Pandora isn't the kind of place where you want to take a vacation. The weather's either freezing cold or stiflingly hot. The wildlife is aggressively unfriendly, from the bugs that squirt you with acid to the apelike "bullymongs" that want to chew off your face. Still, we all know the most dangerous wildlife is man - and Pandora is packed with bandits, bruisers, psychos and other ne'er-do-wells trying to separate you from your fortune.
At the beginning of "Borderlands 2" (2K Games, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, $59.99), you've been left for dead on this godforsaken planet. Fortunately, Claptrap, the chatty robot from the original "Borderlands," comes to your rescue and nurses you back into fighting trim. The bad news: You cannot escape. The good news: There are so many guns lying around Pandora you can dish out way more pain than you can take.
You play as one of four "vault hunters." Salvador, the "gunzerker," can wield two firearms at once, while Axton, the commando, can deploy turrets. Maya, the siren, has psychic powers, and Zero, the assassin, can become invisible and blindside the enemy. They're all fighting against the charismatic sociopath Handsome Jack, who wants to claim all the riches of Pandora for his Hyperion Corp.
No matter which hero you choose, you'll be able to wield any of the weapons in "Borderlands 2," from pistols and sniper rifles to machine guns and bazookas. And you won't just be filling your foes with lead: Certain guns will electrocute them, or set them on fire, or coat them with corrosive goo.
The diverse character lineup and the seemingly infinite arsenal allow you to play each mission in your own style. If you're a run-and-gun type, arming Salvador with a couple of SMGs will get the job done. I prefer a more cautious approach, so I played as Zero, sniping from a distance and turning invisible when the action got too hairy. You can also join forces online with up to three other humans, combining all four vault hunters' attacks in spectacular bursts of mayhem.
The war against Handsome Jack gives "Borderlands 2" a spine the original sorely lacked. It's hardly an original plot, but developer Gearbox Software has laced it with so much morbid humor that it feels completely fresh. From Claptrap's frantic gibberish to Handsome Jack's sneering putdowns, the dialogue is consistently hilarious.
Indeed, the writing in "Borderlands 2" is so strong, particularly for its genre, that it took me by surprise. An awkward romance between two familiar faces comes off as endearing rather than sappy. A hyperactive girl named Tiny Tina - "the world's most dangerous 13-year-old" - turns sympathetic while you're helping her arrange a tea party. Even Handsome Jack isn't quite the stock villain he first appears.
2K is advertising "Borderlands 2" as "a new era of shoot and loot," and that's the core of its gameplay. You fire off all your ammo, scavenge loot from the corpses and use it to buy deadlier weapons. It's an insidiously addictive cycle, but Gearbox wasn't content to let the series stand on that alone. With an expansive world, memorable characters and clever mission design, "Borderlands 2" elevates its franchise into one of the premium attractions in the video-game universe. Three and a half stars out of four.