Like many of you, I am always hesitant when a new developer takes over an existing franchise, it usually ends up in a game that doesn’t quite reach the same heights of its predecessors. Well 2k Australia have picked up the ball from Gearbox and brought up Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, a game set in-between Borderlands 1 and 2 and shows us the rise of Handsome Jack from a Hyperion worker to the comical villain we meet in Borderlands 2. While the game is still all about the guns, the loot and the wacky characters, it suffers from more than a couple of issues..
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel takes place in between the events of the first and second games and at its core is about one man’s rise to power and fall from grace. Handsome Jack with his over-the-top cartoonish villainy and massive hero complex was without a doubt one of the stand-out characters of Borderlands 2 so it is nice to see a little depth to the character here in the Pre-Sequel.
Even though we play as a Vault Hunter, this really is Handsome Jack’s story. Starting off as a Hyperion worker, we are there alongside Jack as he goes from heroic savior to homicidal madman and it really does offer a lot more to Jack than we see in Borderlands 2.
The narrative of Borderlands 1.5 is the same fun, wacky humor as it predecessors, it does suffer a little bit in some areas. A lot of the jokes this time around feel incredibly forced, and while there are some genuine laughs to be had (the Bogan Gun may be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a video game) a lot of the content is either cringe-worthy, or makes me wonder “why?”
A lot of the “Why” moments revolve around the series’ returning characters. More specifically, that they felt out of place and forced. Characters like Mad Moxxie, Tiny Tina and Mr. Torgue all felt like their inclusion in the game was nothing more than fanservice. Now, I am not inherently against fanservice, but here the characters are included just so they can say “hey, remember this character you loved in the last game?” as opposed to offering anything of substance.
The second problem I had with a good number of the game’s characters is that their sexuality was a big part of whoever they were, no matter how minor a character. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with homosexuality or homosexual characters in games, but the arbitrary use of sexuality made a lot of these characters feel forced and shallow. One particular character, whom we never actually meet (only speak to via ECHO) has us putting up pamphlets when she suddenly mentions her ex-girlfriend’s tendency to look down on her. It is out of the blue and isn’t funny, isn’t charming and it doesn’t add any depth to the story. It almost feels like the writers were trying to be hip and cool by including as many homosexual characters as they could, but the end result is that it dilutes a romantic subplot (Athena and Janey’s) that could otherwise be quite poignant.
Since the first game, Borderlands has become a unique mixture of FPS, and loot-based RPG (with a heavy emphasis on the loot) and this is still as true today as it was back then. You play as one of four Vault Hunters, each tying into the story of Pandora and Handsome Jack in some way (including Claptrap, who alone could fill the game’s fanservice quota). The best part about the four new vault hunters is how differently they play to any from the previous games. Athena’s Aspis shield blocks and absorbs damage before she flings it around the room like Xena meets Captain America, Wilhelm is all about robotics and uses his two airborne drones to provide support, Nisha goes absolutely bezerk with her guns, getting increased ammo, auto-aiming and firepower, and lastly Claptrap will randomly take on the abilities of past vault hunters (as well as a few of his own). The huge differences in play styles from the previous games made it really difficult for me to pick who I would do my play through as, and after picking Athena I realised I had made the right decision and probably had some of the most fun I have ever had with a Borderlands character.
At its core, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is still all about its loot, and there is nothing more satisfying than surveying an area that you have cleared of enemies and seeing the different glowing bars that indicate the power and rarity of the loot you have found. The game’s ability to randomly create weapons is still by far one of its most impressive features and one that keeps me coming back over and over again. Now additional chests have been included that use Moonstone (one of the game’s new resources) to open and typically have rarer loot than your ordinary chest.
As if loot wasn’t enough, this game introduces a brand new machine in the form of the Loot Grinder. If you put in three pieces of loot that you have discovered, the machine will grind them up and pop out something a little better for your troubles. While the machine requires very specific “Recipes” to create loot, and the fact that we aren’t told these recipes in-game, it still alleviates some of the frustrations that can come with the randomness of a game like this.
Moving Borderlands off of Pandora and onto its orbiting moon Elpis has allowed for some clever new gameplay changes that help the Pre-Sequel to stand out from the other two games in the series. Firstly, due to the difference in gravity, players can now jump much higher than they usually did, which leads to some impressive mid-air combat that just couldn’t be done in previous games. The game is definitely a lot more “floaty” and slow moving while on the surface of the moon as opposed to being inside one of the many atmosphere-controlled locations, creating two very distinct game environments.
Another new feature that arises as part of being set on a moon is the need to regulate your oxygen supply as an additional resource. Early on, players will get an Oz Kit which allows them to temporarily breathe in the vaccum of space. You will need to either pick up oxygen tanks from fallen enemies, enter an atmosphere controlled area or just find one of the air pockets along your journeys in order to keep yourself breathing. Oz is also used to perform the game’s impressive new double jump moves, so it is a resource that needs to be carefully manages… sort of. Oz should have been a lot more important than it really is, in the final product just about every humanoid enemy will drop an oxygen canister upon death so there is never any real fear of running out. Not only that but running out only causes your health to decline slightly, so there is no urgency to it. I would like to see the resource brought back but next time with a little less oxygen available to players so that it does become a careful resource instead of just another little bar on your HUD.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel’s biggest flaw is definitely its map and level design. Elpis and the Hyperion station both look amazing, but when you run through them, you will discover that there is little to nothing littering the environment (which is actually smaller than the previous games) and it is often difficult to figure out whether or not the developers intended for players to use the environment to climb higher or to simply time their jumps correctly. Often I would navigate my way up to the top of a structure by jumping up ledges and supports only to reach the top and realise that it wasn’t how the game intended me to get up there. While it sounds liberating and like the player has a choice in how they approach certain situations, it really isn’t and just feels like confusing and disorienting level design.
One section of the Hyperion base requires players to use Jump Pads to get from one area to the other. It is a nightmare that is confusing to navigate and takes way longer than it needs to (not to mention that making one wrong movement could have you plummeting to your death). Not only that, but a fair few of the game’s side-quests have you traversing this area back and forth, making it feel like an absolute drag.
Visuals & Audio
Borderlands has a very distinct visual style that has become synonymous with the franchise, and it is great to see it used in a brand new way here in the Pre-Sequel. Elpis looks nothing like Pandora, and the differences change how the game feels both thematically and mechanically.
As you would expect from a moon, Elpis is grey and rocky and well… moon-like, but that allows for some really beautiful imagery to pop up, especially in the areas that are filled with Lava or Ice. The orange glow of a lava pool really looks spectacular against the backdrop of Elpis and on more than one occasion I wished I could nab a screenshot for a computer wallpaper.
Visuals aren’t all impressive however as there is a notable amount of texture pop-in while playing. Sometimes you will be in the middle of a mission before the textures fully load, which can lead to some seriously ugly looking encounters. This has always been a bit of a problem with the Borderlands games but it just feels so much more pronounced here
The audio in Borderlands has always been great and adds a lot to the experience. Character voices are always stellar and the unique sounds that the guns make really bring this comical wasteland to life. This time around, the Vault Hunters interact with other characters and help flesh out the story a little more. The Pre-Sequel is also told as a recount by Athena to Lilith, Modecai and Brick, so their inclusion in the cast helps tie it all together. I played through the game as Athena, so it just seemed right that she would be telling the story but unfortunately it is a little more jarring to players who are going through the campaign as one of the other three characters.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel has its problems, but despite them it is still a fun game. As with previous titles in the series, it is about three things: guns, loot and wacky characters, and it has these in spades. As you might expect, the action gets more exciting when playing online with friends and the bullets really start flying. It may lack a bit of the charm and soul of Borderlands, but it is still a solid entry in the series and one that will tie us all over until the inevitable next-gen Borderlands 3.
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