Borderlands 2 is a terrible game design. It’s boring, tedious, repetitive, and it never actually rewards the player. It’s obviously a successful design because people continue to play and enjoy it. But can you really, honestly say that it’s a great video game?
Hold on angry internet mob, put the pitchforks and torches down and lemme finish. I like both Borderlands 2 and its predecessor quite a lot and I think Gearbox’s latest is an across-the-board improvement. They’re fun, casual games that don’t really require much focused commitment or involvement other than spending a lot of time futzing around with character builds and all those oodles of weapons. Playing with friends is neat because you can shoot the shit while you shoot the bad guys. I’m glad that improvements were made like dropping those restrictive weapon specializations and adding the Badass goals and bonuses, which hugely increases the gameplay- and challenge. But both Borderlands are absolutely terrible designs along a couple of different parameters.
The obvious ones are laid bare just by playing the game for an hour. The story is barely more interesting than the first one and the game world remains oddly barren, lifeless and remote, despite decent character writing that too often mistakes “attempts to generate memes” for “good”. Personally, I’m pretty tired of characters being little more than quest dispensers in any game. That’s an aspect of MMORPGs that has consistently chased me away.
Quests are somewhat improved, a couple of them are a little more thoughtful and I like that some have optional goals. But by and large, it’s the same post-MMORPG find-and-fetch or kill X number of Y kind of affair. It’s still boring as hell to drive way the hell out to a waypoint and trundle around looking for an item you’re supposed to retrieve while shooting a bunch of bad guys that pretty much just run at you.
The gunplay is rudimentary at best outside of picking which shooting implement to use at a given time. Playing a Gunzerker makes the game feel almost like a Serious Sam title. Despite class abilities, extended elemental effects, and more enemy variety than the first game it’s still pretty basic, undynamic shooting action that really isn’t all that much fundamentally different from Doom. Or Castle Wolfenstein 3D.
Further, there are no RPG elements in the game despite claims otherwise. Fiddlefarting over whether to sell Gun A that does X damage and has Y% of this effect or Gun B which does X+1 damage but doesn’t have that effect but another is not role-playing. Nor is shopping for new class abilities with your new XP-purchased skill point. Those things are micromanagement, not role-playing.
More discreetly, Borderlands 2 sucks for the same reasons that the first one did. It’s the same silly, ultimately pointess loot grab where 99 percent of the loot you find is either not as good as what you already have, it’s something to give away to another player, or it’s more or less worthless. Shops are stocked with the same kind of junk with the occasional daily deal there to tempt to you sell off your entire backpack. And don’t get me started on clicking on Pandora’s countless lockers and storage boxes. I don’t consider wandering around and picking up $2 and a pack of sniper rifle bullets over and over again to be gameplay and it’s definitely not great gameplay. I almost grimace when I see a bunch of green lights from a distance. I know I’ll go over there, collect my two dollars and sniper rifle bullets, and move on. Like a Pavlovian dog.
But it’s the leveling and character development that keeps you playing, right? That’s great, but the development curve and sense of progression in the game remains completely screwed up- it’s too long, drawn out, and rewards perseverance and grinding rather than good play and player skill-building. It takes like 10 levels to even unlock your character’s core class ability. Levels are few and far between, it seems, and it feels like you are constantly chasing a game-changing function that never materializes.
In fact, that kind of summarizes a lot of my complaints with how Borderlands 2 is designed. It’s a hamster wheel game. You’re constantly trying to advance or find a great new gun, but when you do either it’s rarely more than a minor, incremental change. I can’t believe they haven’t figured out a way to monetize this endless chase for something slightly better. Maybe Borderlands 3 will have you buy BorderBucks with your credit card to increase the odds of finding a purple weapon. But for now you can pay the entry fee and just keep running and opening boxes between bouts of shooting, blissfully ignoring how empty the game actually is.
Of course, with co-op partners, it doesn’t feel quite so much like that and bear in mind that most of my time with the new game has been solo, although I played through every piece of the first game with a steady group. We didn’t bitch too much about the design. We talked about movies, family, politics, whatever instead. The game was nearly secondary. Focusing on the game as a single-player design reveals things that are still present in co-op- you just don’t pay as much attention to them. You also tend to blissfully ignore how tedious, repetitive, and workmanlike so much of the design is.
Of course, the great art direction and visual panache, coupled with some funny jokes helps to glosses over all of that ugliness and eventually the game bests you. It is addictive. You fall into a kind of a dull-eyed stupor and just enjoy it for what it is- a dumb shooter with a lot of guns, quests, and four very divergent character options. There’s nothing wrong with that for so long as you’re having a good time. The good news is that Borderlands 2 is more fun to play than its predecessor. There’s plenty of activities to do with it and many hours of them at that. But I’m not under the illusion that it is in any way a great or progressive video game design.