Welcome back to Pandora, vault hunter!
There have been a few changes since you were last here; a fellow by the name of Handsome Jack, he's running the planet now. Not only has he taken credit for the actions of the vault hunters from Borderlands, Jack's convinced that there's another vault out there - and he'll do everything to stop anyone who gets in his way.
Your character in Borderlands 2 is also a vault hunter, new to Pandora, and also focused on the fame and glory that would come from finding that second vault. But as the story progresses, and Jack's heavy-handed presence is felt everywhere, your goals start to shift from the initial one of treasure-hunting, to trying to stop Jack from completely taking over the planet.
You have a choice to play as Axton, the commando, who makes use of turrets while he keeps to cover; Maya, a siren, with a phaselock skill that suspends enemies in mid air; Salvador, the "gunzerker", whose focus is on guns! And more guns!; and Zer0, a mysterious assassin who focuses on deception, both up close and at range.
Your character isn't on Pandora long before Jack's trying to make trouble. After he blows up the train you're on, a little robot called Claptrap (impossible to forget from Borderlands) rescues you and gets you to cover. Soon afterwards, you're contacted by the mysterious figure known only as the Guardian Angel, whose mission, it seems, is to help you bring Handsome Jack down (and hopefully find the next mysterious vault).
Your first big task? Rescue the four heroes from the last Borderlands game. These guys are helping the resistance against Hyperion and Handsome Jack, and if you really want to take Jack down, you'll need these dudes on your side. While you can't actually play as any of these old characters, as NPCs with back stories and missions for you, there's still a lot to learn about them as you progress through the game.
So that's the backstory, whew. How does Borderlands 2 play? If you enjoyed the first game, then there's no doubt that you'll love the second. B2 has the same same bawdy, raucous, fast, and frenzied shooting style, as the first, but with more guns (if you can believe it!), better enemy AI and tactics, and cool new character skills.
The number of guns in Borderlands was overwhelming in terms of sheer quantity, but a bit of a letdown in terms of actual gun variety. B2 has taken greater care with this in ensuring that different gun manufacturer's products have a cohesive look and feel; for example, the Jakobs guns all have a real wild-west look and feel about them, while Bandit guns look like they've been strapped together from all sorts of junk with duct tape - although they hold heaps of ammo. Hyperion weapons have the eerie ability to become more accurate the longer you hold down the trigger, while the junky Tediore guns are so crappy that once you've expended your ammo clip, your character will hurl the weapon at the enemy, causing it to blow up (while another magically appears - yay! - in your arms.)
Tactically speaking, there have been some real improvements to the elemental aspect of the weapons in B2 as well. Electrical weapons are great for wasting someone's shield, while corrosive weapons are what you want to use against Handsome Jack's metallic robots. If you hit an enemy with a new 'slag' (or Eridium)-based weapon, then other types of weapons in turn do even more damage. It's an awesome way to mix things up, and it also gives you good reasons to hold on to weapons of different elemental types.
The game world has had a revamp, with a new town called Sanctuary forming a bit of a player hub. The town, depending on who you speak to, is either the "last bastion of resistance" or "banditville", and it's where the Crimson Raiders, led by a guy named Roland, make their home. It also becomes a base for you as well, with options to bank a certain number of objects for later use, or even, thanks to Claptrap, stash things that can be shared across different characters.
There are still bandits and skags galore, but fortunately they aren't as prevalent in the last game. The new nasties this time around are Bullymongs, big ape-like critters with too many arms who know how to pack some serious punch. Plus of course there's all sorts of robots at Handsome Jack's beck and call, from the gun-toting type to seekers that fly around looking for enemies to heal.
Did I mention the improved AI? Instead of standing around stupidly waiting for you to pick them off from a lofty perspective, enemies will now clamber up after you. Or if you wing one, he won't stand around wounded - he'll instead stumble off to find cover. Battles now definitely feel more difficult, and many situations require a bit of extra thought and strategy to overcome. While no-one likes dying over and over again, it's nice to see that there are some really challenging moments that require a tactical response from the player.
The fun of taking on these new enemies with new weapons and elemental damage is amplified by the new character skills and abilities. In my play-through I chose to go with Zer0, who had a cool skill tree that allowed him to focus on either sniping, cunning, bloodshed, or a combo of all three. Sniping allows him to take a more removed position, but unlike Borderlands' Mordecai (hunter) character, Zer0's bloodshed skills let him totally dominate the battlefield when he gets into melee range.
His base ability, just called 'deception', allows him to disappear for a short time, while a holographic decoy continues to provoke the enemy. The longer Zer0 stays hidden, the more powerful his next attack will be. It feels a bit like Lilith's phasewalk skill from B1, but with more of a ninja stealth aspect to it.
Speaking of ninjas, B2 also brings a host of different class modifications to the game, with the ability to tweak your character - just a bit - to the play style you enjoy. Equipping a class mod also opens up potential boosts to skills (though of course these have to be unlocked before the boost will be applied). So if Zer0 decides to go "full ninja" with the Ninja class mod, he'll see a boost to his cooldown rate, as well as possible bonuses to his Velocity, Ambush, and Unforeseen skills.
The game can be as complicated or straightforward as you like. No doubt many players will spend a bit of time weighing up the pros and cons of different kit setups, combined with certain skills and class mods. The joys and frustrations of trying to find just the right weapon in B1 has certainly been well documented, and things are no different here. At the same time, there's still a great reckless feel to the game, as players find new gear, try it on, and throw away the old stuff, ever seeking just that tiny little advantage to help them overcome the next mutant bad guy.
Being a sequel and all, in many ways there's less of a "wow" factor in playing Borderlands 2, despite the refinements and additions that have been brought to the game. That said, it's difficult to find much to fault with it, at least from a solo player's perspective. It's a hell of a lot of fun.
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC