It's hard to believe it's been three years since Gearbox Software unleashed "Borderlands" upon millions of gamers hungry for a new kind of first-person shooter. With its four-player co-op, addictive loot system and quirky sense of humor, the original "Borderlands" won over critics and gamers, alike.
A lot can change in three years, however. Trends change. Tastes change. Technologies change. As I prepared to return to Pandora in "Borderlands 2," the question in the back of my mind was whether Gearbox Software would be able to adapt to the changing landscape and capture lightning in a bottle for a second time.
After more than 30 hours spent slaughtering skags, mowing down psycho midgets and solving Pandora's problems once again, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Not only does "Borderlands 2" live up to the lofty standards set by its predecessor, it exceeds the original in every way imaginable.
Set five years after the events of the original, "Borderlands 2" casts players as one of four new vault hunters battling the oppressive Hyperion Corporation and its leader, the diabolical Handsome Jack. Each new vault hunter - Axton the Commando, Salvador the Gunzerker, Zer0 the Assassin and Maya the Siren - brings their own skills to the battlefield, such as Axton's Sabre Turret which can be deployed at a moment's notice or Salvador's ability to dual-wield any weapon in the game.
While these unique skills set each class apart by their very nature, they can be further tweaked through the three individualized skill trees assigned to each character that further allow players to cater their character to their liking. For example, you can choose to pour Skill Points into upgrading Axton's Sabre Turret or use those points to increase his effectiveness with traditional weapons. Toss in stat boosts gained through growing your Badass rank - achieved by performing actions like killing a specific number of an enemy or getting a certain number of kills with a designated weapon type - and class-specific mods that can be discovered or purchased at various outlets and it's unlikely any two players will craft their characters the same way. Not only does this open up a whole world of possibilities for the game's co-op mode, but it adds near-infinite replayability to the campaign.
Speaking of the campaign, the story that drives the action in "Borderlands 2" is far beyond what gamers experienced in the first game, and the appearance of many characters from the original game will no doubt be a treat for those who played through "Borderlands." But the real treat is found in the multitude of side missions, which range from mildly entertaining to laugh-out-loud funny. I probably could have wrapped up the campaign sooner had I not felt compelled to tackle these optional quests, but how can you not investigate four pizza-loving mutants living in a sewer or turn down a request by a man named Loggins to disrupt a volleyball game staged by shirtless pilots who shout quotes from "Top Gun"?
A big reason "Borderlands 2" succeeds as well as it does is because of what Gearbox left unchanged. There's still an absurd amount of loot thrown at you at every turn, from guns and ammo to shields, cash and character upgrades. Sorting all of your loot is easier thanks to a new streamlined front-end, which allows you to designate items as junk or mark your favorites to prevent accidentally selling them off. All of the weapons still have an exceptional feel to them, and come in all shapes and sizes. While your approach to combat varies greatly based on your character class, the core gunplay is phenomenal. Since the majority of your time in "Borderlands 2" is spent filling bad guys full of lead, this aspect can't be overstated. For everything else it does, "Borderlands 2" is first and foremost a shooter, and it's one of the best on the market.
It's also one of the best co-op games available. Up to four players can connect online (two-player split-screen support is also included) to explore Pandora, tackle missions and collect loot. Enemies are scaled to be more difficult when additional human players are involved, which means there should be plenty of challenge even for high-level parties.