In most shooters, when you're bloodied to within an inch of your life, you backtrack, take cover and, if possible, find a way to get healthy again.
"Borderlands 2" is not most shooters. Not even close.
In Gearbox's behemoth of a sequel to its beloved 2009 RPG/FPS, a "fight for your life" system grounds you when you've taken too much damage, but revives you with half your health and shields if you're able to kill something in the seconds before your screen fades to black. It completely inverts conventional shooter tactics, making the shotgun as strategically handy as the sniper rifle. And it turns gunfights into chaotic fun.
So much more about "Borderlands 2" sets it apart within its genre, and the game's improvements upon its predecessor play no small part in that.
New Pandora dictator Handsome Jack is the magnetic evil the first "Borderlands" sorely missed. The inevitability of getting the wisecracking sadist in your sights holds the sequel's story together, as does the return of the first game's four Vault Hunters, who help you free the planet of Jack by freeing him of his brains. The offbeat humor the first game executed kind of poorly is also handled better in "2." Even that popcorn bucket-looking robot Claptrap, once the recipient of many "please stop talking" shotgun blasts, gets a few decent zingers.
The four-player co-op that built the first "Borderlands" into a top-tier social shooter of course returns, now with the option to trade items between players — or fight for them. In a dusty, selectively civilized landscape like Pandora, being able to drop everything and duel for some trinket makes all too much sense.
A new badass rank system tracks player progress through dozens of challenges, like notching 250 shotgun kills or freeing five chained midgets from an enemy's riot shield — yeah, they get kind of weird — then gives players points to spend on small bonuses to health, shields or weaponry. There's also a new black market currency, eridium (also purple), that can buy bigger pockets for weapons and ammo.
These new systems combine with the returning class system and its unique mods and skill trees to make your "Borderlands 2" character feel like a work in continual, addictive progress.
Then there's the guns, which come in enough variety to arm every limb of every animal — probably every plant, too — on Earth. From pistols to bazookas, common (white) to rare (purple once again), level one to level 50, the abundance will have you pausing and changing your arsenal every few minutes if you're a real meddler, and every hour if you just want to keep up with the bad guys.
Enemies in "Borderlands 2" comes in three major forms: creatures, humans and robots. Fighting the first is more kinetic, as you scramble to stay out of the melee range of bruiser Bullymongs, and circle charging Spiderants to get a shot at their weak backsides.
Human forces are mostly gun-toting bandits who emerge from shanties to take aim at you, with the occasional idiot Psycho running directly your way armed with only a knife. New to the mix are Psycho suicide bombers, whose wish is best granted from a distance, and Goliaths, who go berserk and level up by bludgeoning other bandits if you don't snuff them quick. Hearing the Goliaths' cries grow from timid to frighteningly bloodthirsty as they transform is quite funny, though.
The robots, more common later in the game, are much like the humans: Some are long-range threats, some are just jerks who run at you and explode in your face. But they're maybe the best example of the difference elemental damage makes. Guns that cause corrosion, signaled by green numbers that hypnotically bubble from a wounded enemy, are best against robots, but useless against corrosive Spiderants or Bullymongs.
For all of its many possible hours of main and side quests, "Borderlands 2" feels like the most thrilling kind of conquest. In whatever order you face the varied threats of Pandora, you never get too comfortable, let alone bored, with how you kill stuff.
The combat mixes with the deep, persistent character customization to turn the game into a delightful sort of ritual. Like a taming force, you move into Pandora's hostile, uncharted terrain and cleanse it of chaos. Then you meticulously plunder for goodies and groom your character into an even more powerful force. Then you shoot more things. It's a delightfully fresh mix of method and madness.