When I previewed Borderlands 2 in July I said that, come mid-September, the game would be an interesting critical challenge for reviewers. I thought it would be hard to express how a game can be both so utterly meaningless and disrespectful to players and yet also so more-ish and fascinating.
I was wrong. To explain that you only need to understand one thing about Borderlands 2 - money. I'll get to explaining why shortly.
First it's important to lay the groundwork for what Borderlands 2 actually is, which is mainly done by remarking how similar it is to the first game on all the broad levels. The action is still set on the planet Pandora, the game still carries a space-cowboy theme and you still start by choosing one of four adventurers who go off in search of, um, adventure.
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What's different this time around though is the presence of Hyperion, an evil mega-corporation which fits the western theme right down to its railway-building antics. Led by the abusive Handsome Jack, Hyperion is on Pandora to find and open a vault similar to the one you opened in the first game - but wants the spoils all to itself and so has been killing all the adventurers it can. It's by pure fluke that you manage to survive.
Who 'You' are depends on who you choose to be, of course. The four available characters are functional analogues to the heroes of the first game with a smattering of tweaks. Salvador is the tank-class and roughly equivalent to Brick from the first game, for example, with his new special ability being that he dual-wield any weapon in the game for a limited period. The others can meanwhile use holographic decoys, throw enemies in the air or deploy turrets.
Personally, I'm a fan of the turret.
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The RPG system fits firmly into the action-RPG mould, predictably enough. There's no option to talk your way around conflict or stealth through most missions; every upgrade you get boosts your ability to receive or deal damage. Even so, there's plenty of room for leaving a personal footprint on the type of violence you unleash. Axton the Commando may be a great frontliner, but bulk his turret skill up enough and he can step back to just a support role, for example.
One of the major new additions to the game is a new layer on top of the skill system which builds your 'Badass Rank'. This is presented as a series of tokens earned for completing certain arbitrary and meaningless challenges ("Kill 50 Humans", "Kill 100 Humans", etc) which can then be spent on core stats, such as reload speed or maximum health.
One of the other notably returning features is how difficult it is to die too. Fluff up a combat and you'll fall to your knees, with a few seconds to kill an enemy and get a regenerating 'Second Wind' - but fail that and you'll still respawn at a nearby checkpoint. The only way death really impacts you is as a loss of funds...
And, on that point, it's time to talk about money.