Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Review
Interstellar shoot and loot
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel finds itself in an awkward spot. It’s not quite Borderlands 3, and isn’t available on the new generation of consoles, so this may have dampened the spirits of the hardcore fans. Perhaps the developers realized this, hence the name. But, when it comes to gameplay, this is undoubtedly a Borderlands experience, complete with whacky dialog and quests, cel-shaded visual style, and guns. Lots and lots of guns. Fans of the franchise will be pleased by the new space setting and enjoyably addictive gameplay, but if you’re looking for a true follow-up to Borderlands 2, this isn’t it.
Narratively, The Pre-Sequel is set between the original game and the sequel. It tells the origin story of Handsome Jack, and his path from humble (yet still arrogant) beginnings to the evil overlord that he was in Borderlands 2. Helios Space Station, owned by Jack’s employer Hyperion, gets attacked and players are hired to help Jack get it back. To do so, you’re dropped on Elpis, Pandora's moon. The storytelling employs a past tense, so the players are experiencing events in the past while a concurrent, real-time narrative involvescharacters from the past games. Ex-vault hunters Lilith and Roland also make a brief in-person appearance, mostly as fan service. The plot follows familiar conventions, with unique and distinguishable characters and signature slapstick humor, though the self-referential and over the top jokes have been toned down.
Unfortunately, the story is just that – a set of events for players to experience and watch Jack become the man we feared in Borderlands 2. You don’t really feel like your actions have significant consequences on how the plot unravels. Compared to games past, where your presence felt like it shaped the game world, The Pre-Sequel is just taking you along for a ride. Kill foes, push buttons, and please keep your hands inside the cart at all times. It’s also not a worthwhile standalone tale, as players will definitely need to be familiar with the events in the previous game.
Getting down to gameplay, you’re once again presented with four character classes to choose from. Athena the Gladiator is armed with a versatile Kinetic Aspis shield, Wilhelm the Enforcer is a classic gun-toting tough guy with two deployable drones, and Nisha the Lawbringer utilizes pistols and a whip. Finally, players can assume the role of fan-favorite Claptrap himself, and his corrupt experimental software abilities.
Unlike the more classically structured assault/support/healing classes from the previous games, the variety in The Pre-Sequel can be appreciated. Athena can use her shield to absorb bullets and also throw it at enemies, or inflict conditions such as bleeding. The two drones for Wilhelm provide attack and healing attributes, and can be upgraded to further improve their functionality. Nisha can upgrade her pistol and whip skills, while Claptrap is focused on supporting the rest of the team (thus making him least viable for single player). Apart from the extensive skill trees, each character still has their own Action Skill – a powerful ability with a cooldown, such as Nisha’sability to automatically aim at enemies and gain multiple weapon buffs, or Claptrap’s random, wild buffs and effects. These are just some of the examples from the vast array of character abilities, providing tons of replay value and customization options and helping each class feel rather distinct. There are still Badass tokens to earn, visual customization items to apply, and so forth.
Classes aren’t the only unique offering for The Pre-Sequel. The game takes place on a moon called Elpis. Upon closer inspection, the setting doesn’t wildly alter the classic Borderlands hub-world experience. You’ll still roam open landscapes, completing missions and side quests (notably fewer in number) either on foot or via two new vehicles. Despite a new color palette, the world doesn’t feel very interesting. From canyons to lava craters (that are annoyingly difficult to see when driving), there’s not as much variety between different areas. The sky, on the other hand, offers majestic views of outer space.
The setting feels different not only thanks to its blue and purple hues, but also gameplay altering mechanics. The problem with lack of oxygen is solved early on, as you gain a helmet that allows you to breathe on the moon’s surface. You have to keep this meter filled by either walking over bursts of oxygen coming from the surface of the planet, or picking up canisters from fallen enemies. You’ll never need to be particularly worried about the air supply due to its sheer abundance, so it’s a fairly simple system that doesn’t significantly alter the gameplay.
It wouldn’t be a proper space setting without the concept of low gravity. Thanks to being able to jump higher, and boost with your jetpack (at the expense of oxygen supply), The Pre-Sequel offers more verticality than its predecessors. Getting into better position to flank your foes is easier from above, but the enemies also use low gravity to quickly change positions. A somewhat expected melee slam move can be performed from above, but again so can your enemies.
Fans familiar with Borderlands mechanics will feel very much at home with The Pre-Sequel. The combination of shooting and looting remains as strong as ever. Your foes will feature many of the familiar grunts from the franchise, this time in space suits. Pulling off a headshot now temporarily incapacitates the bad guys as they gasp for air and get disoriented. Enemy scaling feels better than the second game, as foes take less hits to kill and you won’t run into as many bullet-sponges as before.
The franchise mix of shooting and RPG elements are as strong as ever. After wiping out foes in an area, you’ll start maniacally checking every loot crate and body for ammo, weapons, shields, and grenade mods, all with randomized stats. It feels like deja-vu; like you’ve suddenly relapsed into drug addiction, as your eyes scan the environment for familiar glow of items and intractable crates, and you hit the “use” key on everything in sight. Thanks to a lack of atmosphere, opening most crates out on the moon’s surface instantly sucks in anything you need, speeding up the ammo collection process. To the game’s credit, loot drops have been tweaked to offer better items more often, and you’ll actually have to make some tough decisions on what to keep in your inventory and what to leave behind. Further, even vending machines have great offerings that you’ll want to save up for. That said, the user interface is still the same, and it can be quite clunky to manage your inventory.
There are plenty of guns, with varying stats, and wielding the best gear is still an important, addictive process. New to The Pre-Sequel are two new types of weapons: laser and cryogenic. While fitting the space setting perfectly, the laser weapons don’t handle much differently from the standard guns. The Cryogenic weapons (functionally similar to slag weapons) at least have the effect of freezing or slowing down enemies, so you can smash them into icy bits. Thanks to the abovementioned tweaks to enemy scaling, the guns are also now more useful for longer. Unlike in the past, where you needed the top damage guns to have a chance of defeating bullet absorbing enemies with a reasonable amount of time, guns in The Pre-Sequel scale better. You can be quite effective with a gun that’s a few levels below you and your foes, and still dish out good damage. Further, a new item called The Grinder can be used to combine 3 items of the same quality to create higher quality items, giving the game another randomly generated mechanic to obsess over.
Playing cooperatively has always been the preferred method of completing any Borderlands game, and The Pre-Sequel carries on that tradition. Being able to revive yourself with Second Wind by killing an enemy before your downed timer expires is tough in single player, especially during boss battles that don’t provide enough lesser foes. That problem obviously doesn’t exist with helpful human teammates. Secondly, as mentioned earlier, Claptrap’s abilities are all focused on the team, so you’ll definitely want to venture with him online rather than solo. And thanks to extensive visual and gameplay customization, meeting other players is always fun just to see how they spec’ed the class.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel feels more like a standalone expansion to Borderlands 2, rather than its own retail release. And had it been priced like an expansion at $40 or $30, it would have offered better value than it does at full price. Still, fans who want more Borderlands in a new setting, with new classes yet familiar gameplay mechanics and design, will be satisfied with The Pre-Sequel. Those undecided may want to get some DLC for Borderlands 2 on sale instead, and wait for the proper next installment of the franchise.