Developer: Gearbox Software and 2K Australia
Platform: PC (Steam)
Price: $59.99 (vanilla)
Fuchsia Death Rays (I Was Picturing More of a Mauve)
Picture with me if you will, an icy, otherworldly landscape you are traversing to reach a derelict train station in your quest to halt the H-shaped space station looming over you from loosing fuchsia death rays into the very ground you’re treading. Suddenly, quadruped lizards that bear more than a little resemblance to Dodongo from Legend of Zelda burst from phosphorescent holes in the ground. These countless Dodongo lookalikes roll aggressively toward you like Droidekas from Star Wars, tail-whipping you like so many low-level Pokemon. The H-shaped space station looses a terrifying scream as a huge pillar of fuchsia plasma erupts from its oculus, burning through the moon of Elpis’s thin atmosphere and striking its barren surface with thunderous force. As this overture narrates the frenetic action, you raise the graffiti-laden shotgun you procured from a prepubescent autodidact and fire repeatedly at the Dodongo-Pokemon. Your reptilian foes fall one after another, and the shotgun curses them in a raspy, Australian lady’s accent punctuated with censor tones that beep like Morse Code. When you switch to your assault rifle—the Dodongos are relentless, your health is too low, and there’s no time to reload—the shotgun curses the day you were born and calls you something best not repeated in delicate company. The shock wave from the giant, fuscia laser blows through the icy canyon in which you presently contend, and you stand among the corpses of your enemies.
Welcome to Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! is a story within a story. The game opens in the floating city of Sanctuary, the main hub in Borderlands 2, with the surviving protagonists from all the way back in Borderlands interrogating Athena the Gladiator. Lilith gives Athena opportunity to belay her execution by answering one question: “Why?” Athena shuts her eyes, breathes deep, and so begins a very long flashback featuring one of six playable characters whose adventure Athena narrates.
The flashback opens with the player characters crash-landing into Hyperion Corporation’s Helios Station, which veterans will remember as the ominous, H-shaped technical nightmare that quietly observed all the events of BL2. Having arrived due to a call from the lowly Hyperion IT monkey, Jack, the player engages in gun-running antics as Helios Station is overrun by a legion of AWOL soldiers from the DAHL Corporation led by one Colonel Zarpedon.
The player narrowly escapes to the surface of the moon, Elpis (which means “hope” or “expectation” in Greek) and soon begins a new adventure featuring a cast of scallywags, urchins, and roughnecks—some new, some old—for a return to Helios station. The mission is to help Jack wrest control of the aforementioned giant fuscia laser from Zarpedon and her DAHL forces before they destroy Elpis and all its people. This, Zarpedon argues (without ever explaining why), is to save the universe.
Saying anything else would constitute a spoiler. Suffice it to say, the story proceeds beyond retaking Helios station. It gets a little gummy after that. I had (unfortunate) flashbacks to the original Borderlands, when I wasn’t fully sure what was going on.
By the end, Jack has taken the moniker “Handsome.” And you, the player, helped him get there.
Nope…Still No One Who’s Good
Everything from my Borderlands 2 review applies to Pre-Sequel, so head over there by clicking this helpful hyperlink for an in-depth look. If you don’t feel like following that link, simply be prepared for a steady stream of language, violence (though there is an option to turn off gore), and sexual references.
One of the playable characters is bisexual, as is an NPC character. This has little to no impact on gameplay and there is no explicit sexual content.
New Features and Old Favorites
On my first play through, I rolled Athena the Gladiator because the story is told from her perspective. Athena’s ability to absorb damage into her shield and then fling it Captain America-style, dealing all the damage the shield absorbed, yielded an overall more aggressive, direct play style that was very different from dropping a turret and having it cover my butt while I dive behind cover and snipe. The Gladiator is a fun class that solos pretty good and definitely plays well with others (go green skill tree and become a full-blown tank if you’re big into co-op).
The character classes in Pre-Sequel take a lot of cues from my favored Mechromancer class’s Anarchy tech tree in BL2, which focused on moving quickly, gaining buff “stacks” from combat, and not manually reloading. Veteran Vault Hunters now have the option to engage in more high-risk, high-reward play styles. You can quickly switch weapons to gain elemental buffs (Athena’s Ceraunic Storm tech tree), focus on co-op bonuses (the Baroness class), gain buffs from letting allies get shot up (the Doppelganger class), or let the AI decide what action skill best fits your present situation (Claptrap). More straightforward, utility combat options are still available for new Borderlands players or those who can do without complicated play mechanics. Broadening the spectrum of tactical possibilities was judicious on the developers’ part.
As with former installments, controls are responsive and precise, so if you miss, it’s on you. Jump pads, double-jumping, and ground-slamming are new additions made possible by Elpis’s low gravity that expand your combat options, but watch out—your enemies are just as capable of these new game mechanics. Combat has been expanded and is more challenging and complex in Pre-Sequel. The introduction of the atmosphere/vacuum zones, low gravity, double-jumping, ground-slamming, laser weapons, a new vehicle class, and new enemies with new AI has tweaked the overall combat experience into something altogether more nuanced and more difficult. Even as a seasoned BL player, I got my butt handed to me a few times.
Atmospheric and vacuum zones are perhaps the most obvious additions in Pre-Sequel. Basically, being within the zone of an atmosphere bubble lets the player breathe and fight pretty normally, minus the lower gravity. Stepping outside one of these atmospheric bubbles activates your breather mask and puts you in the vacuum, where your oxygen (called “oz”) will slowly tick down from a predetermined pool based on whatever oz mask gear mod (which also has other attributes; it replaces the trinket item slot from BL2) you’re wearing. With some oz mods, having a high pool of oz grants bonuses to movement speed, damage, and other attributes. This new game mechanic limits the availability of double-jumping (because it’s fueled by oz) and essentially forces you to keep moving. While running out of oz won’t instantly kill you, it will darken your character’s vision and gradually sap away your health. Keeping a full bar of oz is a must.
Double jumping opens up a whole new array of combat and movement options, and there are equippable mods to customize your acrobatic skills to suit your play style. Traversing massive distances on foot is now much less of a chore than on Pandora (and everyone who ever had their truck blown up in the middle of BL2’s “Dust” zone rejoiced) and being able to move so far so quickly provided more opportunities for developers to slip in areas that simply couldn’t exist on Pandora.
Vehicle combat remains primarily unchanged, save the addition of a new kid on the block. The lunar rover vehicle actually handles more tightly than its Pandora light runner counterpart. I was pleasantly surprised by this alteration.
Laser weapons are versatile depending on the particular gun’s attributes. Some are basically laser-shotguns, firing a spread of six beams in a burst, while others fire a channeled stream like the power packs in Ghostbusters. Nothing groundbreaking here, but it mixes things up, and more quality content is always welcome.
I think one troubling aspect of Pre-Sequel’s gameplay is map design. The original BL featured tremendous landscapes connecting to multiple side areas that ultimately yielded merciless backtracking to complete quests and progress. BL2’s designers wisely tossed this mechanic to the wayside, instead creating overall smaller areas that were easier to traverse and had smartly-placed fast-travel and respawn nodes. Unfortunately, Pre-Sequel undoes the good of BL2 in this regard. Players once again must play through massive areas—some of them containing as much ground to cover as two or three areas in BL2—often without access to a vehicle, and badly-placed respawn nodes. This leads to a whole lot of backtracking through these areas, and especially on side quests due to lack of fast-travel option. This was annoying. It was either a huge oversight by whoever was in charge of level design, or a sneaky way to artificially lengthen the game. I did not appreciate having to fight my way through enemies who were weak enough to give me 3XP for killing them, but strong enough that I couldn’t simply bypass them…because a side quest had me retracing my steps almost to the doorstep of the boss I killed at level ~10.
On the flip side, one of my complaints about imbalanced foes has at least been partially addressed here: since you will find yourself spending a lot of time in Triton Flats region, it’s good that the developers scale the enemies up. I’m not sure if this scaling occurs after completing certain quests or if it’s based on player level, but it was a wise design decision in any case.
“It’s Hard to Emulate Near-Perfection, But…”
The developers integrated many elements into Pre-Sequel from previous installments. The appearance of Shugguraths (flying, squid-like creatures) early in the game’s Triton Flats region is a throwback to the Rakk Hive boss from the original and the Drifters from the added content of BL2. These tremendous monsters are hard to kill and spawn smaller enemies to distract both you and the bandits of Elpis. Especially in the larger “hub” area of Triton Flats, you’ll find many instances of bandits and lunatics fighting the wildlife. More than simply providing the player opportunity to bypass direct combat because the AI is fighting itself, this subtle inclusion carries with it narrative baggage. The fact that the bandits and lunatics are fighting off Elpis’s wildlife on a consistent basis indicates that Elpis is far-less “civilized” than what Pandora will be by the time of BL2. This was a brilliant stroke. It sets the overall tone of Pre-Sequel and gives gravity to Handsome Jack’s stated goal in BL2 of wanting to civilize Pandora. The fact that these Elpisian monsters have not been exterminated reinforces the untamed, frontier thread that runs through the game and the wider Borderlands universe.
On Pandora, most of the characters and enemies are twangy, inbred, banjo-plucking stereotypical rednecks probably descended from a Florida Man. On Elpis, most of the characters and enemies speak with Australian accents, and are whatever the equivalent of a redneck is in Australia…let me look this up…Bogan. They’re called Bogans. This makes sense considering 2K Australia’s involvement in the project, but on a metanarrative scale, it introduces the interesting facet of cultural distinction between the denizens of Pandora and Elpis. Life on Pandora and Elpis are each equally “Borderlands” while being subtly different, in the same way that life in the Deep South and life in New York City are equally American, yet very different experiences. This was a pleasantly surprising departure from the previous games that managed to expand the metanarrative’s horizons without completely overhauling game mechanics or disconnecting us from many of the characters we already know and love.
This Australian milieu created a need for some additional voice acting for the mooks (now called “lunatics” instead of “psychos,” because you’re on the moon, and it’s “lunar,” get it?) you mow down with your lasers. With these new Aussie voices, the game still feels distinctly “Borderlands,” and as has been established in prior installments, the writing is quick, clever, and fun. All the voice actors, from the player characters, to Dameon Clarke reprising Jack, to the lunatics, side-characters, bosses, and mini-bosses, do a stellar job of capturing the distinct voices of each character and delivering consistently good, consistently humorous dialogue. Whoever is doing the hiring for voice actors over at 2K and/or Gearbox needs a promotion.
Pre-Sequel features voiced responses from the player character, which is a welcome change that the developers probably should have integrated into BL2. Learning of your chosen Vault Hunter’s personality by seeing their responses to different people and situations only adds to the replay value, deepens the immersion, and creates a bond between you and your digital avatar. In Borderlands, you control characters, not toons.
Gone are the thrash-metal guitar riffs reminiscent of Kid Rock’s work in the late 90s that so characterized the first two games. For obvious reasons, Pre Sequel’s music is clearly influenced by Space Rock as a genre (think Muse meets the soundtrack from Tron Legacy), and I’m not sure what to think of the Daft Punk reference in Mad Moxxi’s bar:
I’m not a music nerd, but the tracks fit the characteristics of Elpis and they sound pretty good, too. Again, subtlety is key during the non-combat moments of gameplay, and it’s all handled very professionally.
The overall graphical style is consistent both in aesthetic and quality with previous installments. Elpis certainly feels like a moon, with its rivers of lava, pools of freezing liquid, giant mountains formed of crystal formations, crashed spaceships littering the horizon, red and green fields of stars, and altogether alien wildlife. Watching over it all is the planet Pandora and Hyperion’s Helios space station, co-opted by Zarpedon, which punctuates the action of the narrative by occasionally piercing Elpis with that massive, fuchsia laser beam. The firing space station imbues the player with a constant sense of doom and dread, raising the stakes as the plot drives forward, and it often blasts the moon’s surface right when the action is climaxing. Despite this, the side quests, which force you to take your sweet time backtracking, subtract from what should feel like a desperate race against Zarpedon’s death ray.
Where’s Butt Stallion When You Need Her?
The cumbersome level design was a huge “no-no” for me. Whereas BL2 gave the player the constant feeling of driving ever-forward to the confrontation with Handsome Jack by introducing new locations with different aesthetic themes, so much of Pre-Sequel’s action takes place in and around the Triton Flats. This created the feeling that I wasn’t really making forward progress. Even though I was doing different quests in Triton Flats, I ended up memorizing the whole area because I was constantly retracing my steps. This could have been amended by having more fast-travel nodes in a larger variety of regions so that quests and quest-givers could be centered around other regions on Elpis. This oversight unfortunately cheapens the experience.
One of the main problems with the plot is that Jack entirely fails to be a sympathetic character, despite the writers’ pretty blatant attempt to infuse the story with some sense of moral ambiguity by saying he was the “good” guy (having one of your characters call Jack “sympathetic” doesn’t make it so). Jack was obviously a megalomaniac from very early-on in the game, and Athena sticking with him because of her sense of duty to “the job” felt fabricated. The story, therefore, fails to capitalize on Jack’s face-heel turn, which could have been an incredible narrative moment had it been handled better.
Despite the many additions and changes present in Pre-Sequel, there is something missing from this game. One thing that made BL2 so successful was the driving, “can’t-catch-my-breath” momentum of the plot and the back-and-forth slugfest between the Crimson Raiders and Handsome Jack. The primary antagonist of Pre-Sequel, Zarpedon, actually manages to be somewhat sympathetic, whereas Jack, who we know ends up being a class-A jerk, is an unconvincing “good” guy. Despite the fact that as the game progresses you draw closer and closer to the Helios space station controlled by Zarpedon and more clearly see (and feel) its giant laser boring into the heart of Elpis, you can never shake the feeling that there is a sad, “I hate this but it’s for the greater good” mentality present in Zarpedon and Athena (narrated through her reactions to the plot unfolding). You don’t love to hate Zarpedon as an antagonist like you did Handsome Jack, and while a major narrative point in Pre-Sequel is that not everyone is as good or as bad as we see them, the bottom line is that by creating a villain who is a good person doing a bad thing in a world rife with nerd humor and fart jokes (literally, thanks to one of the oz mods), we are almost encouraged not to take Zarpedon as seriously as she takes herself. We know that in the grand scheme, she’s fodder. Instead, we focus on who we know to be the true villain: Jack. And we are disappointed when his embracing of “the dark side” is not nearly as interesting as it should have been, considering that it’s the topic of the entire game. We didn’t see Jack become bad. He was already bad. We saw him gain the power to act on his badness.
All that said, this is still a great game, and if you enjoyed prior installments, you will not regret dropping the
Eridium cash to pick it up.
Agree? Disagree? Something nice to say? Leave it below.
The Bottom Line
A worthy member of what has become a staple FPS/action-RPG series, Pre Sequel builds on everything fans know and love, but has a few hiccups with level design and narrative structure that could have easily been hurdled with a bit more ingenuity.