Developed by Gearbox Software, 2K Australia. Published by 2K Games. Released October 14, 2014. Available on PC (reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3. Copy provided by publisher. Reviewer Jim Sterling and writer Anthony Burch used to work at Destructoid together.
What do you do when you have a terrific one-shot villain and you need more of him? It’s time for a prequel! I’m willing to guess that the chance for more Handsome Jack was a big motivator in the decision to create Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, a game set between the events of Borderlands and Borderlands 2. Showcasing Jack’s rise to power from low-level programmer to Hyperion Corporation overlord, The Pre-Sequel has made a damn fine call in giving us more of one of gaming’s most sarcastic antagonists.
Presented as a flashback tale relayed by the mercenary Athena, The Pre-Sequel‘s action takes place predominantly on Pandora’s moon, Elpis. Here, the yet-to-become Handsome Jack unites three vault hunters – the aforementioned Athena, the cybernetic Wilhelm, the gunslinging Nisha, and a customized Claptrap unit – in a bid to stop the zealous Lost Legion from destroying everybody who calls the moon their home. Apparently there’s a lot of people there!
As one might expect, the story is packed with humor, with Jack once again providing the majority of the laughs, even with his more sympathetic characterization. The Jack of The Pre-Sequel is still a definite asshole, but he’s portrayed as willing to place his life on the line and get stuck in with the fighting, and his gradual acceptance of a more sadistic way of doing things is amusing – and somewhat disturbing – to witness.
For reasons unexplained, Elpis is where everybody with an Australian accent lives. The usual voices one might expect from Pandora’s raiders and psychos are now replaced with soundbites picked fresh from the Commonwealth, and there’s all sorts of referential Aussie humor for those learned enough to know their billabongs from their jumbucks. While I miss the usual cries of “Salt the wound,” the aural changes are entertaining in their own right, and help give Elpis its own flavor. That said, the coincidental fact that a bunch of characters from previous games all happened to be on the moon at the exact same time – including such unlikely players as Moxxi and Crazy Earl – feels a little bit like a creative crutch.
That said, we get our four fresh vault hunters, each with their own specializations and playstyles. Athena the Gladiator is a tanked up fighter, able to fling her shield like Shaptain Shmamerica. Wilhelm is the “pet” class, with a pair of bots that generate defense and offense, while Nisha specializes in dealing straight damage and can use a whip to tear foes up. The star of the show, however (and likely to be the most overused character ever) is Claptrap the Fragtrap, whose action skill is ostensibly a gamble. By assessing various factors (health, enemies present, ammo count), Claptrap can pull from any number of weird abilities when his action skill meter is full, able to transform into a pirate ship, summon a gigantic bomb, or create a tiny flying minion that deals fire and corrosive damage. He is undeniably a lot of fun, even if you hate the little thing.
As always, each character can pick from three skill trees apiece when they level up, spending points to further customize their classes. Stat boosts, new action skills, and rewards for kills are all unlocked in these trees, allowing players to find a playstyle with a playstyle. This is further helped along by class mods – equippable items picked up as loot that can tweak stats even more. I personally went with a Claptrap (naturally) that acted as a support, using a range to skills to heal and buff not only himself, but any cooperating players that might drop in. As a fan of support/healer classes in general, it’s nice to see a really good one present in the Pre-Sequel.
It wouldn’t be a Borderlands game without loot, and once again there is a ridiculous amount of weaponry to be picked up, from rocket launchers to shotguns to sniper rifles, each with their own elemental effects, statistics, and rarity levels. One brand new gun type has been introduced on Elpis, the laser, which can come as either a shotgun-like blast variety or a concentrated beam. The beam type is an absolute beast in combat, able to provide fire at a ridiculously consistent rate, especially if you find one that deals more damage the longer you keep it firing.
Beam weapons are fantastic, but they’re so powerful that I’ve found myself generally unwilling to use anything else in a fight. For as long as I have laser ammo in the bag, that’s all I care to use, with all the other gun types being firmly upstaged.
Joining the laser is a new elemental type, ice. Ice weapons behave pretty much as you’d expect them to – where electricity damages shields and corrosion chews through armor, the ice element freezes opponents while dealing damage, and may cause the trapped enemy to shatter if you keep pressing the attack. Unlike with laser weaponry, the ice element doesn’t overshadow the other elements quite so much, fitting quite nicely into the repertoire.
For the most part, The Pre-Sequel is just another Borderlands game, with all the good and bad that entails. This particular installment does try to shake things up, however, with Elpis and its unique environment. Being a Moon, a vast majority of the game’s areas feature reduced gravity, punctuated with domes of atmosphere where physics behave as normal. A new piece of equipment – the Oz kit – provides each character with oxygen, replenished at outposts or interiors with an atmosphere, and expended while out in the field (unless you’re Claptrap). There are enough pockets of oxygen where running out really ought not to be an issue, though it does make players more aware of their surroundings.
Oxygen can also be expelled to gain extra height and length in jumps, allowing players to float a little and cross large gaps, or leap high into the air and then stomp down with a new attack – the colloquially named Butt Slam. Each Oz kit has its own properties, allowing for more or less O2, and even adding elemental effects to the Slam, which I quickly fell in love with as an effective crowd-clearer and infinitely superior attack to the basic melee smack.
Another fun new addition is the Grinder, a machine in the hub city of Concordia that lets you toss in three guns from your inventory, and combine them to form a new one. This is a great way to turn blue-grade weapons into rarer purple-grade ones, and some truly interesting new loot can be scored. Given how useless cash becomes in these games, it’s a great alternative to selling one’s equipment.
New vehicles are also available on the moon, with a space buggy that behaves similarly to previous games’ vehicles, and the Stingray, a one-person hoverbike that can levitate itself and provide its own slam attack. Stingrays are certainly fun to use, and feel pretty essential when dealing with some of Elpis’ environments.
Map design has never been Borderlands‘ strong suit, to be honest, and that issue has been exacerbated by The Pre-Sequel‘s fascination with verticality. There’s more platforming this time around, with boost pads and large chasms dotted all over the place. Sadly, some of these chasms really aren’t signposted very well, and jump pads don’t always take players where they should go, leading to me falling to my death here more than either of the previous installments. With a lot of levels featuring more layers than before, finding objectives can be a hassle, while the exterior sections are crammed with rivers of lava and other instant-death hazards that just aren’t very enjoyable to navigate.
While we’re on the negative side of things, it has to be reiterated that, even with the new setting and handful of fresh toys, The Pre-Sequel truly is just more Borderlands. This means you get the same loot-hungry compulsion to play, but also the same exhaustion in fighting the same bullet sponge enemies over and over. You get the same moments of genuine referential wit that can make you laugh out loud, but the same moments of desperation where limp fart jokes or overacting screams are used in place of an actual gag. Of course, if you’re obsessed with Borderlands and can’t wait for more, this is all good stuff. If you might be feeling tired of the same old game, the lack of active improvements to the structure and design might make this a case of one release too many.
Personally, I still have room for more Borderlands, even if I’m a little less impressed each time I see it. With other loot-driven first-person shooter games failing to scratch my itch for increasingly powerful guns, The Pre-Sequel has arrived at just the right time. Just be aware that, more than likely, your co-op experience will very likely consist of four Claptraps rolling around.
Oh, and some sensitive nice guys are going to hate the “friendzone” joke, but I laughed.
Bottom Line: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a funny cartoon shooter that compels you to keep playing and score more guns. Just like the last two. Laser weapons and moon bouncing add a little extra flavor, but if you don’t like Borderlands by now, this won’t change things.
Recommendation: If more of the same sounds just dandy to you, this is as good as it ever was.[rating=4]