Borderlands 2 Review Preview

Borderlands 2 is a big game. The PlayStation Vita? Not so big. And yet the sprawling cooperative shooter has arrived intact on the portable platform, delivering long hours of shooting, looting, and butt jokes. Well, almost intact. Game design changes, like knocking the maximum player count down from four to two and changing the enemy death animations, do a good job of cutting corners while preserving the core action. Technical shortcomings, however, leave little doubt that this is the lesser version of Gearbox’s great sequel. Dialogue and sound effects frequently sound flat and occasionally disappear, while the frame rate often slows down in combat and makes the chaotic action feel unwieldy.

Despite these limitations, Borderlands 2 on the Vita is still, very clearly, Borderlands 2. The world is colorful and diverse; the writing is witty and sometimes affecting; the loot is bountiful and rewarding; and the combat is entertaining and rowdy. Teaming up with another player and working your way through myriad quests on the path to increased skills, richer rewards, and Pandoran glory is great fun. It’s just as easy to happily while away dozens of hours in this portable version as it is in its console and PC counterparts.

(This review will focus primarily on the Vita-specific strengths and limitations of Borderlands 2. To read a more in-depth analysis of the game in general, check out our original Borderlands 2 review.)

In any transition from console or PC to the Vita, there is a question of controls. The Vita has fewer button inputs than other platforms, and this often necessitates the use of touchscreens for buttons, often with mixed results. In Borderlands 2, the default control scheme puts some pretty important actions on the front and rear touchpads. Some of my battles got a little more heated due to a sprint or a melee attack not registering on the first tap, but for the most part, I was able to act when I wanted to, and my co-op partners reported no troubles (you can also freely remap the buttons if a particular input is tricky for you).

Combat in Borderlands 2 is naturally a bit floaty and loose, largely due to way player movement and enemy behavior are paced. As a result, it can accommodate the small degree of control imprecision added by the touchscreens and be none the worse for it. Likewise, the smaller range of motion of the analog sticks may cause some making the PC/console transition to balk a bit, and indeed, aiming can initially feel ungainly if you’re used to the game on other platforms. After you adjust the aim sensitivity and spend some time wandering the wastelands, however, the mercenary satisfactions of long-range headshots and up-close bullet barrages are well within reach.

And taking on enemies in Borderlands 2 is very satisfying. Raving psychos that run toward you in serpentine patterns, heavy flamethrower troops that wield bulky shields, speedy lizards that can turn invisible and teleport, lumbering insects that spew corrosive acid, giant attack robots that build other robots, and shotgun-wielding midgets that jump out of lockers are just some of the diverse forces arrayed against you. To combat them, you arm yourself with a standard variety of weapon types made distinctly nonstandard by varying scopes, firing patterns, and elemental effects. Throw in a wide selection of grenades, shields that can damage enemies, and your character’s customizable action skill, and you’ve got a lot of different strategic options. Marshaling these options and bringing gleeful destruction to your enemies is a lot of fun, and the variety of adversaries and environments helps keep combat fresh many hours into the game.

Play as the Mechromancer and summon a flying killer robot to keep you company.

During full-on firefights there can be a lot happening onscreen, and here’s where the Vita struggles. The frame rate slows down and makes things look choppier, adding a bit more chaos to an already chaotic situation. On another platform, you might feel like you still have a grip on things when the action gets frantic; on the Vita, that grip is a bit more tenuous. In many cases, it’s just an added nuisance, but in the worst moments, it’s another consideration you must add to your decision-making process. Lining up your sniper shot takes a little more patience, and your berserk shotgun rampages have to be a little more wild; it feels like you need to exaggerate whatever your chosen play style is, or maybe get comfortable with having less control.

But this isn’t to say that everything spirals out of control when the frame rate suffers; the effect is not nearly that severe. There are a lot of elements that combine to make combat in Borderlands 2 chaotic and satisfying, and while the frame rate adds to the former and not the latter, it doesn’t tip the scales. This still feels like proper Borderlands 2 action, complete with all the thrills and challenges that it boasts on PCs and consoles. The cycle of exploring the world, vanquishing enemies (who vanish in a spurt of blood instead of melting or falling down or whatever else they do in the other versions), and collecting loot is still enthralling.

This cycle gets even better when you play with a friend, something that is no less true even though you can team up with only one other player on Vita, as opposed to three. You need an online connection, though, because there’s no local connection option. You can ask the game to find a match for you, or peruse the available matches in a list, and after a lengthy loading screen, you’re in the action seamlessly. Whether someone joins your game or you join someone else’s, the frame rate issues are about the same, so it’s generally as smooth as playing by yourself. Playing with someone else not only adds the usual camaraderies, it also lets you use complementary abilities and tactics, pits you against tougher enemies, and gives you bigger rewards. It’s like playing a souped-up version of the game, and it’s great.

Of course, you might end up with someone who just constantly asks to trade weapons and leaves when you don’t comply; such is the risk of all online play. The built-in Vita mic is also active by default, which could either be a great way to communicate and make a new friend, or an annoyance that you quickly mute. The audio landscape in Borderlands 2 is already quite crowded, given all the sound effects, enemy taunts, character quips, dialogue, and voice-over lines. Many of these effects sound flatter and less rich than they do on consoles and PC, even through headphones, and occasionally dialogue lines or effects drop out and leave a conspicuous silence. The lines dropped tend to be prioritized well, though, so you aren’t likely to miss any crucial dialogue. This leaves you free to enjoy the irreverent and relentless humor, which is one of the game’s greatest strengths.

Audio and video in Borderlands 2 seem to push the limits of what the Vita can handle, but the system merely strains and does not break (though the game did crash once or twice in my dozen or so hours with it). The Vita version also comes with two of the sizable downloadable mission packs, two extra playable characters, and an assortment of bonus goodies. And you can take advantage of the cross-save capability if you own Borderlands 2 on the PlayStation 3. The result is an impressive package that delivers exciting combat, hilarious dialogue, entertaining quests, and delightful rewards.

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