Review: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

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When it comes to games, a name says a lot about what players expect to get out of the experience. Whether there is a 2 or a 14 after a title, players have an expectation that there will be a familiarity to the gameplay as well as the introduction of some new mechanics or at the very least fixes to features that didn’t work as well as they could have in the previous installment. But what happens when numbers are thrown out the window and a game is mockingly called a Pre-Sequel?

2K Australia, in collaboration with series creators Gearbox Software, answers that very question with the release of a new Borderlands experience that takes place between Borderlands and Borderlands 2 and uses that exact subtitle.

Loot-fest games have one thing going for them, loot. Lots and lots of loot. The reward loop for killing enemies and potentially looting the next great item is what sucks most people in. Loot-fests don’t necessarily excel on story, but when there is a compelling narrative, it adds a wonderful layer to the balance of kill, kill, kill, loot, loot, loot. When Borderlands 2 came out two years ago, Gearbox brought a slew of changes to the original game’s formula while refining and making the gameplay that much more enjoyable. In many respects, The Pre-Sequel takes the exact formula from Borderlands 2 and simply plots a new narrative over the same mechanics and engine.

The big bad in Borderlands 2 was the overly charming, greedy, sinister, hate-to-love, Handsome Jack. The premise of The Pre-Sequel is telling the backstory of how Jack rose to power. Handsome Jack is a divisive character. Some folks loved his smarmy wit, while others found him to be too one dimensional and annoying. Focusing another entire story around Jack is a gamble that 2K took while shifting the story off of Pandora and instead placing events on its moon and the Hyperion Space Station, Helios, which was constant in both of the previous games.

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This slight shift in location opens an opportunity to tweak some elements of the game while also maintaining a continuity with the universe. Jack is first introduced as a lower level tech nerd for Hyperion who has the intention of stopping the rogue General Zarpedon from using the space station as a weapon to destroy Pandora. The intention seems noble, but clearly the megalomaniac side of Jack begins to appear as the missions progress. Telling a story can be challenging, especially when seemingly retconning an entire game into the previous two titles. Getting around this, 2K manages to use in medias res to have known characters interrogate the new group of vault hunters into explaining their actions.

The four new vault hunters to choose from in The Pre-Sequel are: Athena, a former Crimson Lancer turned mercenary after the death of General Knoxx (one of the better DLC add-ons from the original Borderlands); Wilhelm, a Hyperion engineer who self modifies via his engineering abilities (who later becomes a boss in Borderlands 2); the ruthless gunslinger Nisha the Lawbringer (also a secondary boss in Borderlands 2); and finally Fragtrap, a modified Claptrap created for war. As with the previous two titles, I found myself torn between all of the vault hunters initially. I finally picked Fragtrap for one reason: he’s a robot and isn’t prone to the diminishing oxygen mechanic introduced in this game. (I’ll get to that more in a bit.)

Of all the characters in the Borderlands universe, Claptrap is the one character that is identifiable throughout. His semi-annoying, yet chipper demeanor has always provided enjoyment and humor. Since Fragtrap is a death machine version of Claptrap, his special ability is a modified software application called VaultHunter.EXE (jokingly called malware in game) which randomly triggers abilities similar to all of the previous vault hunters. As the tech tree is filled out, additional abilities have the potential to be triggered. Some of them aren’t nearly as useful when there are a swarm of enemies, such as One Shot Wonder, which unloads all ammo at once for serious damage in exchange for needing to constantly reload and hoping the blast actually hits, while others, like Miniontrap, plant a mini Claptrap turret spewing out fiery death to torch enemies. Because of its random nature, I found that I didn’t rely on the special nearly as often as I did with Gauge or Mordecai in the previous games. However, when the special triggers a useful attack, then Fragtrap feels like a total overpowered badass.

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The trade off of Fragtrap’s random special is the fact that he doesn’t require oxygen. Since the game spends a large amount of time on the surface of Pandora’s moon, or on the exterior of the space station Helios, 2K had to devise ways to place pockets of oxygen around the various environments. Typically the pockets of oxygen are either within buildings with airlock-like shields, or little free standing shield generators that can be enabled or disabled at will. Since I like to spend a lot of time just exploring the world, I felt that I would still be able to explore at my leasure without feeling like I was penalized by the constant diminishment of oxygen. Fortunately, the game is pretty liberal with the standalone generators, so there shouldn’t be much hassle playing with the other characters. There is also a new gadget that all vault hunters can equip called Oz kits. The Oz kits are just like the shields, grenades and class-based equipment in that they can be common, rare, epic or legendary and provide boosts to various stats within the vault hunter’s skill tree. The Oz kits also allow the vault hunters (aside from Fragtrap) to move freely around the surface of the moon without immediately needing to find a source of oxygen.

Low gravity has been added as another new environmental factor to change up the otherwise standard gameplay. The low gravity allows for high jumping as well as traversal around the moon to access areas that would otherwise be impossible to reach. Combat in low gravity allows for an additional method for attacking once up in the air in the form of a butt slam or ground pound performed by crouching after launching airborne, which does a limited area of effect damage attack. This type of attack is not singled out to just the vault hunters, but rather all enemies can take advantage of this mode of attack to inflict damage on you as well. For all the praise that has been lavished upon games like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Titanfall for the added combat mobility, I have to say, low gravity in The Pre-Sequel is just as much fun, if not more so.

The only disappointment with the low gravity is the over emphasis on navigation around hard to reach ledges and platforms. For example, one particular side mission involves putting up propaganda posters in an enemy fort. Instead of placing the posters along the ground where all of the enemies were (and would actually see them), the mission has you jumping to really high, out of reach locations to spread the good word, which doesn’t make any damn sense. More often than not, I found myself stumbling through poorly designed areas that forced platforming in the low gravity. Overall, though, the low gravity is a welcome addition. When I was on board the Helios space station and gravity was normal, I definitely noticed that I wasn’t able to get around nearly as quickly as I had become accustomed to.

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On top of the oxygen and low gravity systems, The Pre-Sequel offers a new elemental attack as well as a new weapon type. Cryo elemental effects can freeze enemies in place to then be shattered into tiny shards of body parts encapsulated in ice by following up with a melee strike or a high damage shot from a different weapon. Cryo weapons are cool, but I rarely used them because the shock, corrosive and fire elements still seemed like the best means for quickly dispatching most enemies. Laser weapons are a nice addition to the arsenal of any vault hunter, however it seems to me that by the end of the game, the developers had the engine skewed to only drop that type of weapon. I always like playing with a variety of guns in the quick slots so that I never end up running out of ammo too quickly, but by the time I got to the final encounter I was stuck with 3 laser weapons (that all had different elemental effects) and one sub machine gun.

Overall the story is passable, but not extraordinary. If the focus wasn’t so much on the dark rise of Handsome Jack and the cruel methods he employs throughout the last few missions, the game could almost be recommended on the strength of the story over the fact that there aren’t any new features of great substance. Badass points have returned, as well as a bank system allowing for weapons to be saved across different vault hunters. Superficial costumes and color changes are available via collectable drops, but when playing solo, these have no bearing on the overall playability of the game. Another minor frustration I came across was how several encounters felt like they were developed with a co-op group of two or more players in mind rather than being fairly balanced for a single player. Parts of the game make playing solo almost feel like an after thought.

Fans of Borderlands will find plenty of sophmoric humor throughout as well as all the typical shoot and loot fun their used to. The millions of gun variations are still present, although for me the game tended to drop more laser weapons. Combat in low gravity adds a nice change of pace, but platforming often makes progression through the world feel stilted and overly difficult for no valid reason. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel has plenty to offer, between the new vault hunter classes as well as the customary New Game+ option, yet at the same time a feeling that this has all already been done before does set in before you get that far. While the game doesn’t necessarily feel fresh or new, it is rich with replay options, runs without issue and empowers Claptrap with the ability to unleash a Nova Rainbow of destruction. What more could you ask for from a Pre-Sequel?

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Low gravity combat is fun
+ New vault hunters and a variety of new skills
+ More weapons and elemental types add to the loot arsenal

Cons:
– Low gravity platforming
– No changes to how missions are turned in
– Several encounters aren’t balanced well for playing solo

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PS3 and Xbox 360
Publisher: 2K
Developer: 2K Australia / Gearbox Software
Release Date: 10/14/2014
Genre: First-Person Shooter / Action RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.