|Also available on PS3|
There were a lot of things that made Borderlands such a great game when it came out three years ago: the hardscrabble planet, the oddball characters, the hostile creatures, the diverse missions, the abundant loot, the powerful skill trees, and the novelty of all these things combined in a cooperative first-person shooter. In Borderlands 2, the novelty is gone, but all of the other elements are back and better than ever. This sequel doubles down on the successes of the original and shores up its shortcomings, improving the familiar formula and delivering dozens and dozens of hours of immensely entertaining gameplay.
Perhaps the most notable difference is that Pandora now feels like a vibrant, living place. What once was a lonely frontier planet populated primarily by savage men and feral beasts is, well, still a planet populated primarily by savage men and feral beasts. But it isn't so lonely anymore, thanks to an expanded cast of diverse and entertaining characters. Many familiar faces return, including the delusional robot, Claptrap; the hayseed mechanic, Scooter; and the bawdy vixen, Moxxi. The four playable characters from the first game are back as well, and they each play a robust role in the story (and have way more spoken lines than ever before). There are some delightful new additions too, such as the arrogant antagonist, Handsome Jack, and the teenage demolitionist, Tiny Tina. Random townsfolk also have a few things to say, no longer content with mute or monosyllabic responses, and even the bandits you fight have a broader range of context-sensitive taunts.
The huge amount of high-quality voice acting required to bring this world to life is fueled by excellent writing, which provides some genuinely nasty tirades and surprisingly tender moments amid the avalanche of laugh-out-loud funny lines. The breadth of personalities invigorates your adventure and makes Pandora a lively, engrossing place, the kind of place it fell short of being in the first game. The only drawback to the sheer volume of communication is that sometimes conversations are cut off by other incoming messages before you can hear them through. This doesn't pose any barrier to progression, but with dialogue this good, you don't want to miss a word.
If you apply this same philosophy to exploration, Borderlands 2 will keep you busy for a very, very long time. The environments of Pandora are more vibrant and diverse this time around, and the eye-catching artistic aesthetic is enlivened with a richer color palette and more clever details. Textures sometimes load sluggishly when you're entering new areas and occasionally look rough upon close inspection, but this is still a visually appealing world. Diligent explorers will find both lovely vistas and amusing sights--the humor of the writing extends into the environmental design as well.
There are tons of areas to visit during the course of your adventure, some of which you won't even see if you don't stray far from the main story missions. The mission system is one area in which small tweaks have a noticeable impact. The onscreen checklist updates you of any mission progress caused by your current actions, even if said progress isn't for your currently selected mission. You can also choose to ignore missions in the menu so that you don't have to constantly scroll past old leftovers to get to the ones you want. It's not necessary to pursue every last mission en route to the final boss, but to stay at a competitive level with your enemies, plan on doing a fair number of side missions. These endeavors are another great source of creativity and humor, including a logic puzzle to decide which of four thieves cheated the others, and the ludicrously simple task titled "Shoot This Guy in the Face."
In addition to missions, there is an expanded array of challenges. These goals are automatically tracked and reward you for actions like offing a certain number of skags or getting a lot of incendiary kills. New location-specific challenges give you further incentive to find hidden secrets in each area, and this extra layer of reward makes idle exploration more appealing. Every challenge completed increases your badass rank, which in turn gives you small bonuses to various attributes (such as gun damage, fire rate, and shield recharge delay) that apply to any character you create, not just your current one. Tweaking challenges and introducing cross-character bonuses aren't big additions to the game, but they serve as a nice acknowledgement of the fact that many players want to play as multiple characters. This overarching reward system is one of the many small improvements that make Borderlands 2 a more player-friendly experience than its predecessor.