While playing through a New Game Plus of Borderlands, I realized that despite the game’s deep flaws (lack of story, phoned-in sidequests, a horrendous PC port), I was actually thoroughly enjoying the game. I was caught in the grip of a neverending quest where the driving mechanic is the hunt for a better gun. I played both single-player and co-op found them equally fun (single-player because I could go at my own pace, co-op because I loved covering my buddy’s ass…uh, so to speak).
Despite Gearbox’s claims to the contrary, Borderlands 2 is almost the exact same game as its predecessor, so I was very surprised to come to the realization that I simply don’t enjoy the sequel as much as the original. Borderlands 2 benefits greatly from a much more engaging story, more fleshed-out NPCs (in Ellie’s case, piles and piles of flesh), and funnier jokes. The slag weapons are a great addition to co-op play and the steps they’ve taken to really differentiate the gun brands (both functionally and aesthetically) are admirable. But beyond these minor additions, Borderlands 2 is proof that Gearbox hasn’t learned from their mistakes and has actually managed to turn this sequel into a game that’s somehow less fun than its predecessor.
I’ll be clear: I actually like the juvenile writing of Borderlands 2, which seems to be a major point of contention among some highbrow review sites. It doesn’t always work, and when it fails, Dave Thier accurately likens it to that annoying friend we all have that tries too hard to be funny, fails to bridge the gap between “crude” and “humour,” and calls it a day. But I’ve smirked at enough of the game’s one-liners to judge the writing enjoyable. Not every game writer can be an Erik Wolpaw; there’s a place in the video game world for guys like Anthony Burch too.
No, my frustration stems not from Borderlands 2’s writing, but from its actual gameplay, enemy design, and mission structure. First of all, the game is much, much harder than its predecessor, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. The original Borderlands straddled the line between satisfying and difficult almost perfectly, while the sequel skews the balance heavily toward the latter. I died a lot in single-player, and playing co-op wasn’t much easier since the difficulty ramps up considerably with extra players. Like the original, checkpoints are few and far between, and quitting the game restarts you at the beginning of the area, not at your last checkpoint. Conserving ammo has become immensely difficult thanks to the fact that the more powerful weapons now consume 2 or more bullets per shot.
Part of the increased difficulty is due to some truly annoying enemy designs. Constructors (especially the first one you face) are nearly impossible to take down solo, with their bullet-deflecting shields, constant add spawns, heatseeking aerial missiles (making most cover useless unless there’s a roof over your head), tracking lasers, and nearly-unavoidable nukes. Suicide Psychos and EXP Loaders run way too fast and cause way too much damage when they explode. Buzzards are the “severely irritating flying enemies” of this game, and as anyone who’s ever tried to kill a fast-moving aerial enemy in an FPS using a console controller will tell you, it’s difficult to peg these guys with such an aggressive auto-aim mechanism. Even Spiderants, already supremely irritating enemies in the original, have become much harder to kill, with their armor and their daze resistance both getting upgrades. Of course, not all the new enemy designs are bad; repeatedly shooting a Goliath in the gut while desperately hoping the gun’s kick doesn’t accidentally walk the stream of fire up to his cranium is an incredibly tense feeling, and it’s a fantastic subversion of the FPS gamer’s natural tendency to always go for the headshot. Getting criticals on Hyperion robots by blowing their limbs off is also satisfying, even if the hitboxes are frustratingly small.
Borderlands 2 has received accolades for its open-world game design, but if there was ever a game that could’ve benefited from some linearity, it’s this one. The game is huge, much more expansive than the first in terms of areas to explore and environments to travel. Because the maps are so large and Fast Travel warp points are so few, getting anywhere is a huge pain, especially when sidequests are rarely ever located next to Fast Travel stations. Another problem is that quest markers usually indicate the endpoint of a quest rather than the entrance to the appropriate bandit camp or cave, which resulted in me pointlessly scanning cliff faces and following scaffolding to a potential entry staircase (only to have my hopes dashed and remain stumped as to how to progress the quest) on more than one occasion. The Dust and the area with the Firehawk cult quest are the two worst offenders so far, with the latter being one of the worst-designed quests I’ve ever come across in any game.
Proper quest marking should lead the player to the entrance of the quest area, then from point A to point B to point C until the endpoint is reached; it should not simply show the endpoint and assume the player will figure out how to get there unless it’s very obvious how to do so. The Firehawk cult quest places the quest marker on one side of the map, with several obvious paths to get there…until you go there, and discover they’re all blocked by impassable cliffs. I spent nearly an hour looking for alternate routes before I found one that wraps all the way around the entire map before looping back to lead to the quest marker. This is open-world design done wrong; if you’re going to design a horribly convoluted method of proceeding to a quest marker, you need a linear method of leading the player through the intended path.
Once you actually get to the quest marker, it’s a crapshoot as to whether you’ll actually find the fetch quest item you’re looking for. Most items are so small that they’re nearly impossible to find in an area saturated with bandit corpses, ammo cartridges, and hyper-detailed background elements. Gearbox shows the player what to look for using one of two methods: by highlighting the item in glowing dark green (which blends into the background too well to be useful) or by bathing the item in a white pillar of light (which is the same colour and visual effect used to indicate a bottom-tier weapon or ammo drop, thereby wrongfully prompting the player to ignore the item). And that’s if you’re lucky enough to have a quest indicator that precisely shows you where items are located; some missions inexplicably require you to search a large area for the required items, and the only indication of where they might be found is a “big-ass circle” on your map, as Claptrap accurately puts it. This makes sense for quest items looted from enemy mobs, but not for items sitting on shelves in bandit camps.
The original Borderlands was pretty long if you were planning on hitting all the sidequests, but I found the length within my comfort zone for an RPG, and I didn’t mind doing the sidequests because each one brought me to a new area of the map. By comparison, the sidequests in Borderlands 2 are the worst kind of padding. Several of them require you to trek back through story areas you just completed, respawned enemies and all. When I complete an area of the map, I’m done with it; I don’t want to see that section of the game again for a long time, if ever, and I certainly don’t want to immediately go back through it to complete a sidequest that should’ve been given to me before I ever set foot in that area. Stuff like this artificially inflates the game’s running time without applying a proportional increase in enjoyment level.
It’s not difficult to see why these design choices were made. Recent Nintendo games like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Super Mario 3D Land were criticized by hardcore gamers for their handholding measures, while Final Fantasy XIII was criticized for its linearity, and the single-player campaigns most modern FPSes continue to be criticized for their short length. Conversely, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls were praised for their high level of difficulty, while Red Dead Redemption received many accolades for its open-world design, and Skyrim received GOTY honours for its impressively long campaign. Gearbox is more in tune with the hardcore gamer community than many other developers, so they likely took these criticisms to heart and made a game that would undoubtedly give the hardcore gamers little to complain about. The problem is that those complaints weren’t directed at Borderlands per se, and the game was already incredibly well-balanced in the categories of difficulty, linearity, and length; they essentially fixed what wasn’t broken. Gearbox may have made a game better aligned with the values of “hardcore gamers,” but in doing so, I fear they’ve turned Borderlands into a game I can no longer enjoy.