Non-sequels have become a standard in our industry. When a company wants to make a new game for a franchise, but doesn’t want it to be a direct follow-up, it’s simple to release a game that adds more content without having to commit to that full “number-up.” Some, like Blood Dragon and Birth by Sleep, have been fantastic; but you also have your Revelations and Final Fantasy XIII sequels. The hardest part is making it feel like the game was worth making, that you are genuinely adding to the series and not going for a cheap money grab.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, luckily, is the kind that adds rather than subtracts. Taking place before Borderlands 2 and told in retrospect from one of the protagonists Athena, the game promises you’ll learn the origin of Handsome Jack, as well as how he became the de-facto ruler of Pandora and figurehead of Hyperion. The retrospective approach to storytelling is interesting, as you often have the “present-day” characters chime in and comment at certain moments, as they interrupt Athena’s story.
Athena, an assassin, starts the game tied to a post in Sanctuary, with Lillith and a firing squad holding her at gunpoint. They want to know why Athena was trying to assassinate Mordecai and Brick, and why she was on Pandora. As Athena starts the story, you enter character selection and begin the story. The Lost Legion has seized the Hyperion corporation’s station Helios, and is threatening to destroy Pandora’s moon Elpis, with Handsome Jack being the unlikely person trying to stop her. It’s interesting to see Jack play a “good guy,” though his motives are highly questionable.
The story is a mixed bag, as it varies between the typical Borderlands humor we’ve become accustomed to, and actually trying to start a discussion. At one point, Handsome Jack orders the protagonist to eject a group of scientists into space, one of which had been helping the protagonists for most of the game’s duration, because Jack believes one of them might be a mole. It becomes a controversial moment, and many characters in the present time ask Athena (and by extent, your character) how they could continue helping Jack after he was willing to do that. It’s an interesting moment, questioning whether the ends justify the means, but not thirty seconds later you’re returned to sophomoric humor and the airlock is never brought up again. Most Borderlands fans probably aren’t looking for a side of philosophic introspection with their main dish of guns and carnage, but moments like that are nice, if cheapened a bit by the standard comedic dialogue.
Comedy is a key component of any Borderlands game, as the series spends most of its time trying to give you either laughs or guns. The sad news is that most of the humor falls flat this time. There’s no new characters as memorable as Butt Stallion or Tiny Tina, and no moments were as laugh-out-loud as they used to be. Most of the humor seems to be trying too hard to be crass or make references to worn-out Internet memes. Even the character of Handsome Jack becomes tiring, as he’s simply-put, an asshole. Some may enjoy his story being developed and his certain brand of psychotic villianess, but others may get tired of all his missions and dialogue.
As for the characters you have to play as, there’s a nice mix of abilities and playstyles. Athena can use her shield to absorb enemy attacks and send them back, while Nisha is your typical dual-wielding gunner. Wilhelm can summon two helper drones to both shield allies and attack enemies, and Claptrap has a program which analyzes the battlefield and gives him the power best suited for it, whether that’s another Vault Hunter’s abilities or one unique to him. Only Claptrap has an ability that feels radically different from anything seen before, but the upgrade trees for each character gives enough room for customization of playstyle. My Wilhelm was focused mainly on upgrading his drones Wolf and Saint, but you can also spec him to be a solo cybernetic powerhouse, augmenting his limbs until the helper drones are almost unnecessary. All four characters are NPC’s from previous installments of Borderlands, and learning more about them is very interesting. Wilhelm and Claptrap tend to fall flat in the character development department, but Athena and Nisha both have interesting backstories to explore.
Gameplay is very similar to Borderlands 2, and the game makes no attempt to fix what wasn’t broken the first time around. There’s still plenty of guns, a giant tree of upgrades and plenty of elemental weapons abound for you to blast your enemies with. New to this installment are laser weapons, which are pretty straight-forward, and the cryo element, which can freeze your enemies and cause them to shatter. Cryo is a nice addition your arsenal of elements, considering that fire weapons have become half as useful, only able to ignite enemies in oxygenated areas.
The O2 system plays a large part in the game’s combat, as you are on a moon without a natural source of oxygen. You’re forced to rely on your own O2 kit, refilling it using vents and O2 bubbles or risk death by suffocation. To make up for the limit of O2, however, there are a few abilities added: the boost jump lets you expend extra oxygen to heighten your jump, and the slam allows you to use your air supply to propel yourself into the ground, damaging enemies in an area. The boost jump is the only one used very often, and usually just for some platforming and exploration, but it’s still a nice addition.
The metagame of resources and loot hunting is still the standard, though it’s a shame to see the eridium resource return as moonstones. It was a limiting system that never really felt like it added much to the game, and it would’ve been nice to forego that in favor of spending cash instead. It isn’t like you’re buying guns with your cash anyways; most of the best equipment you’ll either find, or make in the Grinder. Speaking of, the Grinder is the real unsung hero of this game. This machine allows you to insert three guns of the same rarity and combine them, for one of equal or greater rarity, and you can also expend moonstones to get better chances at better items. For once, I wasn’t selling guns to keep my backpack clear, but looking forward to crunching my old favorites into new weapons. In fact, most of the guns I beat the game with were Grinder weapons, and I had an attachment to them; they were the sums of my guns previous, and a symbol of the journey taken. Is it weird to have that depth of an attachment to a pistol that shoots rockets? Maybe, but making even garbage loot worthwhile is a pretty cool feature.
Visually, the game looks the same as Borderlands 2. The lines may be nicer, and there’s definitely a number of locales that show off the game’s cel-shaded aesthetic to the max, but there isn’t anything massively different from the first two games in the series. The textures, however, seem like they had a little less time spent on them compared to the rest of the assets. Many of them look off, and only get worse upon closer inspection. In an era where developers are pushing textures (and consequently, our VRAM) to the max, it’s a shame Gearbox didn’t include a high-res texture pack with the game.
The real issue with the game is that, for the most part, it feels like an extension of Borderlands 2. The differences in this game are great, but could amount to the same number of improvements that Dragon’s Keep brought to the second game. While it will be nice to have a new Borderlands game to play, you can’t help but feel like this could have been a standalone expansion or DLC addition to Borderlands 2.
The game also struggles with the pacing and story. The early game has many segments that seem to drag on, and there’s several areas where artificial length is created, making you run back and forth between objectives while clearing the same enemies over and over again. There are also several moments in the endgame, after you’ve returned to the space station Helios, where you think you’re about to tackle the final battle, only to get a new chapter pop-up and a set of new missions to accomplish.
NOTE: For Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, we had multiple reviewers covering the game, in order to have both a variety of opinions and because games of this size are often difficult to cover solo. Our team came to some differing opinions, and we tried our best to incorporate all viewpoints into the review; that being said, we decided we’d let each individual have a concluding paragraph. One’s opinion may reflect our reader’s more than others, and we want to give you the full spectrum. Plus, we can’t resist writing more about Borderlands.
ERIC VAN ALLEN
If you’re looking for a fresh installment of Borderlands, or have finished all the series’ content and still want more, then this is an easy pick-up. It’s still a strong Borderlands game, but it does little to shake up the status quo or innovate. There isn’t much to be gained here besides some backstory on series mainstays, though the prevalence of Athena could mean she will play an important role in the eventual Borderlands 3. This is still a fun shooter, and a solid co-op loot hunting experience.
Calling Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel enjoyable is something I cannot do. Handsome Jack has long been one of the worst characters in video game history and his increased presence in the new Borderlands only cements that. He consistently utters childish, borderline offensive lines that force you to cringe instead of break a smile. The new characters work well, and do possess a bit of personality. Fortunately, none of them are near the depths of Handsome Jack, but they still have a tough time breaking out in such a hit-or-miss (mostly miss) comedic script. The same enjoyable gameplay returns from Borderlands 2, but it is hard to recommend a full priced game based solely on the fact that the previous installment was damn good. Now it is time for 2K to prove that Pre-Sequel is not the beginning of the end but rather a bump in the road.
I’m what you could honestly call a Borderlands fan, complete with over 200 hours clocked between Borderlands 2 and all the DLC involved. On top of that, I actually enjoy Handsome Jack’s character, and was eager to learn more about his rise and fall, and maybe pick up some more details about the Borderlands world at the same time – all while enjoying a whole lot of loot-grabbing, robot-shooting mayhem. As a game, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel delivers a whole lot of fun. But it’s the exact same kind of fun that Borderlands 2 itself had, with very little innovation on the original game, much less improvements on what were out and out flaws. This is a game that should have been sold as yet more DLC, with a lowered price to match – and I say that as a fan who was eagerly looking forward to this title.