Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developer: 2K Australia
Publisher: 2K Games
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is ridiculously good fun. I really can't stress that enough.
This awkwardly titled segue might appear to be a lazy off-year cash grab, but it actually delivers the most fundamental mechanical update the series has ever received. Low-gravity combat. We're still shooting and looting, but now we're soaring merrily through the air (or vacuum!), using a nuanced double jump to gain extra height or boost our way around sprawling three-dimensional stages.
It's awesome, and unlocks a host of exciting new encounters as we take on airborne foes in the air, rain down firepower onto smart squads of jetpack troopers or employ an epic Butt Slam attack to smash down into enemy formations; cracking their faceplates and watching them asphyxiate to a wub wub soundtrack. On top of that, insanely powerful laser cannons and freeze-shattering Cryo weapons slot perfectly into the Borderlands experience, giving us more ways to brutalise anyone stupid enough to stand against us. Now that I'm used to The Pre-Sequel's very Australian humour and voice cast, I don't think I can go back.
It's so much fun, in fact, that while I'm playing I can ignore all of its many, many, many flaws.
I can forgive the dopey storyline. The fact that The Pre-Sequel takes place between Borderlands and Borderlands 2 (as a heroic and handsome Hyperion executive called... Jack... summons a team of mercenary vault hunters to save the moon of Elpis from an unprovoked Dahl attack) was a fascinating opportunity to expand on the series lore, but 2K Australia refuses to do so. Major potential threads like Jack's relationship with Angel go completely ignored, while the main plot goes through the motions as a handful of darker plot points feel out of place and disjointed rather than profound.
Perhaps more embarrassingly, Dahl mercenary Athena narrates the early part of the game as a flashback with input from Lilith, Roland and other series favourites, but this framing device all but disappears after a handful of hours. Presumably because 2K Austraila realised that Athena might not be in the party midway through development and didn't want to throw out the VO they'd already recorded.
But while I'm playing it, I'm swept up in the details and uninhibited sense of fun. Player characters now talk back to their handlers with unique dialogue, grounding them in the setting and fleshing them out as relateable interesting people. Loads of hilarious cameos and references set up smaller unexpected parts of the Borderlands lore. Sidequests often mask traditional fetch/kill objectives with hilarious window dressing or multi-part storylines, and once you've got used to the predominantly Australian accents, there are some fun new faces to get acquainted with too.
I can overlook the inconsistent level design, which teeters between superb and terrible. Some of the environments are utterly fantastic, including massive low-gravity moonscapes that encourage you to explore while conserving oxygen and ferreting out manually-activated air domes, dashing around on speedy hoverbikes or Lunar Rover-inspired Moon Zoomies. Crashed starcruisers and the orbiting Helios station provide tense three-dimensional challenges with exposed superstructure and multi-tiered arenas. Yet all too often you'll find yourself disoriented by the hopeless 2D map, dying by jumping into an incorporeal background texture that looks like a platform or outfoxed by an invisible wall.
It's clear that 2K Australia were keen to show off their new low-grav mechanics, but lacked the experience to consistently lock down the fine detail. The hub town of Concordia is the worst offender: a haphazardly laid-out labyrinth of rooftops, stairs and alleyways that doesn't signpost the important vendor locations with environmental cues. Remember how the Eridian merchant was marked out with an enormous purple sign in Borderlands 2? Here the Moonstone vendor (same difference, only much more generously rewarded) is just a nondescript brown door in a brown wall in a distant corner of the stage.
With controller in hand, however, I'm far too busy chaining jumps and butt slams together in interesting ways, switching up my strategy on a second-by-second basis in a breathtakingly vertical dance of death, to feel frustrated for long. Using your brain to navigate some of the tougher 3D mazes is a nice change of pace from the usual hand-holding shooter crowd, and better yet, there's a smorgasbord of hidden caches and secrets to explore for on the highest rooftops and distant platforms. Not limited to an entire Mario tribute level!
Then we come to the pacing. Oh lorks, as Nanna Lester used to say. The Pre-Sequel is all over the shop, bogging down in a hopelessly slow start with an amateurish low-resolution FMV intro, then limiting us to two weapons for several aggravating hours rather than letting fans crack on. The loot cap hasn't increased, but a new gun-combining Grinder and encourages us to hang on to weapons instead of throwing them out. Over-levelled gear check bosses can stop you in your tracks, especially one absolute arse called Deadlift. Story missions can get a little samey as yet another switch breaks, forcing you to find yet another workaround, while what should feel like an epic assault in the third act is robbed of all urgency by a glut of sidequests.
Padding abounds. In theory I should be livid.
In practice, though, "padding" is another word for "some more exciting three-dimensional combat encounters." I'm less concerned about the big picture and more worried about surviving yet another wave of tough mobile enemies, relying on the Vault Hunter at my back thanks to the tightest synergy and interplay between classes to date. The four new Vault Hunters compliment each other perfectly with unique and interesting abilities, from the defense-oriented Athena who uses her shield to guard comrades and punish foes Captain America-style to burly offensive bounty hunter Wilhelm and whip-wielding sadist lawwoman Nisha.
Claptrap steals the show, and was worthy of an entire article to himself thanks to a crazy action ability that affects the entire squad with bizarre effects, but he doesn't overshadow the others. Hs double-edged passives and entire skill tree of co-op centric skills actually make him the closest to a true cooperative support character we've seen yet from the franchise. Each character has a really well-defined role that doesn't stop you from exploring new builds, but makes co-op feel truly rewarding when a well co-ordinated squad use their passives and game-changing abilities to devastating effect. Seriously, just writing about The Pre-Sequel makes me wish I was playing it right now.
But I'm not playing it now, am I? I'm sat in front of my keyboard in the cold light of day and could quite easily crucify The Pre-Sequel for its transgressions, not to mention a few annoying technical gripes.
I could, but I won't, and I strongly feel that would be missing the point. The Pre-Sequel's flaws may hold it back from being great, but not from being good, and an absolutely worthwhile cooperative romp for series fans -- hindsight be damned. Sadly, I can't help but feel that an extra few months of development might have ground down some of the rougher edges.
- Fantastic low-gravity combat completely refreshes the experience
- Great synergistic classes make for superb co-op
- Infectious sense of fun; some neat cameos and references
- Lasers. Cryo. Shooting and looting. Butt slams.
- Dopey overarching storyline wastes its opportunity
- Inconsistent, sometimes frustrating, level design
- Terrible pacing from slow start to saggy middle
- A few technical quirks, slow texture pop-in
The Short Version: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel makes up for some major issues with pacing and level design by simply being a ridiculously fun cooperative romp. A few more months of development could have turned a good game into a great one, but there's still some great bouncy butt-slammin' action to get stuck into here.
Mind you, the wait for the inevitable GOTY Edition will be less painful than usual.
7 - GOOD: Some sites seem to think that the halfway point between 1-10 is 7. This is not the case. It should be noted that 7 is not just a perfectly respectable score, it's a good score. A 7 is not an indication of failure, nor is it the mark of a bad, poor or even average game. These are titles that can be considered very worthwhile, but maybe come with a caveat. Frequently the domain of the well-made-if-rather-conventional brigade.