In an RPG, gear is mostly for your paper doll on the inventory screen, even though it sometimes shows up on the character model, which is really just a 3D paper doll. Your gear’s personality is in the stats. Sure, maybe your pauldrons have spikes on them. That’s pretty cool, but I bet you’re more interested in the effect on your stamina or dexterity. Best case scenario, there’s some sort of particle effect on whatever sword you’re using.

Borderlands 2, an RPG, isn’t shy about numbers. Lord knows I spend enough time comparing the stats of pairs of guns. This one has the bigger magazine, but that one does a smidge more damage. A lot of playing Borderlands is the headshotting and careful shield management, so I don’t have to sweat the numbers too much.

After the jump, the numbers are just the beginning.

But unlike your spiked pauldrons or glowing sword, a gun in Borderlands 2 is so much more than its numbers. Borderlands knew this and Borderlands 2 knows it even more. A gun is the way you hold it, its heft, its kick, the noise it makes, the spin up of the cylinder, the muzzle blast, the way the magazine sticks out at a funny angle, or the reflection in the eyepiece on the sights. A gun is the grip, the barrel, the spitting shell casings, the slap of your palm against a fresh magazine, the decisive metal pieces sliding into place when you chamber the first round. Some guns shoot acid bullets or talk or fire better when aimed. In most action RPGs, the characters are the characters. In Borderlands, guns are people, too. They parade before you on the loading screens. I want about 80% of the guns I see on the loading screens, and I don’t even know their stats.

Of course, the characters are characters as well. It’s always nice to do whatever the left bumper does and sometimes my character talks. But this is a game played in first person. This is a game that features my gun as prominently as Tomb Raider featured Lara Croft’s ass or Doom 2 featured a double-barrelled shotgun. Borderlands 2 is a shooter through and through, and its action RPGness is always in service of it’s shooterness.

Much like the first game, Borderlands 2 can be curiously user-hostile with its interface and pacing. Gun and quest management are particularly awkward. Character advancement is molasses slow, with meaningful rewards for leveling up few and far between. A new system of “bad-ass” ranks dribbles out absurdly incremental improvements that at least apply to all your characters, but I couldn’t care less about a +.2% increase in my loading speed. As an action RPG, Borderlands 2 is mostly about actually playing rather than the rewards. It’s so full of clever touches, and collectibles, and achievements, and funny jokes, and (mostly) easy co-op play that it doesn’t necessarily need faster leveling or better loot progression.

This “actually playing” part is also where the story comes in. There aren’t many action RPGs or shooters worth playing for the story. But there also aren’t many action RPGs or shooters with the writing, sense of humor, and sense of set pieces as Borderlands 2. I’m even tempted to roll out the phrase mise en scene as it might apply to a shooter, but such an academic fancypants terms doesn’t do justice to set pieces like Tiny Tina’s tea party, or Shooty McFace’s brief appearance, or Scooter’s poem for his girlfriend, or how the characters from the first game are used.

I guess the best way to put it is to say Borderlands 2’s mise en scene is so kick-ass that I’m wondering how it happened. I’m not terribly surprised that the studio that made the first Borderlands has created such a wildly good gunplay-based action RPG. But I’m surprised that the studio that stitched together Duke Nukem Forever and all those Brothers in Arms games has also made it such a joy to discover for reasons other than the awesome guns and gunplay. Bravo, Gearbox.

5 stars
Xbox 360