Borderlands 2: The single-player experience

So the plan was to review Gearbox’s ‘Borderlands 2′ as a co-op experience. The plan was that I would play through the whole thing by myself, all of the missions and then when I had finished it, I would go back and play it co-op. Wow. Yeah. That’s not going to happen for a while. I ended up playing the game for about two weeks and fairly intensively at times. Sure I’m definitely somewhat of a completionist, but it’s still a looooong game, especially when you’re playing by yourself. It’s also an intense experience that I will need a bit of a break from before jumping back into it at some point with another character. I played as Sal, but all of the characters, there were four in the main game plus one added by DLC, were awesome. There was Sal the gunzerker, Axton the commando, Maya the siren and Zero the assassin. Like the first ‘Borderlands’ (which I haven’t played, so I can’t compare) it’s a first person shooter with some RPG elements, although there’s much debate (as usual). I can only talk about this game from my personal perspective, from having played one of the four characters and only on single-player and not having played the first game (I was told that 2 was significantly better and to just play that one and I certainly didn’t have any problems story-wise just jumping right in), but as it stands, I think the game was absolutely incredible. I may even have to update my favourite games list when I round it out to my top 10, because yes, it deserves its place there. I won’t say it’s a perfect game and there were definitely some downsides to playing it all by my lonesome (which I’ll discuss in some detail), but overall, I was blown away by this game. 

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So how did the single player experience hold up? Well, obviously I haven’t played it co-op yet, but I feel I have a pretty good grasp on the single-player experience. In a few words, it was challenging, enjoyable and occasionally frustrating. Weirdly enough, I didn’t really think at the time that since it’s primarily a co-op game and I’m playing alone, so it would inevitably be harder, playing as a character who is traditionally a tank (although that’s wasn’t exactly my character’s build) might not be the best idea. Even when I played through missions which were clearly designed for more people, through pure determination or stubborness (let’s go with determination), I played through it, even though it took a lot more careful strategising and probably took longer than it should have done. Honestly though, I didn’t have any major problems either playing single-player or as Sal. I love first-person shooters, especially those with RPG elements like this one and I love a good challenge and playing single-player definitely gave me that. Some reviewers have said that they couldn’t get through bits of the game without calling in friends to help them. Looking back, I realise that yes, it was probably more difficult than it needed to be and yes, maybe that was because they expect you to play with people, but the difficulty in itself didn’t particularly bother me. In fact if you like a good challenge, I’d say you might want to try it by yourself first. What did bother me a bit though were the missions that weren’t exactly difficult in terms of fighting of the waves of enemies, but were designed in a way that would have been quite easy for a few people playing together, but incredibly difficult for one person (like many of the timed missions). The game is clearly focused on co-op and I respect that, but it was marketed as single player as well and I did feel that some parts of the game were a bit of a slog if you were trying to complete it by yourself. Also, there are a lot of fetch quests, which I personally thought were varied enough to keep my attention, but it was a bit lonely at times, traipsing around the map, often to areas I’ve been to before and some parts probably have been more fun if you were playing co-op. However, if you’re like me and you don’t like playing a story-based game like Borderlands 2 with other people the first time around, because you like to soak it all in by yourself and you want to move at your own pace through the story, then I’d definitely recommend you at least try it by yourself. I do think something is also added being able to really take your time with it and explore all the areas and talk to all the characters to your heart’s content. Pandora is, after all, one of the richest video game world I’ve come across in a long time (barring ‘Mass Effect’ of course).

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You might be wondering what it was about ‘Borderlands 2′ that catapulted it into my list of top 10 favourite games of all time.  There were so many things I loved about the experience and all of its elements worked together to make a truly unique and fun game. Right from the intro  sequence it had me hooked. Its distinctive cartoon-y animation really worked with its “space western” theme and was perfectly complemented by a western-inspired kickass soundtrack. Right from the first few seconds of the game, it was clear that ‘Borderlands 2′ is not afraid to be different, whether it’s in its unique animation style, it’s hilariously offensive and completely un-PC humour or its shoot and loot format that you’ll find yourself addicted to as soon as you open that first container.  It’s weird, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, it’s crazy and I couldn’t forget about it if I tried and that’s part of it’s charm. Whether you like this game as much as me or not, you won’t forget about it. Borderlands 2 has made its mark on the games industry and changed it for the better, by showing other devs that you can be as creative as you want with graphics and gameplay and transform it into so much more than your typical first-person shooter and as I’ve stated before, I don’t think its dissimilarity to the real world affected my level of immersion at all. In fact, all of the elements I’ve discussed work together to create a believable and fully-fleshed out world.

Some say it hasn’t got the best story or that it’s a bit irrelevant and I do agree with that to an extent. It’s not exactly going to win any awards for story-telling, but it was fun story that didn’t take itself too seriously and together with its cheeky, irreverent humour and kickass characters, it developed into a satisfying narrative that will have you coming back for more. Sure they could have done more with the story, but that’s not really what ‘Borderlands 2′ is about. It’s not really trying to make any point or raise any serious issues and that’s absolutely fine by me! There are games that make you think and there games that are pure escapism, that just leave you feeling good. ‘Borderlands 2′ is the latter and it glories in that fact. It makes fun of itself just as much as anyone and everyone else. Yet, even though the plot isn’t exactly an example of deep and thoughtful writing, the cast of characters in this game are not only all badass and hilarious (every one of them), they’re never feel two-dimensional. Even the most stereotyped characters destroy that image by being pointing out its ridiculousness and deliberately over-exaggerating it. You can’t really make fun of characters who pretty much exhaust everything you could make fun of about them on their own. Personally, I think ‘Borderlands 2′ has some of the most memorable and interesting characters to date, including Claptrap and Handsome Jack (both of whom have won awards for their roles). I realise that a lot of the characters have recurring roles from the first ‘Borderlands’ and I’ve heard that they are often much improved, but obviously I can’t really comment on that. All I can say is that the host of characters in this game are AWESOME. My favourite is probably Sir Hammerlock for being very much the English gentleman, but is also completely insane and a regular badass. I like Brick too, for being Brick. 

Now, for the gameplay. I heard the last ‘Borderlands’ was a terrible PC port, but this time around they’ve clearly learned their lesson. I don’t really have any issues with the HUD or menus at all, everything was laid out quite nicely and they clearly put a lot of thought into making it work for keyboard and mouse and I have no complaints in that department either. As mentioned before you get four characters with their own unique classes and skills. I played Salvador, a gunzerker, whose unique action skill was (surprise surprise) gunzerking, which essentially means you can dual wield any guns (you’ll want to experience with the different combos to check out the different results) and while it’s activated, you’ll take reduced damage and constantly regenerate health and ammo. Other classes have their own action skills, like Axton who can deploy a Sabre turret and so on. After I finished the game and looked around to see what people had to say about it on forums, I was a bit surprised to find out that many people either found good ol’ Sal either boring or too difficult. Obviously, considering how each class encourages such distinct playstyles, I think you’d probably have the most fun with whichever character’s skills suited you best, but I do think how you spec a character like Sal and what weapons you equip will significantly impact how effectively you play. I imagine that the people who found that that they were killed within seconds while gunzerking, probably hadn’t speced him effectively for their playstyle. If you want to tank there are definitely ways to do that without constantly dying. I  played by myself and I didn’t die that much, even while gunzerking when you’re most exposed and vulnerable. He also doesn’t necessarily have to be played in that way either. I found Sal to be a very versatile character depending on what you spent your skill points on and what guns you equipped. I probably spent half my time at long to mid-range and the other half at short range. I’m guessing the other characters have a certain amount of versatility as well, so it’s really all about how you play it. I can certainly see why Sal might seem a little boring or difficult at first, but honestly, I’d say if you love shooting like I do and you love being able to deal massive damage at long or shot range, you should give Sal a shot. Maybe Sal just naturally fit my playing style, but I thought he was an amazing character to play and encapsulated so much of what I enjoyed about Borderlands – he’s badass, he’s funny and he’s kind of crazy.

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That’s not to say I had no issues with this game, believe me I did. Luckily, none of them were game-ruining and were mainly just minor irritants. Firstly, I really didn’t like the checkpoint system they used. It might just be a personal preference, but I found it confusing and even once I’d figured it out, it was annoying. There are numerous checkpoints on every map and each time you pass one, your progress is saved and you will respawn there if you die, but not every one will allow you to respawn there if you quit and restart the game. Essentially, the major checkpoints that you’ll respawn at if you restart the game are usually the New-U stations in towns or at the entrances to levels. The problem with this is that you really have to set aside a significant chunk of time if you want to finish a quest as it can sometimes take over an hour and if you quit partway through, you’ll end up back at the start and have to fight all the enemies all over again. This isn’t a huge problem if you can put aside that kind of time, but it can be a little inconvenient if you just don’t have the time  to play in long uninterrupted bursts or if plans change and you just have to go do something in the outside world for a bit. Maybe if I’d played the first ‘Borderlands’, I would be used to it and this wouldn’t phase me at all, but I did think it was a bit of an inconvenience. Related to this is the fact that the game was a bit glitch-y for me at times, all of which were fixed by restarting the game, so it wouldn’t have been a major problem in itself if it didn’t mean that I’d often have to start much further back, because I hadn’t quite gotten to the next major checkpoint yet.

My last main problem with the game was that it could be a bit repetitive at times and I’m not even talking about the fetch quests, which to be honest, weren’t always the most thrilling, but generally were quite varied, with different kinds of objectives or restraints (e.g. the timed quests). Also, other than the main story quests, all the sidequests are completely optional, so if you’re really bored out of your skull by a particular sidequest you can come back to it later or just skip it entirely. My real problem though, was the fact that quests often took you back over major areas of the map that you’d already been through, often a main mission that you had literally just finished. It also often requires that you go through the whole area, fighting all the same enemies until you get right to the end. It was particularly annoying when the objective at the end was actually really simple, for instance, to find or do something at the other end of the map, but it would still take you about half an hour to trudge through the whole area again. I probably would have been ok with fewer missions rather than a ton of missions that make you go through the same fights again. It got a bit tedious sometime, although that was probably compounded by the fact that Sal was trekking through all of it by himself. Maybe it’s just me and the fact that I can’t leave a sidequest unfinished, no matter how boring, but I do feel that it detracted from the flow of the game and made it a bit repetitive at times.

In the end though, none of these issues managed to prevent me from obsessing over this game. All in all, I thought this was a strong singleplayer experience that could have been improved. As a game however, it still kicks some major ass (as I’m sure any number of the Pandoran residents would say). My advice to you? Set aside some time, maybe find some friends who have similar ways of playing story-based games (i.e. won’t just skip or talk over cutscenes if you’re the kind of person who cares about the story) and go for it. If you enjoy shooting, looting and generally being awesome, I think it’s safe to assume you’ll love this.

3 responses to “Borderlands 2: The single-player experience

  1. Love this review! It sums up how I feel about the game, too. I also played it by myself and found it to be really challenging without a co-op partner — but a lot of that is because I’m not skilled at FPS games anyway. It just forced me to strategize and be patient, like you said here! It might have been nice if there had been various difficulty settings to make it easier on solo players and more challenging for co-op players… but then, part of what makes this game fun is seeing the mission difficulties and deciding when (or how) you’re going to handle it!

    Anyway, I totally agree with you that Pandora is a great setting. That’s what made the side quests tolerable, even when I had to backtrack over terrain I already knew. To me, the game’s art style and sense of humor worked together to make the game really unique and memorable.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I definitely agree with you that they should have done something to make it more accessible for people who are playing by themselves, as it just seemed to be a much more difficult and at times complicated experience than it should have been! I think you’re right that the game would probably benefit from adjusted difficulty levels, but then again, as you said, it is really fun deciding for yourself what mission level difficulty you’re going to tackle and when. I also think many of the missions just seemed to be designed for more people and not having someone watching your back or helping you can be really tricky sometimes. I think with Borderlands 3 they’d really have to rethink what distinguishes a singleplayer experience from a co-op and find some way of making playing alone fun and challenging, without it penalising you for not playing it co-op, because it is such a strong single-player experience in my opinion!
      I also felt that way as well! I don’t think I would have been able to make it through the seemingly endless number of sidequests and gone back over all maps I’d already been through, if Pandora wasn’t just such an awesome and varied place. There’s definitely something very special about this game and its setting.

  2. I’m still working on finishing the first Borderlands, but I can’t wait to play Borderlands 2! Great review. :) Since I did start with the first Borderlands, the checkpoints in the game didn’t bother me so much. I got used to the mechanics fairly quickly. I do agree that you have to set a significant amount of time to do one or two quests. I found that even the simplest quests do take at least an hour or two to finish.

    I play Borderlands on the console, so I was lucky to have friends who would play co-op with me when we each have time to play online together. In fact, one of my friends gave me the game as a gift just so I can experience it as co-op. I am curious to try the game by myself, but I can’t imagine doing it now because I’m so used to doing the story and missions together with a friend. It helps traipsing the empty, barren lands much more bearable, especially if you end up fighting the same enemies you just fought earlier.

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