Strung out on Borderlands 2

This isn't easy for me to say, so I'll just come right out with it: I have a Borderlands 2 problem. Thanks to playing until the wee hours of the morning several nights this week, I'm running a serious sleep deficit. I kept telling myself the late nights were necessary to get a good enough sense of the game to write this blog post, but that's only partly true. The fact is I'm an addict. Right now, Borderlands 2 is my drug.

The depressing thing about this admission is that I thought I'd kicked the habit. You see, I'd already experimented with the original Borderlands. After sinking a good chunk of my life into the game, I burned out and dropped it cold turkey. The Borderlands high was no longer enough to distract me from the cold realities of the game, specifically the labor-intensive looting and relentless mission grinding required to keep progressing.

When Borderlands 2 came out, I thought I could play responsibly and quit any time. Big mistake. Bags hang heavy under my eyes, yet I'm still plotting to stay up and play a bit more tonight. Too bad I won't be able to use "research" as an excuse anymore. Doling out Critical Hits would be a good way to decompress after writing, though. Addicts are good at justifying their behavior.

After my experience with the first Borderlands, you'd think I'd have built up a resistance to the game's central hooks. Turns out I'm just better at noticing when I succumb to them.  A couple hours into the sequel, I caught myself chasing the dragon again, compulsively looting in the hopes that the next body, the next crate, the next toilet would hold some exotic new weapon or item. Attempts to stay up and play just one more mission inevitably turned into longer quests for enough XP to reach the next level. I can't help myself.

At this rate, it seems inevitable that I'll burn out again. Borderlands 2 is, after all, quite faithful to its predecessor. Gearbox might as well have called the game More Borderlands, because that's exactly what it is. The formula has been refined a little, but the sequel is essentially the same only on a grander scale. In some ways, that's a very good thing.

I loved Borderlands' open world, and Pandora is even bigger this time around. Although the landscapes feel vaguely familiar, there's definitely more variety in the terrain, particularly early on. That said, the actual environments are relatively spartan. In the years since the first game, I've been spoiled Rage's richly detailed wastelands.

While Rage strives for realistic graphics, Borderlands 2 sticks to the pseudo-cel-shaded treatment introduced with the franchise. This graphical style's hard edges have been smoothed out thanks to the addition to FXAA support, and splashes of eye candy have been added through a handful of lighting and other effects. Still, it's clear you're looking at a game designed with console constraints in mind. A lot of the textures are blocky and pixelated, a stark contrast to the high-res surfaces on display in some of the latest PC games. No wonder Borderlands 2's installed footprint is less than 6GB.

Fortunately, the cartoonish graphical style softens the blow of the relatively low-fidelity assets. The excellent art direction produces great visuals even if the graphics aren't pixel-perfect. It feels like Gearbox's artists had more freedom to be creative in Borderlands 2. Maybe they've simply grown more comfortable with the stylized graphics. The designs are bolder, and there's more diversity in everything from the architecture to the characters.

The sheer number of characters is way up in Borderlands 2, whether they're enemies charging with guns blazing or friendlies trying to convince you to take on another side quest. The varied enemies provide fodder for more interesting combat, and the NPC interactions make the world feel more alive. A lot of those NPC conversations provide additional context for the larger narrative, adding depth—or at least breadth—to the story.

To be honest, the story hasn't really grabbed me. The dialog is fantastic, though. Borderlands 2 is peppered with genuinely funny one-liners that don't feel forced or horribly out of place. The offbeat humor is of the more mature variety; if this were a cartoon, it would probably air on Adult Swim.

At its core, Borderlands 2 is a first-person shooter with solid mechanics and old-school sensibilities. The open world affords players a certain degree of freedom in how they approach each enemy encounter, which is a nice change of pace from the linear, heavily scripted sequences that have come to permeate modern campaigns. Rather than being led through the game, players can choose their own adventure—and just the right gun for the situation.

Borderlands 2 has guns. Lots of guns. Too many guns, in fact. Much like the first game, there are countless variations on a handful of base weapons. The behavior of each one is unique, but they're far more similar than they are different. The worst part is figuring out which guns and other items to carry in your limited inventory. Managing the contents of your painfully small backpack is a constant struggle, since each new level unlocks a new suite of more powerful guns and accessories to pick up. The baddies get upgraded, too, ensuring that those who don't keep up are quickly outgunned.

While it's tempting to blame the tedious inventory management on Borderlands 2's RPG influences, the other aspects of the game's alternate personality are much better implemented. Gearbox has managed to add more character customization options without making the process of tweaking your Vault Hunter cumbersome. Having the side quests better integrated with the narrative makes leveling up feel like less of a chore, too. The missions are still formulaic, but at least there's more motivation behind them.

There are other things I don't like about the game, of course. Steering vehicles with the mouse still feels fundamentally wrong, and I had to edit one of the config files to tweak a sluggish LOD routine that caused some textures to appear blurry momentarily before sharpening up. Also, I can't shake the feeling that a lot of the game is set up for co-op play rather than solo questing. Fortunately, my assassin is pretty badass on his own. Indeed, I have the Badass Tokens to prove it.

So far, the Borderlands 2 buzz feels stronger than the high of the original game. Some of the rough edges have been smoothed out, and there's a certain confidence to the presentation—even a hint of swagger. Gearbox knows full well the potency of what it's dealing. At least for now, I'm still buying.

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