A new group of armed scavengers looks to reap the rewards hidden on and within a hostile planet in Borderlands 2 (2K Games and Gearbox Software, reviewed with Xbox 360, rated very Mature, $59.99).
This sequel to the popular first-person, role-playing shooter from 2009 gratuitously builds upon the original, reveling in the violent excesses associated with looting, shooting and survival of the craziest.
A quartet of new Vault Hunters is back on Pandora (not to be confused with James Cameron's "Avatar" location, but I did see a few Thanator-like creatures running around) five years later. They're out to find treasure, and take down the head of the evil Hyperion Corporation, the destructively debonair Handsome Jack.
A player can choose to become one of four new hunters to explore and battle within the world. The potent pals include Maya (a female mutant with telekinetic abilities), Axton (a G.I. Joe with lead-actor looks who's able to drop gun turrets on demand), Salvador the Gunzerker (a heavy-weapons specialist packing twice the heat of the others who could co-star in "Expendables 2") and an assassin named Zer0.
I chose Zer0. This fellow resembles Kroenen, the Nazi-killing machine from the first "Hellboy" movie, complete with dark mask and body armor. He uses invisibility, can create a holographic decoy of himself and is adept with blades in close quarters and at sniping long range.
As Zer0, I am stuck trying to escape a grungy, untrusting Mad Max-ian world of postapocalyptic chaos. The scene is dictated by rejects from the Star Wars creature factory and an often lawless rule by the criminally insane, bandits, nomads, savages and feisty fishmongers.
I'll wander through a frozen tundra, desert landscapes and forested passes, and disturb ecosystems loaded with aggressive creatures, including web-spitting spiders, multiarmed yeti and burrowing snakelike plants, all ready to take a chunk out of me.
Tasks and missions vary during the massive adventure. For example, take down a Bullymong creature named Knuckle Dragger; terminate Boom and Bewm, brothers and renowned explosives experts; work to earn a spot in the Crimson Raiders by locating Corporal Reiss; and explore the city of Sanctuary.
Quirky characters to talk to and assist abound in the untamed world and include the familiar annoying robot CL4P-TP (with the personality of Portal 2's frantic Wheatley), a Guardian Angel (a guiding female vision) and Dr. Zed (a surgeon Dr. Mengele would recruit).
Between the firefights, a player may enjoy long, leisurely walks in wastelands watching snowflakes melt on the screen or riding around on a variety of vehicles, beginning with armed buggies that are slicker than the Halo Warthog. (The vehicle's control won't win design awards, but the ability to move quickly between turret and driver seats along with the unlimited firepower are a joy.)
My main objective, besides progressing through the story, is to remain armed to the teeth using the "gazillions" of available weapons and carry enough ammunition and shields to outlast opponents.
Much of a player's time is spent looking through cartons, crates and boxes; breaking rocks; and popping open outhouses. Not very appealing, I know, but it's living long enough to open the mystery containers that provides the challenge.
Along with collecting cash (spent at many a vending machine), health-protecting shields (that always seem to break at the wrong time, by the way) and a myriad of munitions found in the objects, I have never seen a game so preoccupied with a player's choice of firearms.
It's a glorious selection, built by nonexistent manufacturers and accumulated in my ever-bulging backpack. And they're not limited to guns spewing big bullets, electrical bolts and explosive charges — names such as the Skorry Droog, Inspiring Apparatus and Wanton Hand Cannon dance in the brain.
The weapons are so devilishly powerful, they could clear out an entire collection of bandits and bosses in under a minute. Take the Stabbing KerBlaster for example. The KerBlaster's zoomed scope launches a package of rockets accented by a grenade that drops gently after the ordinance strikes to wipe out any remaining living entity.
The constant barrage of firefights, sparked simply by passing a raider's camp, will leave a player shell-shocked. Adversaries constantly taunt him with strings of profanities, bullets and sharp implements that a "Holy Grail" fan would appreciate.
It's an uncomfortable and brutally bloody existence where blowing up a midget with a shotgun, melting a bruiser in an exploded acid barrel, immolating a Goliath and dicing a masked psycho tossing axes are commonplace.
The action throughout exists in a cell-shaded, animated universe built to look like a living comic book from Joe Madureira's evil doppelganger. It's a stunning sandbox to slaughter that's not for the squeamish — those shocked by the gooey gore can actually turn it off in the game's options.
While in the midst of battle, death often can be avoided thanks to a second-chance health revival delivered to the hunter who can kill when he is prone on the ground and most vulnerable.
When the ultimate finality does occur, it's not a big deal. Dole out a chunk of cash and take a trip through the Hyperion Personal Reconstruction System, which places the player at his last checkpoint.
Additionally, a more complex skill tree arrives for each character that offers skill points through leveling up and gives many variations for a player to build his powers. (Zer0, for example, can use shots that pierce through enemies or eventually throw a handful of exploding kunai.)
I took an immediate liking to conquering the more than 100 Badass Challenges that reward players with tokens to increase attributes such as health, melee attacks and shield recharge rate.
Overall, my return to Pandora was not only addictive, but the many hours played apparently remain memorable.
I realized I had been playing Borderlands 2 too long while driving to work and spotting a group of large crows in the distance that resembled the game's flying Rakk. My first thought was to wonder what fringe group was being attacking and did I need to pull out my Smooth Peacemaker (Dirty Harry grimace) and shoot them down.
Perhaps the game's biggest saving grace, while caught in this chronic collecting and cashing-in war, is the return of a seamless four-person cooperative mode.
Friends and new online acquaintances can struggle to survive (using weapons that have been unlocked and collected by each), ride aboard vehicles together (driver, gunner and passengers who can use their weapons) and chuckle at some of their hilarious predicaments.
By the way, the enemies are even fiercer and in larger supply for the team.
However, in this day of epic multiplayer shooters, it's unbelievable the sequel has not evolved down the paths of Call of Duty or Halo.
Borderlands 2 is definitely a game to get lost in for hours at a time and will satisfy the primordial urges of the perpetually teenage male.
An acquaintance I helped early on, the robotic-armed Sir Hammerlock, said it best in reminding me of the ultimate, stress-relieving joy on Pandora: "Things need to be shot and, by jove, you're the one to shoot them."
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