasure hunting has been generously amped – often to the point of absurdity. A large bandit camp can have fifty or more containers to rummage through, most with little more than a paltry two-dollar take. Instead of finding all the ammo you need one a single cache, you’ll hop around an area opening twenty or more chests, port-a-potties, and boxes to find just one clip in each. It’s not every time you clear an area, but whenever priority shifts from “How much loot can you get?” to “How many loot containers can you open?” things get tedious, though fortunately never quite enough to make you quit searching.

The task of opening every container in sight gets better when you have one or more friends in coop to lighten the load, and since currency and ammo gets shared with the group as it’s found, scavenging rarely becomes an obnoxious race when it comes to the essentials. Guns, however, are a different matter entirely, and the enjoyment you find in playing with others versus flying solo will probably come down to how well you can agree to divvy the goods. All weapons are a first come, first served reward, so things can get tense when there’s just one ultra-rare slag-spitting sniper rifle waiting at the end of a four-hour mission. You have the option to duel for it if you’re so inclined, but the person who actually grabbed the gun has to agree to fight you for it, and even if he or she does, the player-versus-player fights are often grossly uneven.

There’s also no form of level scaling in cooperative play, so you’ll need to put in a similar amount of time as your friends if you’re looking to keep having a good time – a feat that becomes all the more difficult as you grow a party from two to three or four. Lower-level players fighting stronger monsters will earn XP quicker, making the effect less pronounced when there’s just a small level gap from the strongest party member, but there’s no mechanism in place for when that gap is so large that fighting those stronger monsters becomes impossible. In these situations, there’s little more to do than simply start a new character if you want to play with a friend who’s just starting, but since the more interesting enemies don’t show until later on, the prospect of reverting to level one each time you want to play with someone new to Pandora can be somewhat unappealing.

Whatever minor speedbumps the game has, however, are easily dismissed when faced with the core package; it’s simply fun as hell to run around gunning up Pandora. The deliberate, constructed continuation of what made the first Borderlands such a sensation is never hard to spot in its sequel, even if actual innovation almost exclusively takes a backseat to tradition. Yes, not much has changed from the original’s blueprint of loot-driven combat, but did you really want it to? In the end, Borderlands 2 is really all it ever should have been: an excess of weapons, an excess of targets, and a beautifully crafted system putting them together.

Bottom Line: Borderlands 2 is a denser, richer version of it’s predecessor, never compromising on the gunplay that made the series worthy of a sequel.

Recommendation: If you had fun on your first vault tour, you’ll almost certainly enjoy a second. And if you missed the Borderlands craze on the first go around, there’s absolutely no reason not to hop in on its follow-up.

[rating=4.5]

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Borderlands 2
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Gearbox
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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