VR loots this beloved game of its most valuable assets.
When we dream of replaying our favorite traditional games in virtual reality, what are we really envisioning? In the case of Borderlands 2, the beloved looter-shooter from Gearbox, you might imagine looting and shooting with newfound immediacy, flinging yourself headlong back into the vibrant world of Pandora to delight in its distinctive hand-drawn environments first-hand. What you are probably not picturing is an awkward, unwieldy, often defective-seeming port, which reimagines the nimble action classic as a sluggish and clumsy slog for the PSVR.
So much of what made Borderlands 2 great has been stripped out of its VR version that it feels as if it’s been ransacked by Vault Hunters. The most conspicuous absence — and one that changes the experience in a fundamental way — is cooperative play. Borderlands 2 does work in single-player but it was always intended to be enjoyed with up to three friends, yoked together in frantic bouts of madcap chaos. Racing to snag coveted loot before it’s whisked away from under you is an essential component of its popularity, and for many people accustomed to its whirlwind pace, Borderlands VR is bound to seem lonely. It’s the kind of feature whose omission is frankly unforgivable.
Similarly catastrophic are certain unwise changes to the familiar Borderlands 2 gameplay having to do with direction and speed. One of the hallmarks of the series is its brisk, fluid rhythm — an almost overwhelming sense of forward momentum built into every mechanic, from the way combat unfolds (hectically, in a riot of bullets and explosions) to the way loot is collected (with great, incautious haste from all over the place). Even the labyrinthine arrangements of statistics and enormous quantities of possible weaponry that make its RPG-like aspects so complex are meant to be breezed through without curbing the pace. Borderlands 2 VR, on the other hand, is ludicrously leaden by comparison.
Movement is restricted to a plodding, tedious crawl.
Borderlands 2’s trademark breakneck firefights are glacial in VR, for several related and infuriating reasons. Most obviously, the actual speed of your movement has been slowed dramatically — likely an effort to reduce the risk of motion sickness. To its credit, Gearbox has given us plenty of control schemes to choose from, from free roaming with the DualShock 4 to teleporting with a pair of Move wands (or vice versa), but no matter which you prefer running is limited to a leisurely jog. There is no way to sprint, strafe, jump, or spin, and besides short, jagged pivots left or right — telescoped with an intrusive iris effect, again designed to prevent nausea — movement is restricted to a plodding, tedious crawl.
Trawling through Pandora with sloth-like agility would certainly make one an easy target for roving gangs of monsters and marauders, so – in a bid to even the fight – enemies have been neutered considerably. This has the effects of both making victory in combat more likely and having fun in combat more remote. Most fights now just feel like a different game; it’s not only possible to get through them standing still, it’s preferable, as attempting to maneuver feels distinctly like bumbling. A new feature exclusive to VR, called “Bad-Ass Mega Fun Time,” makes combat even slower by triggering a sort of bullet-time effect. If this has been thrown in as a quick fix for when a battle gets too hairy and the controls are in the way, it does at least as much harm as it does good.
Looting, meanwhile, is burdened with its own set of logistical hiccups. Instead of smoothly gathering items from the fallen enemies and containers found littered around the environment, you are left to feebly paw your way through crates and lockers that are frequently out of range of your sightline, forcing you crane your neck or move around the room trying to grab them. Instead of cycling through your collection of weapons and shields seamlessly, popup menus full of options clip into every object in the world, obscuring what you’re looking at and obliging you to back up, reposition yourself, and try again. Maneuvering through menus is so cumbersome in VR that it strongly discouraged me from managing my inventory or customizing my stats. When it’s necessary, it makes Borderlands 2 seem wildly inelegant and slow.
Menus are so cumbersome that it discouraged me from managing my inventory or stats.
If vehicles felt like something of an afterthought in Borderlands 2 before, they now feel like an absolute nuisance. Entering any vehicle forces a first-person perspective from the driver’s seat – which makes sense considering this is a VR game, but it’s a substantial change to the series norm. One of the main issues with it is that by default it increases the tunnel vision setting to the maximum level — a visual effect that, while no doubt more appealing than dizziness or vertigo, makes the windshield look like a keyhole. I found it inordinately difficult to drive without crashing into rocks or trees or to even head in the right direction long enough to arrive at my destination. With Move controllers it’s so much worse that even when I had miles to cross I found it more convenient to leave the car behind and walk. And I remind you, walking is painfully slow.
So much of my time with Borderlands 2 VR was spent wrestling with this kind of haphazard, unrefined integration, desperate to find the least uncomfortable approach to controls and mechanics that are regularly painful. What distinguishes this game from its predecessor — slo-mo powers, first-person driving, movement by teleportation, a slowed-down rate of play — aren’t features or extras at all, but merely poor solutions to the problems presented by VR. Borderlands 2 only takes advantage of VR when it’s trying to make itself work like a normal, non-VR game. Which begs the question: why make a VR version of Borderlands 2 at all?
It’s hard to think of a single thing Borderlands 2 VR does that could only have been realized from this perspective. Other shooters have had success transposing their gameplay into virtual reality with a few major, ground-up changes: Superhot VR and Killing Floor Incursion, to take two fine examples, drew from the existing material to make original games expressly designed to make use of the format. Their virtues are nowhere to be found in Borderlands 2 VR: no tactile pleasure, no full-body physicality, no sense of wonder in the virtual world. It doesn’t even let you pick things up or touch the world around you. The closest I ever felt to really being present in its world was when I got stuck in a wall and couldn’t move.