I’ve been playing Borderlands 2 for something like a month now, around my busy social calender and, you know, having a job. It is the gift that keeps on giving, with endless hours of dramatic scenery to blast through with an infinity of guns. However — and you might hate me for this, but I’m going to go out there and do it anyway — I’m going to accuse Borderlands 2 of having too much content.
I know, I know, it must sound odd coming from me. I’m not totally invested in measuring the value of a game by the number of hours of life it consumes, but it’s a convenient baseline and it is easy to smell a rat when a game is over in five minutes and you’ve paid top dollah for it.
Borderlands 2 is, however, at absolutely no risk of that. It goes on, and on, and on, and on — and then there are the four DLC campaigns on top of that. It’s got plenty of space to drop things without impacting its value proposition in the slightest.
The apparently relentless pursuit of scale in games has always confused me. The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall boasts something like 160,000 square kilometres, even to this day one of the most massive gameplay spaces ever (pre-)generated and sold to the public. The problem with Daggerfall is that all of that space is meaningless — the actual story of the game takes place in five or six locations. The space is an illusion. Wouldn’t it be better to have a smaller, denser and more tightly crafted game than a sprawling emptiness? Well, we got Morrowind after that, and although Morrowind is not exactly small, it is still a comparatively miniscule and hand-crafted affirmative to that question.
The first Borderlands game is on a scale comprehensible to its players. It sends you through sequence of open places that are dramatic and striking but with obvious borders and landmarks. Opposite to Daggerfall, however, is that its openness is the illusion here, because there is a golden path through level-appropriate encounters despite how wide the overworld spaces might appear. Step off that path and you’ll either waltz through a hail of lesser enemies or get stomped by bruisers twice your level.
Borderlands 2 is still on a scale comprehensible to its players, but it has expanded vastly. The extra fluff makes the plot more engaging and generally amusing, and the environments are much more varied across the length of the game, so the increased girth is much appreciated.
Having the omnipresent villain in Handsome Jack is a masterstroke that keeps the conversation far more consistently flowing, and therefore stops the narrative from getting lost in the lengthy dungeons (deftly avoiding the trap that Darksiders 2 fell into when upscaling from its first game). Then when he’s not bitching, your own allies and quest-givers will chime in more frequently than ever before.
But while the game has managed to upscale the narrative elements to match the wider geographic range, the balance curve unfortunately seems to have suffered. There are far more difficulty spikes… Well, “spike” is the wrong word here: some areas simply don’t match their apparent level ratings, at least in singleplayer. Which means you need to overlevel yourself and that means grinding. I generally like doing all the side quests, but here they often come out absolutely necessary rather than a pleasant diversion.
Interestingly, the solution to this problem doesn’t seem to have been to adjust the numbers to bring these areas into line — it seemed to be to create even more “optional” content. The entire area of Lynchwood is the prime example; a level 30-ish area whose existence is only actually signalled by another side quest. Then you go into it and it has a sort of mini-campaign of side quests inside itself, completely unattached to the main plot but delivering vital experience points and loot.
All that enforced side content, of course, does start to distract from the main narrative track — undoing the good work that the omnipresent villain has done.
On the other hand, maybe it’s not a consequence of length and I’m talking out my arse. The guns have been heavily rebalanced too and it seems to have made quite a few of them kind of useless. Most shotguns cost 2 or 3 ammo to fire once, then require an immediate slow reload. Accurate burst-firing assault rifles pretty much don’t exist anymore, instead they are all bullet hoses. Scopes, already precious in the first game to counteract the lack of a decent crosshair, and now like gold-dust — and many scopes lack crosshairs anyway, so they don’t even help!
I can understand why they did it, I suppose. In Borderlands there was a lot of overlap between repeater pistols and SMGs and assault rifles, making your choice of which one to use more an accident of which one spawned first than a considered tactical decision. It’s just that, in enforcing more of a distinction for the sequel, they seem to have quietly dispensed with the styles of guns that I liked most.
Which leads me onto another balance note. In the first game there were challenges, in-game/in-character achievements that rewarded you with bonus experience points. Surf challenges right and you could get well ahead of the level curve. I can see why they did it — achievements are sometimes fun but they are also meaningless and intangible — but I can also see that short-circuiting your balance is possibly a bad idea. Do challenges remain “just for fun” with non-rewards, or are they factored into the level curve without really telling you they’re integral? It’s the optional/non-optional debate again.
Borderlands 2 does challenges slightly differently. This time, they net you “bad-ass ranks”, which are completely persistent between characters — hell, I started this run with over 10,000 bad-ass ranks left over from the first time around. Each bad-ass rank gives you a token to spend on negligible but infinitely cumulative bonuses, like fractions of recoil reduction or boosted shield capacity.
Since I want to play as a more old-school shooter, I’ve been sinking all my ranks into accuracy, recoil reduction and reload time, but curiously, despite having now accumulated quite tangible bonuses in these areas, the guns just don’t feel any different. Which makes me wonder — is the game’s loot generator now dropping worse weapons to counteract my bonuses? If I turned these bonuses off, which you can do, would these weapons that still take 4 seconds to reload now take an intolerable 10? Are these challenges pointless optional content or are they once again making a difference?
I’m not sure what my conclusion to all this is. I guess I’m noting that my perception of Borderlands and its sequel has kind of flipped around — there is so much more to Borderlands 2 but it also seems to be giving with one hand and quietly taking with the other. Borderlands you could quite happily accuse of being blands with its endless wash of brown, but within its confines it was — mechanically at least — hella tight.
Borderlands 2 is the gift that keeps on giving, sure, but I’d rather have had fewer gifts built with more finesse than truckloads of furniture still in need of polish.