Borderlands is an island. In its centre, there’s a breezy mix of ridiculous firefights and even nuttier guns. Surrounding it, however, is an ocean of tedium — little inconveniences that have plagued the series since its inception. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel does only the bare minimum of work to fix that.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a new game in the first-person RPG/shooter series known for such phrases as “87 Bazillion guns!” and “NOTHING IS MORE BADASS THAN TREATING A WOMAN WITH RESPECT.” It’s often silly and irreverent, but the tone is earnest, the writing and characters generally strong. Moment-to-moment action, meanwhile, largely consists of completing fairly rote “go here, shoot/grab this thing, come back” courier missions, and, of course, amassing glittering pinata piles of loot.
The Pre-Sequel shtick goes pretty well in line with that, poking fun at series that do prequels-as-sequels when they don’t have other material readily available by, um, doing exactly that. The setting this time around? The moon. And the central (though non-playable) character in the story? Jack, the man who eventually goes on to become Borderlands 2’s maniacal kingpin Handsome Jack.
New additions this time around are small in number and size, even if one of them is, uh, the moon. The Pre-Sequel, for better or worse, feels like Another Borderlands. If you’re looking for something outside the series’ typical gun crate of wide-open-space wandering and rather weightless head-bursting, this one definitely isn’t for you.
That out of the way, let’s delve into the smaller twists Pre-Sequel makes on Borderlands’ tried and sometimes tired formula. Some of them are very good! The biggest, most noticeable change is low gravity, because, again, the moon. Massive jumps and languid floating add an extra dimension to Borderlands‘ movement, and, more importantly, they’re pretty fun.
There are times when the whole package feels a little too slippery/imprecise (pairing already insubstantial movement with a literal lack of gravity makes for more awkwardness? who’da thunk?), but mostly it takes some of the tedium out of navigating some rather sizable gaps between battles. On top of that, it allows for more outlandish level design, even if that only means you now sometimes find yourself shooting down at enemies instead of across from them.
Mid-battle there’s now the option to leap into the sky and then slam down on enemies, dealing area-of-effect shockwave damage that also tends to knock enemies back. It’s great for keeping crowds out of your face and it just feels satisfying — especially when paired with elemental effects like toxic damage. If a baddy is really pissing me off, there’s nothing more cathartic than furiously stomping down and watching as they gurgle into a retching geyser of poison or flame. Call me sadistic but, well, they started it!
Slamming has changed me as a Borderlands player. Now I slam all the time. I slam against packs of deranged sawblade-waving baddies, I slam against elite-level foes who’d pop my recharging shield like a plump grape otherwise. I slam against bosses (if they’re not flying). I slam in the supermarket produce aisle. I slam in a box and with a fox. I slam when welcomed to the jam.
There’s also a slowly-running-out-of-air mechanic to round out the “oh shit, I’m totally in space” theme, and it’s largely non-invasive due to the plentiful nature of air canisters. Better still, it’s nicely satisfying to pop enemies’ air masks and leave them dazed, gasping and slowly losing health. And combining that with a slam, as I did on countless occasions? Delicious, like stepping on a snail and then turning it into escargot.
That said, it can get annoying when combat’s at a fever pitch and your character starts sputtering for air as the screen flashes black and white. This does, however, force you to fight like a crazy person given that enemies often drop air canisters. “Be aggressive” is the message Pre-Sequel sends with its mechanics. If that’s not your play style, well, air also sometimes emerges from cracked portions of the ground and crates. Fingers crossed that you find enough of those.
The problem with all this, however, is that the Pre-Sequel so rarely integrates any of the moon-y looniness into its mission design. There are a few standouts — especially during a madcap section towards the end that forces you to stay on your toes (or, rather, off them) constantly — but many of the game’s missions consist of basic shootouts or “find the thing” scavenger hunts. Even boss fights don’t do a great job of it (a few, like one who electrocutes the ground as he hurtles around the level aside), but they are slightly more interesting.
This repetition has a way of becoming tedious in large doses, especially when other tiny bits of sigh-inducing inconvenience seep in. For example, the waypoint system is atrocious, walking between (fairly empty) open spaces is uneventful, missions tend to unfold less with frantic moon-saving momentum and more as a series of “whoops, a thing broke; go fix it or else you’re not allowed to have fun” stop-gaps, inventory management is an ever-present pain, and — worst of all — Pre-Sequel daintily takes its time getting to the good parts.
Unfortunately, this game suffers from a pretty egregious case of Slow Start Syndrome and — worse for a game like this, where you might want to roll multiple characters so you can play co-op with different friends — you can’t skip any of it. When I hit the three-hour mark and still felt like a) very little had happened and b) the game was clutching my hand like a worried mother or a lobster seeking vengeance for its freshly boiled kin, I couldn’t help but frown. And yawn.
The game does pick up as time goes on, but even then there were stretches where a co-op friend and I were like, “Hey, you wanna do something else?” and then “Oh, right: review.” This is all to say, under any other circumstance we’d have gotten bored and walked away for a while after, say, an over-long story mission that consists of same-y fights, too much going from point-A to point-B, and lukewarm characters. The tedium set in even quicker when I was playing alone, which — while relaxing in its own way — tends to make the Borderlands experience ring a little hollow.
On the upside, building your character does become fun after Pre-Sequel‘s shoe-sucking swamp slog of an opening. Skill trees bristle with personality, granting characters like gunslinger Nisha all sorts of wild sepia-toned abilities straight out of good Western while Athena, the Gladiator, is the best shield-slinger this side of Captain America.
Series mascot Claptrap — re-christened “Fragtrap” — might just take the cake though. His special attack gives you a remixed version of another Borderlands character’s special attack depending on the combat situation at hand. In practice, he’s like playing a greatest hits collection on shuffle. You never really know what you’re gonna get, but it will probably leave you grinning. Or cringing. At least you won’t be bored.
The fibres that knit all of this chaos together are merely OK. This time the plot centres around Borderlands 2 bad boy Handsome Jack before he was “Handsome” Jack, and while there are a few strong moments, nothing really stands out in a big way. Jack spends most of the game as a (fairly arsehole-ish) good guy and then… well, you can probably figure out where he ends up.
All the while, characters like the heroes from other Borderlands games and fan favourites like Mad Moxxi and human insanity cannon Torgue — or, written as he’d say it, TOOOOOORRRRRGUE YEAAARRRRGGGHH — make cameos, usually to amusing effect.
But if other games with comedic elements have made me laugh, Pre-Sequel was more of an occasional chuckle. The overarching idea of the moon being a comically exaggerated Australia is great (especially given that Pre-Sequel was developed by 2K Australia rather than series creator Gearbox), but punchlines are delivered in limp pitter-patters, not walloping blows. One early mission had me walk up and tell some random dude he was a dick to fulfil a dead man’s final wish. That was funny. But it wasn’t until hours and hours later that I found something that good again.
I am, to be frank, grateful that Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a decent-ish game. Last time, Gearbox gave a major game to another developer, it came back in the rotten bits and pieces known as Aliens: Colonial Marines. That does not, however, change the fact that Pre-Sequel isn’t particularly spectacular in any area.
It just kinda… exists. If you find yourself craving another Borderlands fix and you’ve finished 1, 2 and their DLC, well then go for it. Otherwise, though, you’re honestly not missing much if you skip this one.