Review | 9/18/2012 at 12:01 AM

Borderlands 2 Co-Op Review

So you’d like to hear another story about Vault Hunters, eh?

Borderlands 2 may be the most anticipated game of 2012. I logged hundreds of hours into the original RPG/shooter while playing as several characters. I had very high expectations for Borderlands 2, and it met or exceeded most of them. Assemble your fellow Vault Hunters and prepare for a glorious return to Pandora.

As soon as I fired up the looter shooter I was greeted with a simultaneously understated yet kickass opening cinematic. My wife, and co-op partner for life, decided it warranted multiple viewings. We chose our characters, decked them out with a small selection of customization options, and began our new adventure. I picked Salvador the Gunzerker, because I like to move forward while killing things without the hindrance of thought. She chose the Commando, Axton, because she enjoys using automated turrets to obliterate her enemies while observing the chaos of battle.  Plus..."He’s hot." Her words, not mine.

Like its predecessor, Borderlands 2 is built specifically for cooperative play. The main menu doubles as a matchmaking lobby, displaying what your friends are doing, what classes they are playing, and what mission they are working on. Starting a local or online co-op session is simple. You can read all of the technical details of story progression, enemy scaling, loot, and leveling in our Co-Op FAQ. I’ll sum it up by saying that you can play online with up to four players, locally with two players via split screen, and the game supports combo co-op. This means my wife and I can play split screen with two other online players. We can even take our local game online with another couple who are also playing split screen. Yes, that’s four players on two systems. It’s the best double date ever, because I don’t have to leave the house. All of this is done through a magical drop-in/drop out system that boggles my little co-op loving mind. 

Here's the horizontal split orientation. We're playing online with four players on two systems.

Our story begins with- wait, wait, wait. I’m not going to ruin the story for you. You’ll want to experience it for yourself. While the original Borderlands had some great writing and colorful humor, at times it lacked direction and had a rather anticlimactic ending. Sure, the DLCs expanded on the fiction of Pandora, but the core game’s plot was a little disjointed.

Borderlands 2 still features the same absurd, over-the-top-humor. Non player characters (NPCs) are animated, making them feel like more than just a Bounty Board with a face. Some characters actually walk around Sanctuary, remedying the ghost town aura of part one’s New Haven, T-Bone Junction, and Tartarus Station. I felt much more invested in the plot of this game, and actually cared about what was happening to the characters. 

All of the major NPCs from the first Borderlands make an appearance, including some favorites from the DLC packages. You’ll encounter Claptrap, Scooter, Marcus, and many more, new and old. They’re all written well and often hilarious. This helps disguise the fact that most missions they'll send you on are simple fetch quests that include murderizing all the bad guys in the area. It's a game about looting and shooting things, what more could you want? The original Vault Hunters are also incorporated into the story, and they are used remarkably well. 

You are going to love to hate this guy. 

One of the shining stars of Borderlands 2 is Handsome Jack, the villainous, sharp-tongued leader of the Hyperion Corporation. While the original Borderlands lacked a proper antagonist, Jack is the perfect embodiment of an omniscient evil. His giant space station looms over Pandora like a hi-tech Eye of Sauron. He’ll frequently contact you through your ECHO device to hurl insults and mock your efforts. He reminds me of General Knoxx, only he’s far more pleased with himself.

Once we were armed and had talked to a few characters we sunk our teeth into the actual game. Like the first Borderlands, our action skills didn’t unlock until we reached level five. As soon as my Gunzerking skill popped I began to build the character that complimented my play style. Certain classes lend themselves toward particular strategies and weapons, but if you want to build a rocket Assassin or a shotgun Siren, feel free to experiment. You can always respec skill points for a small fee. 

The gameplay of Borderlands 2 is familiar, yet refined. I played the game solo, as part of a duo, and with three and four players. As a single player game, I found the game to be a satisfying treasure hunt. I took my time and explored the wilderness of Pandora. Gone are the brown junkyards and barren wastelands. Okay, there are still plenty of  junkyards and wastelands, but now green vistas and icy tundras break up the desolate landscapes. The lonely Pandoran twang of the music was familiar, and when the rhythm stepped up I knew I was in for a real fight. For my solo run I played as Zer0, the Assassin. His ability to snipe and displace using his Deception cloaking skill is great for solo play. Also, he’s a ninja. So there. 

The main menu screen doubles as a lobby system. It's also pretty cool in motion.

As I said before, I played as a Gunzerker with my wife. My reckless gameplay was complemented by her measured pace. Sure, she had to revive me all the time, but I prefer to look at it as if I’m giving her “bonus objectives.” Her Commando’s Sabre Turret was an asset in every fire fight, basically adding another player to the battle. The Gunzerker’s dual wielding skill supplied  much need aggro and concentrated firepower. The silly, at time overzealous banter between characters is back, and just as ridiculous. I lost it every time Axton asked Salvador, “Do you work out?” when my wife revived me. Borderlands 2 is a phenomenal couples game. (Non-couples will enjoy it, too!)

As you would expect, whenever an additional player entered the game the enemies would become noticeably more difficult. Their levels increased and they became more aggressive and harder to kill. More Badass enemy variants would also spawn in, and these monsters need immediate attention or else our whole party would have been wiped out.

When Nick joined the fray the pacing changed. He used his Siren’s Phaselock to control the flow of battle. The Phaselock dimensionally freezes an enemy, lifting it into the air and casting it in a purple aura. Whenever I saw a locked enemy I instantly focused my fire on them, because an enemy killed while in a locked state would drop health orbs for everyone in the party. They’re like a giant purple pinata full of life candy. When a fourth player joined, the battlefield became a symphony of chaos, gunfire, revivals, explosions, and death screams. 

Each character has specific skills in their tree that aids in co-op, such as the Commando's Phalanx Shield, the Assassin’s Death Mark, the Gunzerker’s Come At Me Bro, and the Siren’s Sweet Release. Each of these skills are beneficial to other players and add a little something to the co-op synergy. Players will gain the most benefits from a variety of stackable class mods that can affect team stats like accuracy and critical hit damage. 

This screen cap pretty much sums up our sessions. I'm being revived by my wife while her turret attacks Nick's Phaselocked enemy. I provide bonus objectives and moral support.

The enemies, be they human, human-ish, robot, or beastly, are much more crafty in this new version of Pandora. They flank your position, take cover behind shielded enemies, and throw grenades. Lots and lots of grenades. Most creatures can lob or spit a projectile at you, so be ready to change cover often. Creatures also feature injury animations, staggering and limping when their health bar is low. Some will even mutate into a deadlier version if they’re not finished quickly. There is also an increased visual variety of the enemy types. Yes, you’ll still see numbers and the red word “Critical” pour off their bodies and heads as you punish them. Everything feels much more alive - until you kill it.

After the corrosive mists had cleared, the shockwaves had subsided, and the fiery gibs had settled, we would all collect the spoils of war. Loot, XP, and currency was saved to each character profile. Story progress was also saved, so long as each player had already progressed to that point in the campaign in their own game. For more details, see our Co-Op FAQ.

You should be feeling some intense co-op love right now.

If you're familiar with Borderlands you’ll have no problem selecting missions, comparing loot, and leveling up your character. An easy “sort” function will allow you to ignore the missions you don’t want to track, and Claptrap has never, ever told us “new missions are available” at a particular Bounty Board. The menus even work well in split screen, whether you use vertical or horizontal alignment. You can magically switch screen alignment in-game. It’s beautiful!

Borderlands 2 is still all about the epic loot and the ridiculously stacking skill trees. You can visually inspect each incredible firearm with a click of the thumbstick. The early guns aren’t too impressive, but by level 20 you’ll have some really outrageous weapons. Fire, shock, corrosive, and explosive effects are all back, and now there’s a new element called “slag.” It is nasty. Discovering the right combination of firepower, elements, skill trees, and character mods is all part of the fun. If a mod adds points to a particular stat that increases it past the five point cap, it will be reflected in the skill tree. So yes, you’ll see six, seven, and eight “out of fives” in your skill tree, and it will tell you what item is giving you the power bonus. Gearbox has added a Bank and Stash system. This allows players to store weapons and trade between their own characters, as well as other players. 

Complete challenges, become a Badass.

Another fine new addition is the Badass Rank. This is a combination of the weapon proficiency bonuses and challenges from the first Borderlands. As you complete challenges, such as killing 50 midgets, or discovering all the locations in a certain area, you’ll be awarded Badass points. Earn enough points and you’ll gain a Badass token. These Badass tokens can be applied to list of stats, allowing players to add to their overall profile stat bonuses a few percentage points at a time. Your Badass Rank will remain persistent across all your characters in Borderlands 2.

I have two very small complaints about this new system. The display would flash messages scoring challenge progress and it would notify us when a challenge was completed, but it wouldn't let us know when we actually earned the token itself. (When you're a real Badass it takes several completed challenges to earn a Badass token.) We were constantly checking the menu to discover if we had earned a Badass tokens. They eventually became a pleasant surprise we would remember to check at the end of a session or whenever we leveled up. Also, we couldn’t see other online players’ ranks. What good is my thick and meaty Badass Rank if I can’t display it for everyone to see? 

Holy crap! Not only is Axton hot, he's gorgeous! Also, the menu screens work well, even in split screen. 

There are a few other minor problems with Borderlands 2. I noticed some lag in online play. It wasn’t bad, but it was a little irksome. There’s a big problem with loading textures, especially for ammunition pick ups. I even installed the game on my hard drive and didn’t notice much improvement. At one point while playing split screen the framerate almost rendered the game unplayable. This happened once in 30 hours of gaming, and since I didn't die, I'll forgive it. We also could not visually inspect guns in split screen play. We could still see their stats, but we missed out on some of the visual appeal of a full screen display. The driving elements and Fast Travel system are still pretty vanilla. The vehicles offer little in the way of customization, and occasionally we had to hike to get to the nearest transportation. At least there's a four player vehicle available a few hours into the campaign.

One of the biggest downers is that a second local player needs a Gold account to play online on the Xbox 360 version of the game. If the second player signs in as a guest the game won’t even save their progress. Player Two can play on a free Silver account and save their data, but the game will be taken offline. These complaints may seem pretty minor, especially to PS3 and PC players, but when a game is this good, the flaws stand out. 

Borderlands 2 is a superior title to the original game. The highly addictive loot and shoot gameplay remains largely unchanged, which is a great thing. The new story, character classes, enemies, and lands of Pandora offer a variety of  improvements over 2009’s offering. This may be the definitive co-op title for 2012. Simply put, if you enjoyed Borderlands, you’ll love Borderlands 2

The Co-Optimus Review of Borderlands 2 is based off the Xbox 360 version of the game. A copy was supplied by the publisher.