“Fly me to the moon; Let me play among the stars; Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars…”
When Kaye Ballard sang those words back in 1954, video games as we know them didn’t exist and were still many years away. However, although sixty years have passed and it’s now 2014, the song and its lyrics fit with and foreshadow one of the industry’s newest blockbusters: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! At least as far as I’m concerned, as the song is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the game or its title.
Following in the impressive footsteps of Gearbox Software’s breakout hit, Borderlands, and its beloved sequel, Borderlands 2, The Pre-Sequel! is an interesting commodity for two reasons. First, there’s the fact that, instead of having the majority of its development handled by its series’ talented creators, the game was actually developed in the Land Down Under, by 2K Australia (BioShock 2). Second is its premise, which is eluded to through what is one of the most creative subtitles ever written.
You see, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! is certainly not Borderlands 3, which is something that fans of the franchise have been wanting for years. Instead, it bridges the gap between the two numbered entries that preceded it. Through this, it tells a tale that we didn’t know we wanted, and maybe didn’t need.
If you’ve played through the first two games — or at least Borderlands 2 — then you’ll know of bad guy Handsome Jack. However, if you’re new to things, all you really need to know is that he acted as the main villain in that fantastic sequel, and annoyed the Hell out of vault hunters everywhere with his verbal diarrhea. Hopefully you didn’t get enough of him last time around, because he’s back in this outing, and appears in a brand new capacity. As opposed to being the hated villain, he’s actually your boss.
Things begin back on the floating rock they call Sanctuary, where Athena (one of the four playable characters) is held captive by familiar faces. Forced to recount the story of exactly what she was up to before being captured, she acts as the seldom-used narrator for this particular tale. As such, everything that happens does so in the form of a lengthy memory, although that fact doesn’t change how things play out or really alter the experience at all. It’s still the same Borderlands gameplay that we’re used to, with a bazillion weapons, elemental effects and colourful characters to boot.
Athena tells the story of how she — along with three other prospective vault hunters — ended up being propositioned by a smooth-talking Hyperion programmer named Jack. His request? For them to take a jaunt through space to a particular station. As you’d expect, things don’t end up going as planned, with the protagonists discovering that a jamming signal’s existence is preventing them from completing their mission. A jamming signal located on Pandora’s moon, that is.
Thus begins a trip to Elpis — the moon in question — where the fearsome foursome are tasked with doing much more than they bargained for. What starts with a jaunt to flick the power switch on the noted signal quickly evolves into a race to disable a powerful laser that is threatening the rock and those who inhabit it. Of course, what would a quest like this be without rumours of a hidden vault to fantasize about?
Although it sounds cool on paper, The Pre-Sequel‘s storyline isn’t anything to write home about. It’s really not that fantastic, or memorable for that matter. Still, it bridges the gap fairly well and explains why Jack transformed from a suave and greedy programmer to a heinous evildoer.
The real stars of this science fiction attraction are the playable characters, whom are all varied and unique. This is a roster that starts with a cybernetic enforcer named Wilhelm (whom I took up arms as), and his trusty miniature spaceships that both attack enemies and heal their master at the same time, and ends with a luck-based Claptrap robot who believes in his vault hunter status so much that he is susceptible to elemental status effects. In-between the two are a gun-toting heroine named Nisha (The Lawbringer) and Athena, the feisty Gladiator.
Claptrap is easily the most memorable of the bunch, but he’s not for those who despise taking risks. His luck-based nature means that he’ll either activate good benefits for his party, or negative ones, with an example being the inability to stop firing. I also became a bouncing bullet-sponge at one point, thanks to a robotic friend who joined my game.
It’s evident that a lot of thought went into crafting the above-mentioned roster, but not enough went into creating a new experience for Borderlands fans. Outside of a couple of new mechanics — those being an unnecessary need for oxygen and zero gravity/complementary butt-slams — this is pretty much a romp through familiar territory. Sure, the location has changed from the alien planet of Pandora to its rocky, crater covered and lava-filled moon, but not much else. It’s unfortunate, and gives good reason as to why this isn’t Borderlands 3.
You’ll find guns and loot galore as you make your way from point A to point B and back again, completing numerous fetch quests and taking out a million bad guys. However, it takes a while before the good weapons start to flow. Or, at least it did on my end, because it wasn’t until near the end of the fifteen to twenty hour-long campaign that I started to find the really badass guns.
Playing Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! after Destiny also ended up being an interesting experience, because it made me appreciate Bungie’s smooth as silk gunplay mechanics more than I already did. That’s not to say that the gunplay found within this gap-bridging RPG is bad, but it’s certainly not perfect. Maybe it’s Destiny‘s fault, but it felt as if some of the guns didn’t handle as well as they should’ve, or as well as their kind did in either of the last two games. Even the new laser weapons — which are kind of helpful — fail to pack the punch that fans would’ve expected. They’re a tad cumbersome, and are often too slow for many of the flying enemies that are found on Elpis.
Speaking of enemies, be prepared to fight a ton of them. They’re everywhere, and they’re ruthless. In fact, quite a few of them now have jetpacks, which make them even more annoying. They’ll fly around like kids on sugar highs, while depleting your shield and health bars with their precision aim. I’m all for challenging games, but there’s a difference between fair difficulty and cheapness. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel‘s developers don’t seem to have known where to draw the line.
When I reviewed Borderlands 2, I noticed that it featured a heightened difficulty level in comparison to that of its phenomenal predecessor, but it wasn’t as bad as what’s presented here. Unless you farm and over-level yourself, or play with three skilled friends, you can expect to die quite often. I like to think of myself as a pretty good gamer, but while playing through most of this title by myself, there were quite a few times where enemies depleted my life bar in what felt like mere seconds. Their aim always seemed to be phenomenal and I was rarely given a fair chance during those encounters, which aggravated me, considering that money I’d earned had to be paid out so that my character could respawn.
This leads me into another issue I have with the game – that is, its tendency to scale enemies’ levels faster than normal.
By the time I’d reached the final chapter, I’d completed twenty-one optional missions, with several others active and awaiting me. The plan was to go back and complete them after finishing the game, but it quickly became apparent that that wasn’t going to be a likely scenario. You see, although I was levelling well and had made it to level 22, the enemies I was fighting took some Human Growth Hormone and skyrocketed up to levels 25 and 26 before I knew it. It didn’t seem like an organic jump, and I’ve played a lot of RPGs.
Grinding is fine if you’re trying to get rare loot, fight a raid boss or catch up to friends, but you shouldn’t be forced to grind at the end of a game that you already played intelligently. It’s just poor design and was frustrating to say the least.
Presentation-wise, this is another relatively strong outing for the series. Its beautiful, Cel-shaded aesthetic is back, and the same is true of its witty writing and colourful voice acting, although both come bearing Australian slang that North Americans won’t always understand. Things certainly aren’t perfect for this last-gen release, though, because it suffers from texture pop-in as well as a frame rate that occasionally stutters. Enemies also disappear from time-to-time, either by doing a vanishing act or going through an object.
All in all, though, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! is a solid and entertaining romp. With it, 2K Australia has created an experience that falls in with the Borderlands games we know and love, but one that is altogether too familiar to be blown away by. Here’s hoping that it’s just a stepping stone between the greatness that was Borderlands 2 and the spectacular numbered sequel that we all want so desperately.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel leaves us wanting, due to its overt familiarity. It's a decent game overall, but fails in its attempt at being something great.