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updated 9/19/2012 10:17:55 AM ET 2012-09-19T14:17:55

A couple of years ago, Gearbox Software and 2K Games changed the face of first-person games with "Borderlands." The title not only combined the thrill of taking down mutant freaks and robots with a bounty of firearms, but also included support for multiple players, hours' worth of missions and leveling-up elements usually reserved for role-playing games. After selling millions of copies, these teams have returned with a sequel that is bigger and way better.

In "Borderlands 2," now available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles ($60) and for PCs ($50), you portray one of four Vault Hunters, bounty seekers looking for alien crystals, among other goods, beneath the surface of the fantasy-themed planet Pandora. But a corporate creep by the name of Handsome Jack has beaten them to the punch, laying claim to the fortune and sending armadas of droids, freaks and other threats to silence these would-be heroes.

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"Borderlands 2" follows a simple rule – the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. Like the original, it offers an abundance of story and side missions to complete, including clearing enemy camps of beasts and mercenaries and escorting important characters to vital points in the mission. Doing so earns you "loot" (cash), with which you can buy weapons, health and other goods. (If you're not in a buying mood, you can also pick up cool weapons and health vials from defeated enemies.)

This sequel comes with a wallop of a power-up system. Each character has skill trees you can choose from, as well as special abilities they can use sporadically to clear the room of thugs. Maya, for example, is a magical Siren who can use energy to suspend enemies in midair. Later, she can level up to the point of unleashing a deadly vortex that destroys everyone within range. The other classes, including Zero the Assassin, Salvador the Gunzerker (gunman) and Axton the Commando, have their own abilities. A fifth character, Gaige the Mechromancer, will be added next month via download. So there's no shortage of playable characters.

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"Borderlands 2" is the sort of game you can really grind through, just to see where it takes you. You'll die often, but the somewhat fair use of respawn points (for a small fee) guarantees you'll be back. You can also fight for your life by shooting at enemies as you lay dying and gaining a second wind with a successful kill. The controls are excellent, as in the first game, and the number of guns you'll run into is staggering. We've played the game for hours and only scratched the surface.

Like the first game, "Borderlands 2" has a personable touch with its presentation. The graphics are unique, thanks to the use of cel shading (which mimics the look of a comic book) and some quirky character designs. From the smack-talking Claptrap robot to the introduction of the cyberarmed soldier Sir Hammerlock, you're bound to find some new favorites. And as much as he taunts you throughout the game, Handsome Jack just might grow on you. He's hilarious.

The visuals are backed by some terrific voice work and dialogue. As serious as the action gets, it has a humorous, don’t-hold-back sort of tone — with enough cursing, death taunts and hilariously nonsensical banter to keep you coming back for more. (Claptrap by himself has enough zingers to fill his own game.) The music is ideal for the game as well, with plenty of Southern rock tunes and battle themes to keep your blood pumped.

As great as "Borderlands 2" is as a solo effort, your best bet is to team up with friends. The game fully supports online co-op for up to four people, and later on, you'll be glad they tagged along — especially if you're a newcomer. Some of the "boss" characters you face are so epic that you won't stand a chance on your own.

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"Borderlands 2" is everything you could want in a game sequel – packed with more missions and weapons, fun co-op with friends and a personable presentation that makes you feel welcome – even with everyone shooting at you. It's well worth the "loot."

RATING: 4 / 4 

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