If you’re like me and you loved Borderlands, but Borderlands 2 wasn’t quite your jam, then you’ll probably find a lot to love in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. I certainly liked The Pre-Sequel several times more than I ever liked BL2, but for every time you’re reminded of how much you like the original, there’s another time you’ll learn to appreciate all the polishing work the sequel received.
No matter what the title may try to have you believe, The Pre-Sequel is just a prequel, taking place between BL1’s “The Secret Armory of General Knoxx” and “Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution” DLC. It details Handsome Jack’s fall from semi-heroic douchebag to homicidal psychopath, and of course, the four Vault Hunters he prods along.
The four Vault Hunters in question this time around are Wilhelm, Athena, Claptrap, and Nisha. I played as Wilhelm, who could summon two drones, Wolf and Saint, to fight and heal respectively. Athena can temporarily make use of a Captain America shield, and Nisha can activate a Red Dead Redemption-style Dead Eye mode where time slows and her aim is lock-on. Claptrap’s ability is the most interesting and certainly the most unique yet in the series, pulling from a pool of just over a dozen abilities based on an assessment of your current situation.
The Pre-Sequel mostly takes place on one of Pandora’s moons, Elpis. On Elpis, the gravity is extremely low and the oxygen is sparse, limited to founts of air dotted around the map and bubbles of generated atmosphere. Elpis itself is one of the main aspects of the game that makes me feel its closeness to BL1 over BL2. Much of it takes place in big industrial buildings populated with bandits and its open areas feel more snug and humble in scope than Borderlands 2’s comparatively sprawling maps.
Combat receives some great, and arguably much-needed, boons from Elpis’ low gravity. Bounding across the map and leaping into the air with your enemies is an experience not a lot of games offer, and this game definitely makes a case for it. You’re granted a sort of double-jump mixed with a glide that can grant you some extra air-time, and an AOE ground-pound, both at the cost of some of your depleting oxygen. Most enemies are capable of the same, and some even fly around on jetpacks. The combat is immensely refreshing and challenging in ways few, if any, games I’ve played have managed to be.
The oxygen system, however, is a painfully missed opportunity mixed with a blatant contradiction. In one of the first true fights in the game, I was having a terrific time having to manage and refill my oxygen while flying through the air and picking off bandits in every direction. Shortly after, however, I realized that half of the fun of that battle – managing my oxygen – was nearly pointless, as the health penalty is negligible. I thought to myself, ‘Sure. It’s just a means to limit the spamming of the glide and ground-pound, not a vital resource to manage at all times.’
But if this is the case, then the blinking of the screen that happens when you run out of oxygen is a sincerely frustrating design decision. Your sole tangible consequence for the depletion of O2 is the screen blinking black, and it feels somehow cheap to me that your only real threat of death comes from outside the direct loss of health, and from a contrived extra mechanic that makes any sort of fight virtually impossible.
The extra maneuvering capability low gravity grants you isn’t put to very good use from an exploration standpoint, with invisible walls frequently blocking paths you’re perfectly able to reach. Low gravity even more frequently leads to you being completely lost. The level design often doesn’t accommodate it well and the critical path in these cases is usually a barely visible nook and/or cranny.
Other less sweeping changes have been made to the Borderlands formula. For lore reasons, slag doesn’t exist yet, and so has been replaced by cryo. Cryo works as an ice element can be expected to work. Once enemies sustain enough of the element they’re frozen, and an explosive attack can shatter them. Laser weapons make their debut as a weapon type, and come in many lasery forms from streams to railguns.
One disappointing addition is The Grinder, which is a cool idea on paper but doesn’t really perform in execution. Essentially, you can combine three weapons of the same rarity into one of a higher rarity, the premise being that common weapons can be ground all the way up the ladder. It never saw much use from me, however, because I didn’t feel it was worth the trip all the way back to the sole Grinder in the game to basically role the dice and get a gun that didn’t seem to have much to do with characteristics of the guns used to make it. A kind of guide or recipe book would have been welcome.
I wasn’t even a little fan of Borderlands 2’s writing, and while I feel The Pre-Sequel’s writing is a step forward from it, it replaces BL2’s issues with its own equally severe ones. Memes, internet jokes and bonerfarts have been almost entirely excised, and the legitimate attempts at humor are at least respectable, but the game is just loaded with Tiny Tina-esque annoying characters who are both deliberately annoying and actually really annoying. The most I got out of the humor surprisingly came from sidequests involving Claptraps and maintenance bots.
Jack’s transformation is equally clumsy, and rather than happening subtly over the course of the game, spikes noticeably at random intervals. The only real sign he’s turning villainous is when he kills various innocent people, tries to justify it, then mumbles hilariously “I kinda liked that!”, as if we would miss the planet-sized “THIS CHARACTER IS CHANGING” neon sign flying at our face. It’s incredibly cheesy and amateurish, which is unfortunate, as it’s much of the point of the story.
Quest design is also dire. It’s a forgivable thing for an RPG to pad out its runtime through problems springing up with the main objective, resulting in a sub-objective to resolve before you can move on. Almost every RPG does this in some capacity. The Pre-Sequel, however, takes this concept to an extreme. The first five to six hours of its 20-hour campaign consists almost exclusively of fixing machines you need to use in order to complete the objective. Machines that are conveniently on the other side of the map, because of course, Elpis was one of the most efficiently designed moons of its time. This pattern of machines breaking down, people demanding you do extra work before they let you do the favor you volunteered to do for them, and machines breaking down does peter out but is pervasive to some extent throughout the entire game.
Ultimately, The Pre-Sequel left me with two feelings: one of pleasure – that it’s as better than Borderlands 2 as it is – and a feeling that this game is just not very good. It’s ridden with evidence that a polishing job was something that simply didn’t happen. It’s 2014, and I just played an FPS where enemies sometimes clip through the floor. This and the game’s many other flawed systems tell me it was a bit of a rush job, but it’s still the most fun I’ve had with a Borderlands since the original.
Ethics Disclosure: This game was purchased by the reviewer.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel can be purchased from Steam, and for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.