Since the debut of the original Borderlands back in the mists of 2009, Gearbox's brash shooter series has proven that it's possible to combine Diablo-style action RPG mechanics and FPS-style gameplay with admirable flourish. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel doesn't deviate very far from the previous incarnations in the franchise, but a solid focus on interesting characters, often hilarious writing and the evergreen engagement that the series' loot and shoot gameplay provides, proves enough to tide fans over until a truly evolutionary Borderlands successor arrives.
As its title suggests, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is set both before and after the events lain out by the previous two titles in the series. Told through a series of prolonged flashbacks and casting Borderlands 2 villain Handsome Jack as a central anti-hero of sorts rather than a straightforward antagonist, The Pre-Sequel's plot and characters certainly feel much fresher than the morally linear escapades of the first two games. Furthermore, fans of the series will be pleased to recognise the player characters from previous games too, as both Nisha and Wilhem the Enforcer for example, have appeared as bosses in Borderlands 2.
As with the previous games, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is best enjoyed with friends
Like previous games in the series, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel allows players to choose one character from a quartet of protagonists with each one boasting a bespoke combat style all of their own in addition to a set of unique abilities. Athena the Gladiator for example, can fashion a shield that can absorb enemy attacks and/or be thrown at them, while Nisha the Lawbringer can slow time to a crawl with her Showdown ability as she rapidly dispatches foes with increased damage and firing speed.
As always, being able to be able to choose from four very different class types proves instrumental in providing a sense of variety to the gameplay, especially as each class comes with three very different skill trees into which players can invest level-based skill points to diversify themselves further.
Sitting atop these avenues of development are 'Badass Ranks', which when gained by accomplishing specific tasks such as looting a set number of containers, or performing a certain number of critical strikes for example, will unlock tokens that can be used to increase player stats further. Where such increases deviate from the norm however, is that any stat increases which are purchased using those tokens apply to all characters that the player has generated, rather than just the one that they are currently using.
Beyond the game's initially intimating myriad of progression systems, at its crux, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel still looks and plays just like previous games in the series. Players still follow that similar rhythm of shooting and looting everything in sight and going from mission-giver to mission-giver, racking up experience points and new gear as the game's resolutely humorous narrative trundles along.
While for some this will be a comfortable relief, it's certainly difficult not to pine for a game that looks truly evolved from its half-decade old origins. A groundbreaking vision for the Borderlands series, the Pre-Sequel most certainly is not.
For those who are quite happy with more of the same, give or take, than the Pre-Sequel won't disappoint. After all, this is a game that feels like it's been crafted for the fans and if the switching of its bosses from previous games into playable characters wasn't enough, than loyal Borderlands players will find themselves happily rewarded with exclusive weapons and items for having save data from the previous two games on their hard-drives.
Still, in clinging so steadfastly to what makes the series so great in the first place, The Pre-Sequel also upholds those same, familiar flaws which were evident in previous games too. Missions with fail conditions for instance, prove troublesome as if the player fails them, they have to make the often long trek back to the mission-giver, rather than just being able to press a button to facilitate an instant retry. The vehicles too, retain their imprecise and awkward handling, as driving any of the pre-sequel's moon buggies or other machines feels as insufficiently satisfying as they have done before.
The low gravity on the moon of Elpis means that jumping about is quite different to before
Elsewhere, the serial pillaging of the game's vast number of loot containers proves a chore in the long-term, as aside from the Badass challenges assigned to the act, the rewards found inside these containers rarely tend to be anything of worth with meaningful weapon upgrades in particular proving few and far between. The series AI returns in its usual uninspiring form too, with a distinct lack of self-preservation sadly intact. Simply put, if your foes aren't rushing at you like a herd of buffalo on hard drugs than their attempts to hide behind cover (with their heads usually exposed no less), prove just as predictable and easy to deal with. Tactical nuance, it would seem, still remains a pipe-dream for the murderous denizens of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.
In spite of such preserved flaws, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel still, like its predecessors, remains an experience that is very much enhanced by playing with friends. The joy of taking down an especially difficult boss or the elation at finding a secret area is one that is magnified when in the presence of chums and as such, it is recommended as the primary mode of play for the game.
Nevertheless, as much as The Pre-Sequel would seem to play it safe by embracing the maxim “if it ain't broke, don't fix it”, there are still changes afoot here that distance Gearbox Software's latest from the first two games in the series. With the majority of the action taking place on Elpis, the moon of the planet Pandora that was so heavily featured in previous games, the issue of gravity and oxygen become pressing ones. Chiefly, not only can the player now jump higher, farther and slower than before but players must also now ensure that adequate oxygen is possessed, lest health plummets and costly, money-sapping respawns become commonplace.
Where this latest Borderlands title makes its biggest strides however, is not in gameplay mechanics, but rather in its humorous narrative and the motley cast of characters that support it. While the franchise has always been famed for its comedic inclinations, The Pre-Sequel takes it up a notch with its witty narrative and frequently hilarious characters. While Handsome Jack, Moxxi and a handful of familiar others cast a relentlessly entertaining presence in the game, it's really the inhabitants of Elpis who really steal the show.
With the majority of The Pre-Sequel's development being shifted to 2K's Australian studio, it has also provided the opportunity for a new influx of voice talent. As a result, the Australian-accented natives of Elpis, such as the borderline psychopathic, yet eminently lovable Janey Springs, provide some of the funniest and most biting acerbic humour the series has seen to date. The Australian connection goes deeper than just the characters and their vernacular too, as many a playful riff and satire is cast upon various aspects of Australian pop culture ranging from cricket to Mad Max.
In short, it's almost a task in itself not to be wearing a goofy grin on your face when playing the game.
When it comes to the audiovisual presentation side of the equation, things really haven't changed at all. Unreal Engine 3 is wheeled out once more to provide a service here and, as expected, it does so under the weight of the series' heavily stylised and pronounced cel-shaded veneer.
The series penchant for OTT firearms endures in The Pre-Sequel
Arguably, the cel-shaded visuals with their comic book esque features and thick black outlines retain much of their charm, but some five years on and the overall technical picture that is presented here is starting to look both tired and less impressive than previously. With low-detail textures, occasional glitches and somewhat rudimentary character animations, it's clear that Borderlands exaggerated comic book sensibilities and style do a largely effective but diminishing job of covering up the game's ageing technical merits.
Ultimately, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel stands as a last hurrah for Gearbox's RPG shooter in the form that we currently know it. With improvements that feel more incremental than innovative, 2K Australia have stepped up and provided a solid and long-lasting if technically safe entry in the Borderlands series and yet, it's one which stands out almost singularly on the merit of it's breathlessly entertaining cast and rowdy narrative.
BORDERLANDS: THE PRE-SEQUEL VERDICT
Gear up, load up, start shooting and start laughing (with friends). You know the drill.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Initiating Nisha’s Showdown ability in mid-air and laying waste to a vast horde of enemies in record time, before slamming into the ground and finishing them off.