If it ain’t broke…
[Disclosure: Anthony Burch, one of the writers for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, was previously employed at Destructoid. As always, no relationships, personal or professional, were factored into the review.]
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I can imagine that mantra circulating the 2K Australia office as the team worked on Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Gearbox had a huge hit on its hands with Borderlands 2, and there is not much reason to mess with a winning formula.
To be clear, a lot of what matters is new. The story, playable characters, environments, dialogue, and physics are all new. Despite that, it all feels very familiar. Where a number of core systems were significantly upgraded between the first and second games in the series, The Pre-Sequel‘s additions are much less pronounced.
One odd aspect of some of the new content that this entry brings to the vault hunting universe is that it feels more like Borderlands than Borderlands 2 in some ways, for better and for worse.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (Linux, Mac, PC [reviewed], PS3, Xbox 360)
Developers: 2K Australia, Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Released: October 14, 2014
Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit
There is a symmetry to be appreciated in The Pre-Sequel‘s in-between feeling, given that it is chronologically set between the first two games. Specifically, it is set after the events of The Secret Armory of General Knoxx, but before Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution, the third and fourth pieces of downloadable content for Borderlands, respectively.
Taking place largely on Pandora’s moon Elpis, the first regressive parallel to the original title in the series reveals itself: the moon is largely made up of desolate gray-blue rock dotted with industrial complexes. In the same way that our first adventure to Pandora spent entirely too much time in vast brown deserts, the first half of the romp across Elpis occurs in areas that are indistinct from one another. Getting lost is easy at first, even with the minimap and its waypoints.
Eventually, the story works its way back to Helios, the Hyperion space station, and the environments become a bit more diverse. Even with the additional biomes found on Helios, the number of different looking areas to explore pales in comparison to Borderlands 2‘s tundra, temperate, desert, tropical, industrial, civilized, volcanic, and other environments.
Other small oversights pop up in the level design here and there. Expansive areas meant to be traversed in a moon buggy lack vehicle stations at every entrance, sometimes causing the player to have to trek on foot when backtracking or if the rover is destroyed. There are natural progression blockers that are not completely functional once the requirement has been met. Specifically, there is a gap early on that can only be jumped in a vehicle, but even with four wheels and a rocket booster, I found myself falling into the lava chasm beneath the ruined bridge about half the time.
Some of the smaller areas have no Fast Travel station, an annoyance compounded by side missions that require returning multiple times. On top of that, not every area has vending machines near the entrance, which makes dumping junk loot a bit of a pain when visiting the offending locales. One area in particular (Stanton’s Liver) has everything going against it: unmemorable environmental art design, no Fast Travel, no vending machines, and several optional missions pointing toward it.
Generally, these are minor quibbles regarding the level design. A lot of the time, traversing the environments is made easy through circuitous layouts and the new freedom afforded by the low gravity of Elpis and the Vault Hunters’ ability to double jump. Other times this freedom is a double-edged sword, where the new ability allow for more verticality, but highlight the need for a more thoroughly upgraded map. It now shows whether enemies are above or below the player, but still represents only two dimensions, despite that a lot of the areas now make extensive use of the z-axis.
Indeed, one of the most touted new features of fighting on Elpis as opposed to Pandora is the use of the moon’s lower gravity. On paper, it does not seem like a big deal, but it surprised me to find out just how much it affects gameplay. In addition to being able to jump higher, the double jump allows for a lot of aerial control, and the new Gravity Slam move is both satisfying and useful.
The double jump functionality is a lot deeper than it initially seems. Depending on when the second jump is activated, it can be put toward additional jump height, additional jump distance, increased traversal speed, or increased maneuverability.
The slam damages nearby enemies, typically with an elemental effect, but one of the key features of it is that it does not interrupt other abilities like activating an Action Skill or reloading. This opens up the viability of a lot of weapons that were previously too cumbersome to use regularly. Weapons with long or frequent reloads like Jakobs shotguns or Scav (The Pre-Sequel‘s version of Bandit) rocket launchers can now be used more frequently, with firing punctuated by crowd-controlling slams.
For instance, my Enforcer currently wields a Jakobs Quad — a shotgun with huge damage, high ammunition expenditure, and frequent reloads. Most battles I get into are frenetic affairs, where I summon Wolf and Saint, double jump toward an enemy, slam to stun him, fire two shots into his face, mentally change targets, and double jump toward that one while reloading. It all happens quickly, and it is incredibly satisfying. Speaking strictly about combat, this is the most fun the series has ever been, and it owes most of that to the low gravity and corresponding abilities.
In fact, the low gravity combat is so fun that I became noticeably irritated when the story takes the Vault Hunters back to Helios, where there is more standard, Pandora-like gravity. It is not that the standard combat is bad, it is just that the moon combat is so good.
To expound a bit on the story, it opens in Sanctuary as it floats among the clouds. Clearly taking place after the events of Borderlands 2, Athena is forced to tell the story of the time she helped Handsome Jack years before. The playable portion of The Pre-Sequel is all told as Athena’s flashback, regardless of which of the four available Vault Hunters is in play.
What Athena describes is meeting Jack, a middle management Hyperion employee who saves her life and eventually the lives of countless people living on Elpis. Players get to see firsthand why Jack considers himself a hero, and they get to watch his slow decline into depravity, and his eventual transformation into Handsome Jack, the man wearing the mask.
It is an interesting arc to watch, although it is still difficult to be sympathetic toward Jack’s character through most of the story. The logical and moral leaps he makes, even when fueled largely by self-defense and paranoia, are still the product of a deeply disturbed individual. Even so, The Pre-Sequel does a great job of showing exactly why Handsome Jack despises bandits as much as he does, and it ends in a way that highlights the moral ambiguity of Borderlands as a whole.
Without spoiling too much, the ending upset me initially. I felt betrayed, and I felt like it would not have and should not have happened like it did. Upon further reflection, I realize that while it caused me to see a character in a different light than I previously had, it perfectly encapsulates a major theme in the series. The bad guys are at least a little bit good and the good guys are at least a little bit bad. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which.
There is one extra thing regarding the story that more serious players will appreciate. For the first time, there is a believable narrative explanation for the second playthrough, True Vault Hunter Mode. There is additional dialogue to go with it, so players have more incentive to go through the higher level content. It is a small thing, but it is a welcome touch. I would have really appreciated a slightly different or expanded ending for those who make it all the way through twice, and the narrative would have allowed for it, but that is not the case. At about 25 hours to get through the campaign once, The Pre-Sequel runs shorter than Borderlands 2, but provides a good amount of entertainment.
On the downside, the plot left open a few points that I was expecting to be addressed. Clearly, Athena is alive and in Pandora’s vicinity between the point of her introduction in The Secret Armory and some indeterminate point after the events of Borderlands 2, so she lives through the Pre-Sequel, but the story never gives an explicit explanation on her whereabouts during Handsome Jack’s tenure as CEO of Hyperion. Considering she was there to witness his insidious rise to power, there should be a good narrative reason that she would not help to bring him down.
The Eridian race is also a bit of a mystery. They are present on Pandora during Borderlands, present on Elpis during The Pre-Sequel, but absent during Borderlands 2, and fans are left to continue speculating on the reason. In fact, the story presented here even fuels the fire of speculation by introducing more variables to the question of why they cannot be found later in the timeline.
The writing as a whole maintains the classic Borderlands charm, though it does seem a little less wacky than that found in Borderlands 2, again striking a balance between the two previous titles. A few familiar faces show up; most current characters have at least small speaking roles. There are several new characters as well: the eastern European Nurse Nina, the not-quite-as-annoying-as-Tiny-Tina child Pickle, and my favorite new character Janey Springs.
Springs is one of many denizens of Elpis, most of whom are the Australians to Pandora’s Americans. She is immediately endearing, and has some of the best lines in the game. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments, and overall the writing is smart and snappy. There are no Internet memes, except for one easily missed reference to an old Destructoid mantra that 99.9% of players will gloss over without a second thought. There are a number of shout-outs to other works of fiction, including Star Wars and Pokémon.
One of the best new developments for the writing in Borderlands was the decision to have the Vault Hunters participate in conversations, giving each one more personality, and offering a non-gameplay reason to play through with multiple characters. This is especially important through Jack’s campaign to save Elpis, as each character will react differently to his methods and evolving morality. Although Athena is my girl, the morally bankrupt sadist Nisha has some of the most hilarious retorts and insults.
Weapons received a major overhaul between Borderlands and Borderlands 2; comparatively, the differences here seem slight, but their consequences reach further than it may initially appear. Slag weapons do not exist yet, since the first vault was only recently opened and the engineers are just beginning to study it. In its place is the cryo element, which slows enemies, damages them over time, and can eventually freeze them solid to be shattered into hundreds of shards.
Lasers also appear as a separate weapon type, rather than being reserved for the relatively rare E-Tech weaponry found on Pandora. There are several different flavors of laser weapons, including Ghostbusters-style streams, Star Wars-esque blasters, and powerful railguns. Most useful is that laser weapons generally have low recoil and good hip fire accuracy. This pairs extremely well with the aforementioned low gravity combat. It is common to double jump across a pit and headshot an enemy with a railgun from the hip in the process, and it feels totally rad to do it. Where combat in Borderlands was like Call of Duty in a lot of ways, the fighting in The Pre-Sequel feels more akin to Halo.
One other welcome addition to the loot system is the Grinder, which turns out to be a double entendre of sorts. By feeding it three items of the same rarity level, it has a chance to spit out an item with a higher rarity. Any three items can be fed in, but best results seem to come from matching equipment. For instance, grinding three common pistols will usually result in an uncommon pistol. I found myself keeping various weapons that I had no intention of using, because they would go well in the Grinder and return something I may want. With enough of a collection, several common weapons can be combined to eventually produce a rare item. Sadly, rare items cannot be used to create legendary items.
The Grinder can feel random at times, and I wish there were more structure to it. Feeding it three Jakobs sniper rifles can produce a Maliwan sniper rifle, or feeding it three incendiary lasers can result in a cryo laser. It seems weapon type is the only attribute conserved in the grinding process. The Grinder also functions through a sort of recipe system, but there is no in-game method for tracking which recipes have been tried, what worked, and what did not. The Grinder is a great idea to deal with all the unwanted loot in Borderlands, but it could have been taken the extra mile to function well without outside support.
Of course, some of the most fun in Borderlands comes with multiplayer, and The Pre-Sequel has made some strides to make this even more interesting. While each of the four Vault Hunters can be built to play solo, Athena, Wilhelm, and Claptrap have skills that benefit the whole team in unusual ways. Now, a well-formed group of four can be much greater than the sum of its parts.
An obvious example of this is that many of Claptrap’s Action Packages will affect the entire team, but a more subtle effect emerges when playing with Athena. As the group’s shieldbearer, I acted as the tank, soaking up incoming damage that would have otherwise gone toward glass cannon Nisha. Although previous games have had similar abilities (Salvador could draw aggro and buff his defense), the character diversity and focus on team abilities allow for the potential to be more tactical than ever before.
A lot of the best multiplayer moments have come from raid boss fights. Introduced to the series in the General Knoxx DLC, they have required some of the most intensive team interactions, and Gearbox learned a lot about making interesting raids over the course of the Borderlands 2 DLC schedule. 2K Australia has a lot to learn on that front, because the raid boss included in the core game is just a disappointing retread of the final boss fight, except that it has more health and deals more damage.
Another arena in which The Pre-Sequel falls short of its predecessor is in general polish. A lot of common, benign bugs can be found, like enemies clipping through environment geometry (see above) or shields that glitch such that they recharge immediately and infinitely, rendering the player effectively invincible until restarting.
I ran into a few more off-putting bugs over the 60 hours I spent playing. The most egregious resulted in one of my characters not being able to progress the story, just one area before the final boss fight. 2K has assured Destructoid that this particular bug has been isolated and addressed in a day one patch, so retail versions will be free from it. Regardless, it was heartbreaking to put 40 hours into one character only to be stopped just short of completion.
At least two missions show up in the menu, but point toward the wrong location to accept the mission. One even points toward an area that the player might not have even found before, existing as an ever-present missed connection, with no guidance on how to actually take it on. In Borderlands 2, side missions were generally discovered organically, placed in the main path where they could not be missed. Here, many side missions require backtracking just to take them on, and that is backtracking that the player would not do naturally.
Otherwise, there are issues with form and functionality that do not technically qualify as bugs. For instance, Wilhelm has a skill that sets up a healing aura around a point on the map, but that aura is denoted by a perfectly horizontal circle on the ground, centered at one point on the surface. In areas where the terrain is not completely flat (i.e. most of them), part of the circle is hidden from view. Other areas feature terrain that hides it entirely.
In case it is not already obvious, I love the Borderlands series. I have followed it since its debut in 2009, and I have put hundreds of hours into using bullets to make numbers pop out of bad guys, digging into the lore, and hanging out with friends. Loving the series means knowing just how good it can be, and it means always measuring it against those high standards.
2K Australia nailed the combat with The Pre-Sequel. It is fast, fresh, and more tactically interesting than ever before. The writing hits the right notes, although the overarching plot is not quite as emotionally powerful as other entries have been. For many, that is enough to be a great experience. I had a lot of fun playing through, and I anticipate I will keep playing for months as more friends obtain copies.
Despite that glowing praise, I am torn, because I also recognize that it is far from perfect. The environmental art direction gets dull too quickly, the level design is lacking in basic conveniences, and a general sloppiness is present when looking closely. Some of the cool new features like multi-leveled areas and combining weapons could have been enhanced further if the user interface and systems had been updated to play to those strengths. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a solid entry to the series, but I hope that the development team takes some of the failings to heart and delivers excellence in the future.