Mayhem returns but is it enough to propel 2K Australia’s FPS to the moon?
The video game industry is a funny thing. We’ll poo poo innovation at first but criticize familiarity. If something is done right, providing a wave of fun to consumers, it’ll still be stepped on for recycling too much of what worked before. This is standard procedure – after all, doesn’t it make sense to do new things rather than coast off of past success?
However, what separates Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel from, say, Bungie’s Destiny is that it makes no bones about what it is. This isn’t Borderlands 3 and it’s not even the full-blown madness of Borderlands 2. This is the venerable stepping stone from the first to second game and while it has its share of problems, life on Elpis is pretty damn fun.
"The presentation makes no bones about being a side-story, albeit a meaty one, as it’s narrated in flashback form by Athena while being interrogated by Lilith and the forces of Sanctuary."
Set between the first two games, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel has you playing as one of four new Vault Hunters. Athena is an ex-Crimson Lance assassin first seen with General Knoxx in the first game who now works as a gun for hire; Nisha is a hardened bandit killer with a troubled past and a penchant for violence; Wilhelm is a mechanized enforcer slowly losing his humanity to machinery; and Claptrap is, well, Claptrap which presents its own set of unique consequences.
The four have been called by a lowly programmer named Jack – who surely won’t become important later on – to Helios, the Hyperion space station orbiting Pandora and the moon Elpis. As you reach there, the station comes under attack from the Dahl Corporation’s Lost Legion led by Colonel Zarpedon. Ultimately, you’ll make your way to Elpis and work on taking back Helios from the Lost Legion in order to save the moon and Pandora.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel manages the feat of filling in the blanks between both games while presenting an intriguing story of its own. The presentation makes no bones about being a side-story, albeit a meaty one, as it’s narrated in flashback form by Athena while being interrogated by Lilith and the forces of Sanctuary. You’ll come to learn about the circumstances that brought Jack to Elpis, what led to the rise of Jack’s robot army, the relationship of various characters to Hyperion and even how future villains were once heroes of Elpis.
The good news is that developer 2K Australia doesn’t outright fall back on established profiles in order to win you over. Jack is far from the Handsome bad-ass of the second game but has a fair amount of wit and enthusiasm – in fact, it’s to the studio’s credit that it can present Jack as a believably sympathetic character. What went wrong and how did it all change Jack? The Pre-Sequel holds all the answers and they’re far from pretty.
"Along with your standard variety of sniper rifles, assault rifles, shotguns, pistols and more, you’ll have a unique action skill for each character that acts as their special ability in combat."
What is pretty is the surface of Elpis. Being on such an alien environment allows for experimentation not seen in Borderlands 2. You’ll have wide-open, chalk white environments but also chasms of lava and frozen pools. Ice caverns, bizarrely textured landscapes and the same off-kilter design that defines the series are only some of the visual treats you’ll notice.
Combined with the weapon effects and outright insanity of the action and it’s hard to not pay attention to what’s happening in-game. Intense fire fights are appealing in The Pre-Sequel and thanks to the moon setting, there’s far more variety in how you do battle. Along with your standard variety of sniper rifles, assault rifles, shotguns, pistols and more, you’ll have a unique action skill for each character that acts as their special ability in combat.
One has handled both Athena’s Aspis Shield and Nisha’s Showdown ability and can thus confirm that they significantly alter the game in their own ways. Athena’s skill lets her hold a shield to absorb damage – this can then be thrown at enemies, reflecting back the same kinetic energy absorbed. Different upgrades let the shield ricochet off of multiple enemies and it’s interesting to use in conjunction with high capacity assault rifles and SMGs since they essentially buy time while the Aspis keeps you shielded and builds up energy from absorbed damage.
Meanwhile, Nisha’s Showdown demands weapons with a high fire rate and reload speed. The skill drenches the screen in old-timey Western sepia and lets you quickly flick between targets without having to manually aim. Each shot is an assured critical and Showdown can be modified to increase critical damage, recharge shields and health, and even to go on longer with the more kills you rack up.
"On the whole, combat is a blast. In fact, when you’re meeting intriguing new characters like The Skipper and Janey Springs and murdering your way through Elpis, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a blast."
However, the beauty of combat in Borderlands is that you’re never confined to a specific skill set or tree. Do you want to focus on Nisha’s Law and Order tree and build up her insta-benefit abilities? Do you want to give Athena a push in the melee direction, using her sword to mark enemies for execution? The choice is yours and it helps give an already diverse system of play even more variety.
Then there are the O2 or OZ kits that help provide oxygen while wandering Elpis but are facilitators for the game’s double jumping and ground pounding. Not only do they carry their own benefits with increased fire rate and elemental damage but the OZ kits can also increase weapon damage while floating in the air. Subsequently some OZ kits can provide better O2 consumption and even increased damage depending on how much O2 is remaining (or consumed). The ground pound itself adds even more variety, letting you annihilate lesser foes or buy some breathing room from the bad-asses. Combined with the new Freeze guns, you can use the ground pound to shatter frozen enemies into pieces.
On the whole, combat is a blast. In fact, when you’re meeting intriguing new characters like The Skipper and Janey Springs and murdering your way through Elpis, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a blast. That’s not even taking into account the sheer mayhem and difficulty spike that co-op provides.
The loot grind is also back and manifests itself into a venerable Loot Grinder which accepts three different weapons in exchange for providing a better item of higher quality. This is balanced out by having three weapons of the same colour and type in order to work but the Loot Grinder is otherwise a fantastic way to discard old guns.
"Where it suffers are in the same areas that plagued the original Borderlands and were somewhat played down but still present in the sequel."
Money as such becomes a waste after the initial stages in Borderlands and it’s good to keep it as a way to buy bullets or assorted other goodies in The Pre-Sequel while keeping the gun economy separate. Be careful though – once you start grinding for moonstones to feed them to the literal Grinder and collecting Grinder weapons to further craft more powerful guns, you’ll find yourself in a loop from where there seems to be no point of return.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel thus thrives on the main tenets of combat, looting and character progression. Where it suffers are in the same areas that plagued the original Borderlands and were somewhat played down but still present in the sequel. Unlike the second game, the narrative pacing for The Pre-Sequel feels slower.
It’s not until you reach The Bosun and The Skipper while opening up the Loot Grinder that the game really kick-starts the adventure. Even after that, you’ll still be participating in quests that require you to run from one location to do something only to discover you must run somewhere else to accomplish another task and then run back to the original spot to progress.
It can get tiring at times and while present in the older games, The Pre-Sequel seems to tack on more of the same in the initial stages. Surprisingly enough, there are a fair number of bugs in the game as well, ranging from clipping issues to spotty character AI (which can necessitate a restart at times).
"Fans will be left wanting even more when it’s all over though and the solution in that case won’t be to make a Pre-Sequel 2."
The side-quests are also much of the same variety as before, which means you’ll either be going to places and killing things or collecting items and killing things. There’s a good under-current of smart writing and characterization to make each quest worth pursuing, even if many of the newer characters can be hit or miss at times. That being said, Janey Springs has captured my heart and I can’t imagine a future Borderlands title without her.
For all that’s changed with Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, it feels like 2K Australia is playing it a bit too safe, both in balancing out the game’s place in the overarching story and trying hard to not rock the boat. At times, it feels like the game has been padded out in order to give it a more full-fledged appeal rather than coming off as an expansion.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is more Borderlands and that’s not a bad thing at all. Fans will be left wanting even more when it’s all over though and the solution in that case won’t be to make a Pre-Sequel 2. Gearbox Software will really need to change things up with Borderlands 3 but for those who want their fix now, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel feels oh so right despite getting quite a bit wrong.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Great visual design. Voice acting and characterization is strong. Story serves as compelling interlude. Combat, loot, loot Grinder, more combat, repeat - the stuff of awesome fun times. Janey Springs.
Some annoying bugs. Pacing issues in initial stages. Back and forth missions can get tiring. Doesn't push the envelope despite notable new additions to gameplay.
More of the same? Probably but Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is still a rollicking good time of murder, loot and moon-hopping.