Would it be to reductive to simply say that Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel was more Borderlands? Maybe. Probably. I mean, it's a true statement, as this third iteration in Gearbox's Diablo with guns franchise is just that, an iteration. Passed to 2K Australia, and staying with the last generation because it made the most fiscal sense, this mid-quel remains mostly the same as the game it precedes in story, though the changes it has brought make a solid and noticeable impact.
Make no mistake though, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is Borderlands through and through.
As the name so aptly suggests, the Pre-Sequel takes place between the first and second games, helping to flesh out, for some god awful reason or another, the story of Handsome Jack's rise to power. With, quite literally, no character arc to speak of, Jack both begins and ends the game as a sociopath with a penchant a for bad jokes, death, and utter disregard for anyone in any kind of position of power above him. To be fair, his boss, Tassiter, who set him up on the Helios Space Station (the station shaped like a giant H in orbit around Pandora, the main planet of the series) as an observer, is also quite the dick, but that just seems to be the way of things in this crazy future Gearbox created 5 years ago.
In keeping with series norms, Jack hires the new Vault Hunters to help him both protect Pandora's moon Elpis, and find the vault located on its surface. Naturally, this leads to whole heaps of trouble with the Vault's current protectors, the Lost Legion, and sends you scurrying ass over tea kettle around Pandora's satellite.
While the story itself is rather lack luster, it does have its moments when it ties back into the greater Borderlands fiction. Seeing where things like the Loader robots you fight all through Borderlands 2 come from, or why one of his Constructors was named Felicity, are definite highlights, and even more little references sprinkled through out elicited small chuckles and the even rarer “oh cool.” I also appreciated the framing mechanic, that of a story told to the original Vault Hunters by Athena, one of the new hunters and former mercenary in the employ of General Knoxx. It allows for frequent interruptions by by Brick, Lilith, and even Tiny Tina to add their own commentary from the side line. This even plays into the second campaign, where brilliantly, Tina and Brick ask Athena to tell the story again, but this time, change all the names.
I found those moments, where The Pre-Sequel escapes into itself, to be both the funniest and the most enjoyable. Most of its other attempts at humor rely on low hanging fruit, dipping, as the other games have, into the pop culture well a few too many times. In a rather interesting turn though, it eschews the meme jokes for some rather impressive attempts to address current social issues. While I don't want to spoil what story there is, more then one piece of the plot line revolves around men taking overt advantage over their women subordinates, and those women's attempts to free themselves from their situation, only to once again wind up in the same predicament, only worse. It's a commentary that some will miss in between the barrage of bullets going into and cascade of guns popping out of whatever tries to stand in your way, but its one that is there nonetheless. It also takes quite a few pop shots at the men responsible for those actions, casting them as incapable of understanding the error of their ways even to the point of death. These references, those aimed at the stereotypical “bro” that enjoys games and yet refuses to see how they could be more inclusive, are far more overt, with one case spelling out the problem in simple terms and offering a simple, violent answer that works on a world (or its moon) where violence tends to be the only acceptable way of getting things done.
Your avatars on this journey across Pandora's moon are new, and yet, unlike the previous games, are all characters who have made appearances as either NPCs or direct enemies. Defined by their class skills, 3 of the 4 take up roles similar to their previous Vault Hunter brethren. Wilhelm can summon two drones, one of which serves as a roaming turret, while second replenishes his shields. Nisha is all offense and excels with pistols. Athena, who I spent the majority of my time with, comes equipped with a physical shield that absorbs attacks, eventually turning them into energy that explodes when she throws it. Amazingly though, the dark horse of this line up is the final character, series mascot Claptrap.
Designated Fragtrap, Claptrap is the ultimate team player. With a whole skill tree designed around giving buffs to team mates, he is a joy to have in a group, which, given his predilection for annoyance and dancing, goes against all your basic instincts. Add to that his class skill, VaultHunter.EXE, which emulates the characteristics of past vault hunters, such as throwing turrets, turning invisible, or being able to beat things mercilessly in melee, and he is a veritable jack of all trades. If there is one class that has to be tried, at least once, it's this one.
There are a few new gun varieties, namely lasers and cryo weapons. Lasers actually split into a couple different groups, with guns that emulate the rapid fire of sub machine guns, to the spread of Borderlands super inaccurate shotguns. Unique among them though, is the solid beam, which, on top of looking like your shooting a proton pack, manages to straddle the line between accuracy and power. I sat on an electrical, shield destroying beam weapon through the last 8-10 hours of the game, which despite not bearing the types of numbers that inspire awe, performed like a champ and carried me through a multitude of encounters. Cryo weapons are also welcome additions, as their ability to freeze enemies solid is a great counter to both flying enemies, who shatter upon impact with the ground, and the groups that accompany them, by acting as a type of crowd control.
Unfortunately, where many of the additions to The Pre-Sequel serve to set it apart from its progenitors, it makes two major missteps in terms of both setting and pacing. Taking place entirely on Elpis and within the Helios space station, this game shares more in common with the first Borderlands then its sequel, trading in the drab browns for dingy grays. While the moon does sport some different environmental features, like lava flows and pools of a liquid nitrogen equivalent, you spend the majority of you time killing things either on its drab surface or within the confines of its industrial-like colonies. There are a few standout areas, like the R and D wing of the Helios station or the Vault itself, but these show up far too late to make any significant difference.
The main features of the moon, aside from its lack of color, are its lack of atmosphere and lower gravity. The atmosphere is dealt with using your O2 gauge, or “OZ” as the inhabitants of the moon call it. At most, dealing with air is a minor inconvenience, and one that is avoidable if you choose to go with Claptrap, who despite his insistence that he needs to breathe, does not actually need to breathe. The main draw, both of an on the O2 tanks is extending your jumps, which already grant you some serious air time. Its a nice effect, and really makes a difference when you're getting around the environment. It also allowed the developers to delve into the realm of light platforming, going so far as to add a bit of a puzzle element in getting across the various areas. While great as an idea, in practice the verticality reveals some serious flaws in Borderlands' way point system. There were multiple times I got lost because I could not find the exit amidst multiple levels, and it was only through experimenting, as well as massive resurrection costs, that I was able to find my way through. To make things more complex, the environment is surrounded by random invisible walls, thereby rendering jumps that felt like they would work impossible, which in turn changes exploration from something fun to straight up annoying.
This feeds directly into The Pre-Sequel's pacing issues. The main quest line is pretty straight forward, with the majority of it seeking to stop the Helios's GIANT SPACE LASER from chewing into and eventually destroying the moon. You are constantly reminded of this, as the LASER is always within your line of sight, and the moon is constantly rumbling because of it. This sense of urgency is eroded by the dozens side quests spread throughout the areas. Made up of the same type of fetch quests that have populated the other games, all of them serve to take you away from your objective, and the way they are situated around the areas rather then in one central quest hub means you'll be doing a lot of running around through the same areas over and over again. Plus, when the story begins to feel like it's winding up, you still got about 5-7 more hours. Wondering just when this will end sucked the life out of my playthrough, and I had to force myself to stop and do something else to get back into the swing of things.
I thought about leaving this last part off, but figured that while it goes without saying for me, I might as well put it in print. All games in the Borderlands series are infinitely better when played with someone else. You don't necessarily need a full compliment of 4 players, but having at least one person along for the ride reduces the game's burden of fun. While my time with it was all pre-release, I've never found matchmaking a problem for any of the previous games, and see no reason why it would be for this one.
Over, under and through, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! is a Borderlands game. If you enjoyed previous games, you'll enjoy this one, though I'm happy to see that Gearbox proper is taking a break from the series for a bit. I also hope that this will not be the last we see of 2K Australia, who managed, despite using a license, to let their own voices shine through. With the majority of changes being positive, the only thing that should give someone pause over taking the plunge is whether or not you want more Borderlands.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!