Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Iron Galaxy Studios
Publisher: 2K Games
Borderlands 2 is probably the most impressive handheld game I've ever played. How could it not be? It's Borderlands 2!
Not a limp little spin-off or tatty tie-in: Borderlands 2 in its entirety. Every mission, every bandit, every ridiculous procedurally-generated gun, loads of DLC, all of it. Beyond a graphical downgrade, two-player cooperative cap and a few controls remapped to the rear touch pad, this is nothing less than the full PS3 version, even allowing you to transfer save files and Badass Ranks between the two platforms.
And that's a problem. Handheld games need to be designed and optimised specifically for their platform, but Iron Galaxy were locked into delivering an identical port, meaning that they had to find some corners to cut along the way. Many of which can make Borderlands 2's portable version as disappointing as it is astonishing.
Be in no doubt, though, Borderlands 2 works on Vita. It's all here and looks fairly reasonable to boot. Naturally the visuals have been significantly dinged to allow it to run on Sony's handheld, and animations can be a little on the clunky side, but Gearbox' attractive cel-shaded aesthetic is effectively future-proofed. Every environment, enemy and detail has made the jump in some fashion, but let's face it, we're more interested in the gameplay experience.
Borderlands 2 was a massive dose of fun-packed gunplay and compelling RPG progression when it released in 2012, and guess what? It still is. I'm delighted to report that it plays well, delivering intense combat with versatile boomsticks, class skills and passives. Not to mention plenty of shopping, exploration and inventory management. The Vita's twin thumbnubbins™ are up to the task, while almost all the controls remain exactly where you left them.
However, the Vita's lack of clickable sticks and bumpers push active skills and grenades onto the touch screen, whereas sprinting and melee now take residence on the rear touch pad... hang on, don't panic. Take a deep breath. Relax. This sounds terrible but works in practice since you only need to tap anywhere in an enormous area - basically each half of the screen and touchpad is a button in its own right.
Things can get a little overwhelming in pitched combat due to the thumbsticks' lowered precision, and you'll need to finely tune the sensitivity to your specifications (not to mention that hand cramp can set in due to the Vita's shallow yet wide form factor) but otherwise you're in for dozens of replayable hours of shooting, looting and levelling.
If that isn't enough, you've also got Captain Scarlett and The Pirate Booty, Mr. Torgue's Campaign Of Carnage, The Ultimate Vault Hunter Pack, Psycho class and Mechromancer class; the latter of whom is a great introduction for new players. Veterans should opt for the Psycho to enjoy an advanced, challenging and very different experience to the stock heroes. The digital PSN version is a whopping >5GB file, naturally, but at least you can choose what content you want to download and install if your memory stick is filling up.
PS3 version owners can even transfer save files to pick up where they left off, and vice versa, not to mention automatically syncing their badass ranks across both editions every time they sign in.
So far so good, but now we come to those cut corners I mentioned earlier. The Vita is capable of running Borderlands 2... but only just. Iron Galaxy weren't able to remove content, change geometry or tweak encounters in any way, so there's only one remaining variable that can take a hit.
Put simply, Borderlands 2's frame rate is a bit of mess. It's never unplayable, but you'll notice serious frame rate drops when visiting graphically intensive locales or getting stuck into intense engagements. Every so often you'll judder or jerk, suddenly moving a little further than you expected. Sanctuary can be a slideshow. Things have improved after some speedy patching, and I suspect that there might be a slight advantage to the weighty PSN download compared to the physical version (mainly supposition on my part after reading and asking around), but Borderlands 2 feels like a game that's straining against hardware that's just not quite powerful enough to run it.
Because, of course, that's exactly what it is. Fit for task in the main, but if you've ever played a shooter on an old PC that runs yet frequently feels like it's about to crash, the effect is somewhat similar.
Pop-in and render distance also annoy. Textures can take an age to wink into existence, even on the character select screen. Worse, sometimes you'll waste an entire clip shooting at a bandit who's standing behind a building that hasn't been rendered yet. This happened to me countless times on the larger levels; perfect headshots spoiled by scenery that only appeared when I took five steps forward.
The interface is a serious bugbear. Borderlands 2 needed a custom UI designed specifically for Vita, sporting big touchscreen friendly icons to make loot and objectives a breeze to navigate. Sadly, as you already know, this is a port. As such the interface remains completely unchanged, meaning that the screen is absolutely rammed with uncomfortably tiny text and laggy menus that take a second to switch between panels. You'll spend much of your time squinting at the screen in eye-straining agony.
All of which means that Borderlands 2 should have been a new version with a custom interface and rebuilt levels, perhaps reducing enemy numbers at times or removing more complex level geometry. And released much earlier rather than arriving two years after the original game came out, late to its own party.
And yet I don't really care. The nitpicks are legion but they're just that -- nitpicks -- in what is otherwise a monumental technical achievement. Borderlands 2 doesn't just work on Vita, it's fantastic fit, allowing you to take the action anywhere. Many of you won't see the point of paying out another £19.99, and understandably so, but newcomers and veterans alike will discover a whole new reason to return to Pandora.
- Full-fat Borderlands 2 action on the go!
- Reasonable controls and visuals
- Utterly staggering content offering - entire game and loads of DLC
- PS3 save file transfers and Badass Rank sharing
- Deeply inconsistent frame rate, constant pop-in and quirky draw distance
- Can be uncomfortable in long sessions
- Desperately needed a new interface, potential eye strain
- A bit late, frankly
The Short Version: Why would you want to play Borderlands 2 again on a handheld device?
"Because I can" has a nice ring to it. Though clearly not for everyone and marred by some inconsistent performance issues, Borderlands 2 is a technical marvel and one of the most impressive handheld titles ever released: a massive feature-complete port of a stonking game.
That you can play on the bus.