Borderlands has the distinction of being perhaps the first RPG shooter that actually felt like a shooter. Now that Gearbox Software has stumbled upon this magical formula, you can hardly blame them for trying not to shake things up too much. They definitely played it safe with Borderlands 2 but fortunately you'll have fun anyway.
The short-hand description for Borderlands is "Diablo with guns." That isn't too far off the mark. You and up to three friends mow down hordes of enemies and then grab the randomized loot they upchuck all over the ground. The loot includes weapons, shields, grenade mods and more. Once your bag's stuffed with loot, you can head to a hub town (or vending machine) to sell off your unwanted items and resupply.
This formula works well, in part, because the loot is so desirable. Each of the playable classes in Borderlands 2 can use every type of gun and shield so it's uncommon to find loot that's completely irrelevant to you. You'll be drowning in guns within the first hour of the campaign and finding the right one(s) for your character can be enjoyable. Each gun has randomized statistics, along with a few wild card characteristics like explosive or corrosive bullets. A pistol can be a hand cannon with incendiary rounds or a fully automatic machine pistol with a scope. Even if a newfound gun's stats are less than ideal, you'll probably want to give it a whirl just to see how it feels.
Shooting things is, thankfully, also fun. The diverse mix of enemies (ranged or melee, airborne or land-based, armored or shielded) constantly keep you on your toes. I never found myself sitting behind crates and simply picking off targets one by one. Whenever I tried to do that, I'd end up getting pummeled by a bandit midget with a club or blown up by a grenade. The environments are mostly outdoors and vertically built so there's rarely a safe spot to hide in. The typical gunfights involves a lot of circle-strafing, jumping, and weapon swapping. When the A.I. behaves itself, the battles are as frantic as multiplayer deathmatches.
The action's much more fun with other players - in fact, many fights seem tuned around multiple players. Gearbox makes it for you to dive into co-op. You can use a matchmaking tool in the main menu to hop into someone else's game, or freely browse other people's open games. You can also invite friends into your own game or simply leave your game open to any interested parties. When another player joins, the enemies' strength scales up. Your new companion will be automatically transported to whatever map you're on. The only quibble I have with co-op is that, unlike Diablo 3, you all see the same loot. When a boss dies, expect a scramble for the rare loot.
Borderlands 2 offers up four new classes to choose from, each with a central ability you gain at level 5. Salvador the Gunzerker can wield two weapons for a limited time and boost his damage resistance while Zer0 the Assassin can go invisible and create a decoy of himself. Each character has three skill trees that you can invest in to enhance their abilities. The Gunzerker, for example, reduce the cooldown of his berserk or increase its duration.
Borderlands 2's character progression has the same issue as the first game: advancing your character isn't that much fun past level 5. Save a couple exceptions, you won't be gaining any new abilities on top of that main class gimmick. The skill trees are almost entirely composed of modifications to your class ability or passive bonuses. Leveling up doesn't feel as rewarding when the only thing you have to look forward to is faster reload speed or higher maximum ammo. Furthermore, without any new abilities to master, you'll end up playing your character pretty much the same way throughout the entire campaign.
Another feature that was altered very little from the first Borderlands is the game world. Borderlands 2's environments are much more diverse, to be fair, but they're just as desolate. There's very little reason to explore this game world; it's just something pretty you drive back and forth through in order to get to quests. You have no incentive to stop and fight a random group of enemies or investigate an interesting building, because you can't get credit for whatever quests are attached to them without picking up said quests in town first.
Driving, and puzzling over the crappy in-game map, will take up a good chunk of your playtime. The vehicles, by the way, aren't all that different from the previous game. Stepping into them essentially turns Borderlands 2 into an arcade game: run over enemies, shoot your turret, push the speed boost button, etc. There's a fast travel system to use, too, but the "stops" on this system are few and far between. A Skyrim-like fast travel system that lets you transport immediately to any location you've visited before would be appreciated. I'd even settle for town portals like in Diablo; that would compensate for the fact that you need to run back to town to accept/complete quests, sell items, or buy upgrades. This open world doesn't feel like part of the game; it feels like a wrapper you need to peel off in order to enjoy the game. I found myself skipping many side quests simply because it's a pain in the ass to drive to them. That's really unfortunate because some of the side quests in this game are actually very entertaining.
Borderlands 2 is an extremely entertaining shooter RPG but the RPG part of that equation needs some work. If you set your game in a vast open world, you should actually put something in that world. If you give players character progression options, you should make these options meaningful. It's sad to see the potential of Borderlands 2 being held back by issues that should've been addressed in the first game. Borderlands was the best shooter RPG around and by improving on that formula a bit, Borderlands 2 assumes the mantle. It could've been so much more, though.
Platforms: PS3, PC (reviewed), Xbox 360
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games