Borderlands 2 (Sleepless) Review
Reviewed by: Guest_Jim_*
Reviewed on: October 4, 2012
Normally I am a reasonably intelligent person, but every now and then I do something probably best described as stupid. This last one I did is a playthrough of Borderlands 2, without sleep, and am writing this review also without sleep (though I have updated and edited it since then). Honestly, it seemed like a good idea when I thought of it, and I was not able to come up with a good reason to not do it. So here I am, going on about 39 hours without sleep, and about 29 hours, 40 minutes of that within Borderlands 2. Before actually getting to the review, I want to make something clear. My playthrough was not complete. I did finish the campaign (once, so aside from the After Sleep Updates, everything in this review refers to the Normal Mode playthrough and not True Vault Hunter Mode) but not all of the side missions. Also I did not always clear out areas, opting instead to sprint through them to save time.
Borderlands 2 is the sequel to the Gearbox Software 2009 game, Borderlands 1. The original Borderlands 1 almost defies classification based on common genres as it combines elements of action games, first-person shooters, and role-playing games. The developers combined the ideas of these distinct genres so well that to describe the game with an emphasis on one would be a disservice to the game. Borderlands 2 takes place on the same planet as the original game, Pandora, and includes many of the original characters, but the player plays as one of four (soon to be five) new characters. Many of the characteristics that made Borderlands 1 a success have been carefully brought back in their original form or after some evolution. I am choosing the word 'evolution' here because I do believe that a good way to describe Borderlands 2 is as an evolution of the original game.
Starting off with graphics because honestly, that should be the least important in a game like Borderlands 2. The marketing it has received has likely ensured everyone who would read this review has already seen gameplay stills and video, so I see no need to recover it.
I played with all settings on high, Anisotropic Filtering first at 4x then at 2x (will explain the change shortly), and Depth of Field was off (personal preference). My computer has a GTX 570 clocked at 797/1594/1950 MHz (core/shader/memory) with 1280MB of memory, a GTS 250 at 621/1890/1000 MHz, 4GB of system memory, an AMD Phenom II 720 x3 BE unlocked to run four cores at 3.2GHz, and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit as its OS. With that configuration, the vast majority of the game ran at what I would estimate as 60 FPS. I did not specifically run a diagnostic like Fraps to confirm this, but typically I can notice a change of just a few FPS from 60 FPS on my monitor.
There were times, however, that the framerate did noticeably drop. This occurred predictably in only certain locations (The Southern Shelf and Thousand Cuts specifically, for me at least), which suggests something about the areas was causing the stuttering. But this is good news as patches and driver updates could relieve this issue entirely for reasonably powerful computers. When I first experienced the stuttering, I dropped the anisotropic filtering from 4x to 2x, hoping it would help. It either did not help or had a minor impact, and I never bothered with changing it back.
At particularly intense game moments, there was also some stuttering, which is to be expected, and again we may see this fade away through software updates in the future. Twice, however, the game locked up and I had to force it to close. As this occurred first after 16 hours of the game being open and again 10 hours later, this could just have been the game needing to be restarted.
The actual appearance of the graphics was quite good but not always consistent. Perhaps it was my eyes getting tired but I am inclined to say some objects were of a higher quality than others. For example, the final boss is truly spectacular, but other characters look more like what we expect from Borderlands 1. Don't take that to mean the final boss looks out of place, it really does fit in, but it looked, to me, much better than other objects in the game. I guess one way to put it would be an HD image in what is otherwise an SD image or video. That is not to say the game is otherwise SD! Just that the difference in quality was that striking to me. Perhaps this is a better way to describe it. Lowering the graphics settings would hit the final boss more than any other enemy in the game.
There was one repeated instance where the graphics were simply subpar in my opinion. Borderlands 2, like its predecessor, features bandits as enemies and at one point attempts to distinguish between certain clans by the addition of a mask to the character model. This mask was just ugly to me. It looked flat and of a lower resolution than the rest of model. I have an idea of why it is like this, but it is such a speculation I'm not going to give it here.
Another thing that just annoyed me, but isn't really a problem or even lower quality, is the blood. It looks like a red cloud hanging in the air for a moment, as opposed to the gory splatter thrown up and out in the first game. It does look good, but it is also different, so I wanted to mention it.
I suppose I should also mention how the PhysX elements looked, especially since I have the GTS 250 specifically to run PhysX on my machine. It is not on par for realism with a game like Batman: Arkham Asylum, although that may be due to the differing artistic styles, but otherwise was the same for the level and kind of presence. Fluids, fabrics, and debris were all PhysX elements, which was actually a little annoying for me, when it comes to the fabrics. In the original Borderlands 1 the fabric covers to entrances of buildings or tents were something you could walk on. Now they are PhysX eyecandy, so you clip right through them. A minor inconsistency, yes, but one I noticed.
Also, at one point I spotted a missing texture, which I'm sure will be taken care of in a future patch.
That's all you're getting on graphics from me. If you want more information, check out the Borderlands 2 website or Gearbox Software YouTube channel for videos where your own tastes will shape your impression of them, instead of my choice of words.
Though I initially wanted to focus some on the sound of the game, when playing I forgot to listen carefully all of the time. When I did though, the music was always quite appropriate for the setting. The wasteland areas had music similar to that of the original game's wasteland areas while the sequel's more colorful environments had a more naturalistic and tribal sound to it, which was perfect for the area.
The voice work is also very well done and comes to you either from the speaking person or over the ECHO communicator. If you are near enough that you could hear the person's voice, you will hear it, but the further away the softer the volume. If you are out of earshot, the voice comes over the communicator, which is definitely a nice change from the original game when it was either a person speaking or an ECHO communication, but not both.
By the way, if you have the subtitles on and pay attention to them, you will notice there are some minor differences between them and the spoken word. Nothing major, but there are differences.
(99.9% spoiler free, but a spoiler substitute can be added, upon request)
The story of Borderlands 2 is set about five years after the opening of the Vault in the first game. You do get some information throughout the campaign and side-quests to fill in what has happened during those five years. For example, Lilith and Roland apparently dated for a time, as did Mordecai and Moxxi, but both relationships eventually fell apart for their own reasons. The important information though is that after the Vault opened, the element Eridium began growing like mad across Pandora. The unique properties of this material make it very valuable, which is how Handsome Jack took power. He claimed to be the one who opened the Vault and used the money from the mineral to fund the Hyperion Corporation as it rules the planet. Actually, given his personality, it would be more accurate to say he ruled the planet while Hyperion supplied the force to maintain whatever order he wanted.
While playing the campaign you also learn how the two base-games stories are tightly linked. The simplest way to put it, without spoiling anything, is that there are important reasons why so many of the original game's characters are in the sequel.
Some of these links, however, I feel actually hurt the story. Details in Borderlands 2 lead you to reshape how you view the events of the first game, but I personally feel that is unnecessary and almost cheapen the story of the original game. Perhaps the sequel's story was already basically fleshed out when Borderlands 1 was in development, so the information presented in Borderlands 2 actually reveals what was hidden to us in the first game, but that is not how it felt to me. It felt more like the sequel was revising the original game, instead of revealing, but I feel the original game's story was good on its own. I also believe Borderlands 2's story is good too. It is the, I will say, forced linking I do not care for. If instead of having the sequel literally built atop the foundation of the original, it instead grew its own foundation in addition, I would be much happier. I do feel that would have been possible to do, though to do so may have required more exposition and character introduction/development than Gearbox could dedicate to the title.
Let me repeat that I enjoyed the story of Borderlands 2 and it feels good on its own. It is only the linking with the original Borderlands 1 story I have any issue with. Of course I am not a study of the Borderlands 1 mythos beyond the games, so I may have absolutely no clue what I am talking about in addition to being sleep deprived.
One last thing about the story though. The ending was very good for what Gearbox likely wanted it to be — the beginning of more.
After Sleep Update: I've played some more of the side missions which better explain the links between the two games, and I think I've figured out why exactly I do not care for some of them. It appears that Gearbox was trying to validate the ending of the first game, with the Vault being a prison for an alien monster. Not everyone liked that ending, so they wanted to give that some meaning by tying it to this game. However, I have never had any issue with the end of the first game, so these links actually cheapen the experience of defeating the Destroyer in Borderlands 1 for me.
Now we can get to the stuff that actually matters when purchasing a game. If you want a story you can get a book and if you want fancy graphics you can watch a modern movie.
Several things have been added to or altered for the sequel. The entire HUD, for example, has been changed, largely for the better. Honestly though, I think the actual inventory interface of the original game was better. This one, though prettier and smoother, takes more clicks to get the job done. For example, in the original game you had what was in your inventory on the left and equipped on the right. To equip an item took just two clicks. In Borderlands 2 to positions are flipped and are not on the same page together. You are either viewing the equipped items or the inventory. To equip an item you must select it, or the already equipped item to swap them, then either press the button to equip it or click over on the Equipped page, which is pushed back and out of focus, and then you select the spot to equip the item. While both methods are intuitive, the original was simpler and I do not understand why it changed like that.
After Sleep Update: Also, the new inventory is supposed to feature drag-and-drop functionality now, but I found this to be poorly executed. Sometimes I would click and drag to have the game only register the click and other times I would click and the game thought I was clicking and dragging. To further annoy me, the order of items in the inventory would change after clicking on an item, so if the click did not register correctly, I would have to spot the item again.
Obviously, that and many other things I am going to mention here are not reasons to avoid the game. They are just observations of mine about the game.
Another change, and this one is definitely a positive evolution, is the automatic pickup of money, health (if needed), and ammo (if needed). This did exist in Borderlands 1 as well, but only when driving, as it would be too inconvenient to require a player get out of a vehicle to grab some cash. Unfortunately, this feature did not consistently work for me, but I strongly suspect that this will be fixed soon. My completely unfounded guess is a similar problem was found in testing and the developers thought they fixed it because it was not present in their limited, official testing. Once you hit the market though, you have a much larger testing pool, and what you thought was fixed may turn out to not be.
Also, here is a criticism of the auto-collect system. Borderlands 2 introduces a second economy based on Eridium, but for some reason Eridium is not automatically picked up like other the other non-weapon items. I don't have a guess for why this is like that, but I do hope a patch changes that, if only for consistency and not function.
Speaking of Eridium, let us talk about what it is used for. In the original game you could use your cash to buy capacity increasers or earn them through quests ('carry X many more sniper bullets' of 'add Y more slots to your backpack'). In Borderlands 2, Eridium is used, exclusively, for the purchasing of these items. That is with the exception of some backpack upgrades that come from character development. So no more rescuing damaged Clap Traps.
After Sleep Update: I now have the opinion that the Eridium economy was not well thought out for the base game, though perhaps a future DLC will fix this. Effectively there is unlimited Eridium in the game (though you can only hold 99 at a time), but there are only so many backpack upgrades to buy. Eventually you will find yourself with dozens of Eridium bars you can do nothing with. Simply being able to sell these bars would be useful or having an open-ended use for them. One idea I'm sure many players would enjoy is the ability to reroll an item's stats to your level. The cost could be high, but it would definitely be appreciated to breathe new life into an old gun. Might not happen, but wouldn't that be nice?
Driving has also evolved, but I can't say it is completely positive. It is not negative though. The driving mechanics appear to now have rules to strictly forbid a vehicle landing on its side or upside down, no matter what crazy stunt you are attempting. Also these stunts are even crazier now as you have the ability to power slide on non-smooth surfaces. Several times I cut a turn too tight and end up turning way to far because the vehicle started power sliding on an incline or bump. With practice, I'm sure a player can adapt to it, but likely they will just avoid powersliding at first.
Finally, the thing that Borderlands 1 is perhaps best known for: its weapons. With a more careful examination of the game, there could probably be a full review of the weapons alone for all their differences do. At first you will take what you can get, but before long you will start looking for specific weapon brands for that one ability you like or do not like. For example, Jakobs guns can be fired as fast as you can click the mouse while Tediore guns are thrown as grenades (or drunken rockets in the case of the rocket launcher) to reload them. With my fast click, and macro-enabled mouse, I definitely enjoy the Jakobs guns, but the Tediore weapons don't work well with my play style. I'm one of those guys that has to have everything topped off, so I will reload a weapon when it is missing a single round from a clip. Well, if you do that with a Tediore, all of the rounds still in that clip are lost in an explosion. Perhaps the most annoying part of it though is the actual throwing. If I were aiming the gun at the head of an enemy for critical hits, it would be tossed over the enemy's head when reloading, wasting that grenade-action. I do not know if there is an easy software-side fix for that, but if this annoys you too, just be sure to aim down when you get to the end of the clip. Actually doing that saved my life a few times with the Second Wind feature.
Of course, 'Second Wind' is back in Borderlands 2, but now you have the added ability to crawl as you bleed out. However, while you can throw Tediore weapons, even filled with ammo, you are still not allowed to throw grenades when bleeding out.
One thing I noticed, and am very glad to see, is that if you fail to get a second wind and respawn, you can actually get ammo back. I actually died a few times without sniper ammo, or something, and when I respawned I had more than a clip. Definitely useful for longer battles when you may run out of ammo and die. Now, I may be mistaken, but I do not recall that being a feature of respawning in Borderlands 1. You will not receive grenades, however, so be careful when you use them because you may lose them
Ammo actually proved to be an issue with me at times, but I suspect that it is a special issue. Chests, and the ammo they contained, did not reset for me throughout the playthrough. If I opened an ammo chest once, it was open until the game restarted itself. Leaving and returning to the area did not refill them.
Another new feature that you may be looking forward to is the Badass Rank system. Simply put, it is a player leveling system, rather than a character leveling system. As you play and complete challenges, like getting 500 headshots for example, you get Badass Points that lead to Badass Ranks. With each rank comes a token that can be put into a stat, such as weapon damage. The first point gets you a 1% bonus, the second gets you a 0.7% bonus, then 0.6%, and finally 0.5%, which appears to be the minimum Badass bonus.
After Sleep Update: Having played more, after five 0.5% Badass Points into a category, the bonus is only 0.4% per point. Not sure what the minimum increase is, but it looks like Gearbox does not want someone to be able to just pour many hours into one character, to then start a new god-like character.
The only criticism I can really give the Badass system I feel may also be the worst it could receive, without the presence of a crippling bug (which I did not find if there was one). (After Sleep Update: I wrote this the day after the game released, which was before the reset bug was found. From what I've learned, this bug is rare, so I would not suggest this deter you from playing.) The Badass system is not very present in the game. What I mean is there is no reminder of Badass Points, past the notice when you obtain them. Skill Points, for comparison, are indicated by one's action skill being highlighted. Of course the Badass Points are less important, but I feel even a small indicator would be appreciated as there were times I was curious and checked to find I had five or more points to allocate. I simply believe that should not be the case. Also, the lack of an indicator almost makes it look like the Badass System was an afterthought when developing the game, as it is not thoroughly incorporated into the game.
Something I heard about before the release of the game was a change to the quest system. Now the goals of a quest can change on the fly, so if you need to kill five enemies, but then you find out you killed the wrong ones, the HUD's information for the quest will update for you, without you having to turn in the quest. This is a double-edged sword in my opinion. It definitely helps with quest design and making questing smoother, but there is a catch to it as well. One quest can now last a lot longer by having the intermediate goals change on you. It's like picking up a book for a quick read, and when you think you're halfway done, magically new chapters are added and that quick read is going to be a larger investment than you thought. As I did the playthrough without any sleep though, I may be one of the few who even notice this. Perhaps it would be better to consider this an informative criticism, instead of a judgmental criticism. There is the potential for this ability to be abused, though largely it was not, and I hope the Gearbox team is careful to not abuse it. After all, the sense of accomplishment does not come from finishing a chapter, but from finishing the book.
These next two issues are likely even less important than the last one, but since I'm writing this review, I can mention them if I want! (Insert editor's comment from Bosco saying, "Hello News Editor, I'm the Owner of the site! Take that and get back to work.") Both of these were present at the very beginning and just bother me. The first is something few of you will experience as you got the game on Steam or for a console, while I got a physical PC copy.
Borderlands 2 uses Steamworks, which means it has to be activated in Steam with a key. This key is printed on the back of the disk-booklet, at the bottom, but there is no identification of it. If you are new to Steam or game keys, you would have no idea what that is or that you need it. As many people also do not even look at the booklet, the issue grows. I do not believe this is a Gearbox problem though, but a 2K problem, as they published the game.
This second issue is probably more of a peeve and I know everyone has experienced it. I hate launchers! Seriously, I don't want a launcher when I click to play a game, I want the game. Integrate that news feed into the game menu and let us play! I hate being delayed before games so much that I even remove opening videos when I can. Those short ones like the Nvidia logo, 2K logo, and Gearbox logo I don't see, because those few seconds are seconds I could be using to headshot a bandit and pick up a new gun.
Yeah, they're both minor issues, but that's part of the point. They are so minor, why not fix them? Have a launch option to skip the launcher and label the necessary key in the booklet. Or maybe for the key just have it say on the window that asks for it, "If you are installing from a retail disc, the activation key can be found on the back of the included booklet." A single sentence to relieve that issue, and it was not there, or if it was it was too small for someone who was actually looking for it to notice.
After Sleep Update: I experienced this some in the first playthrough, but it seems to have become exacerbated during the second playthrough. There are several occasions when it greatly feels like the game has been balanced for multiplayer and not single player, so if you intend to do both playthroughs solo, expect several uphill battles.
Primarily these issues come out in the boss fights where you have a single enemy that has a massive health bar, and every time you die, it resets. It does not matter how close to death they are, you will have to do all of that damage again. Now, you may be thinking, 'that is how single player games are,' but there are two points I would like to make about how Borderlands 2 is different.
Personally I can only think of a few single player games where you respawn instead of reloading from a save point upon death. The difference between these may seem insignificant, but in a hard boss battle, the distinctions are quite noticeable. Reloading from a save means everything about you at the time of the save is reinstated, including money and all ammo. The Borderlands 2 respawn system however always takes money, and typically restores some ammo, but never grenades. (It is worth noting though that I have seen myself respawn with more ammo than I had when I first passed the respawn point.) This means that it is not as simple as another attempt at the boss. Things have changed, and in at least one way, always for the worst (you lose money). Of course money is not a big deal in this game, but it is still irritating to be penalized for failure against a boss beyond just its health resetting. After having to respawn multiple times, this irritation grows into frustration.
The second point I feel is the more interesting of the two. Borderlands 2 also features multi-player and this changes the mechanics of any fight greatly. For this particular commentary, the important change is that an enemy's health does not reset when you die. In theory it would require all players dying at roughly the same time, but as I have not witnessed that, I cannot be certain. I do know that when one member of a group dies and respawns, they are able to return to the fight and pick up the enemy at whatever health they left it.
Because it is the presence of the additional players that causes this change in fight mechanics, and not the activity of the additional players, I feel I have to bring up these balance issues. If you were to have an AFK second player, which should cause the difficulty of the game to increase for multi-player balance, because enemy health would not reset upon your death, the actual difficulty would be less than solo-play. The second player may cause more enemies to spawn, and with slightly higher health, but as the enemy-health penalty no longer occurs upon your death, the challenge will effectively drop. For normal creatures on Pandora, this is not as great an issue, but against a boss, this could drastically affect how much out-game time it takes to defeat the boss, and how many in-game resources are lost. A solo player can see themselves having to make a much greater investment into a fight than a solo+AFK player, and this, I feel, is an example of poor single-player balancing.
However, it is very important to note that while Borderlands 2 does not have perfect single-player balancing, in my opinion, it is still better than some other games I have played which offer both single and multiplayer campaign experiences. In part this is because of the excellent random loot you can acquire in game and relative ease of leveling, so you can increase your deadliness before a boss fight. Of course the randomness of the loot can also be a problem. I, for example, have for some reason not often found weapons with shield-shredding electrical damage of the same quality as those that ignite or corrode enemies. I'm not sure why this is, but when taking on a shielded boss, the lack of such weaponry is painfully apparent.
That being said, I would like to say what I feel would be an acceptable solution for this and similar games (meaning they have a campaign that supports both single-player and multiplayer and a respawn instead of save-reload system for death). Instead of having a boss's health reset upon a solo-player's death, give the boss health regeneration. Now when the player dies, they can return to the fight with the boss roughly as near to death as it was before they respawned. What the health regeneration does though, if it is high enough, is keep out under-leveled players. After all, you do not want a level one player killing the final boss of a game just because they invested enough time. With enough health regeneration to overcome, only players at the appropriate level may defeat any given boss. Those players at the appropriate level may have a longer battle, but, aside from the greater amount of damage potential, the battle dynamic itself will be the same for both single players and multiple players (assuming the health regeneration is present for both single and multi-player). Such parity should beget balance, especially with careful manipulation of the numbers involved (initial health and regeneration rate, for example).
Again, for the majority of Borderlands 2 there is no issue with single player balance, evidenced by the fact I was able to complete the entire first playthrough of the campaign without any help. The second playthrough is proving to be much more difficult though, but is still manageable after many money-draining respawns, some curses, and some prayers. I simply believe those conditions should not be unique to single player.
Though much of what I've written above is criticizing the game, I would definitely recommend it. Borderlands 2 is a very good game that, at worst, one could say requires more polish, but even then this polish is the kind that may not even be recognized as needed before launch. Thus is one of the challenges of game development and a healthy thing to keep in mind when getting a game on its release day. Of course I do believe a game should not have these minor issues when it releases, but I respect the fact that for every minor issue we see, there was at least one major issue we will never experience.
I will even go a step further in my recommendation of Borderlands 2 by adding this. Despite playing for 29 hours and 40 minutes, with breaks only for food, water, and restroom visits (no coffee, yuck), I do not feel burned out by the game at all. I look forward to getting back in there and making my Zero as overpowered as possible, as well as getting another character or three started. After all, I've got a bunch of side quests still to finish, and can't leave those sitting in the queue! Also the True Vault Hunter mode beckons me.
After Sleep Update: The day after I completed that playthrough, I ended up staying up until after 1 AM because I lost track of time doing side quests. There really was no burnout for me, even after those 30 hours.
Oh, and if you're looking for a number score for this game, go somewhere else. I am both unwilling and unable to award a quantitative score to a qualitative item. The best you're getting is what I give you above: it is very good; I would definitely recommend it; and after a 30 hour, sleepless playthrough, I am still playing and enjoying it.
PS: The Crawmerax replacement is big… really big.