It’s a little tricky to avoid feeling that a review of The Pre-Sequel (!) is superfluous. Surely everyone in the world has had a taste of Borderlands at this point, and have made their minds up about it? This is very much more of that same formula, with zaniness turned up to… What’s that, Steve? You’ve never played a Borderlands game? Wow.
Well then, I’d better explain!
Borderlands, Borderlands 2, and the many DLCs, are all part of Gearbox’s most successful experiment with the FPS. The experiment went like this: they created a system for basically infinite variations of guns, bolted that into a quest-driven, “wide corridor” FPS structure, then threw in a cartoony art style, added some salted and pickled jokes, then mashed the whole thing up with a four-player co-op “drop in/drop-out” functionality. It’s pretty much what happens when you try and tick all the boxes, and it tastes a little like loot-driven dungeon crawlers crashing headlong into traditional FPS games, and the entire mess catching fire in a wrecked candy store.
And catch fire it did. The Borderlands games are co-optacularly popular, with The Pre-Sequel having already shot to the top of the space charts.
That said, I feel like The Pre-Sequel is the weakest of the games so far, with the formula being squeezed for every last drop of its potential, and the entire thing being relocated to the moon for reasons unclear. Handsome Jack – the baddy in B’lands 2 – is a main character here, and we get to learn much of his story. I probably could attempt to explain the plot in some handy way, but that would be spoiling things, and it seems entirely more useful to explain that the game introduces three new vault hunters and – for some reason – comedy robot Claptrap as a playable character. The game asks you if you are serious about your selection when you choose to play him at the start.
This is probably a signifier of how the series needs a complete reboot or overhaul, too, because Claptrap’s special ability – all the characters get one, and there are new ones for all here, too – is a random cocktail of abilities from all the other games, as well as a lot of odd stuff that occurs dependent on the situation. It’s a big, silly idea, but really I think – boringly, perhaps – that I’d rather have had the ability to play any of the characters from all the games.
Anyway, there are two complaints I see aired regularly when it comes to Borderlands. One is that it isn’t funny. That’s sometimes true, but I have to admit I tittered at least as much as usual at The Pre-Sequels quips: there really are some good jokes amid the screaming mania of it all. That won’t do much for the decided Borderlands grumpyfaces, and that’s fine, but at least this game means what it says. I think it’s just worth noting that it’s sometimes as well written as most other comedy games manage to be, and occasionally clever with its ideas on that front. Even if it’s not To Your Tastes, it seems like the amount of work and thought put in shouldn’t be denied.
Sometimes, though, it feels pretty empty. It’s as if they had some big ideas – the moon is basically Australian outback to Pandora’s American bandit-West, for example, and riffs on that notion throughout – but then the big ideas weren’t enough to fill the vacuum of a full AAA game. (It’s perhaps worth noting that this is a game from 2K Australia with help from Gearbox, rather than Gearbox themselves.)
The other complaint that gets raised is more fundamental, and it’s that the game is only a middling combat game, and really requires co-op to be entertaining. That’s probably fair, although I’ve always rather liked this loot-piñata of a game, and its systemic core: guns, guns, compare the guns, shoot the guns, and some other stuff going on but basically guns. What the Pre-Sequel’s not really doing is improving the ongoing model for what you do through most of the game: fight through connected arenas and landscapes. The bits you found boring are still boring, and it’s still a strange game of repeatedly dashing across the same monster-spewing bits of terrain that you have already seen, covering gaps between far apart checkpoints.
But it’s set on the moon! And that means there’s lower gravity! Which is… a worse feeling game? Yeah, I am not really sure they thought that through, even if they clearly did follow it through. What I mean is: there are mechanics that work because of the setting (collecting air while outside, low gravity movement), so they’ve definitely taken advantage of the moon thing, but I am not sure they should have gone there in the first place. Does that make sense? Probably not. Who is editing this stuff? Are you even reading this, Graham? [Yes. It makes close enough to sense? –Graham]
Look: I find both sets of new mechanics an annoyance. That’s all.
On the upside it means the level design is more vertical than usual and you get to do stuff like ponderously leap over lava-filled canyons, but Borderlands was never the tightest feeling FPS to begin with. The jumpy floatiness of this low-G world just amplifies that feeling. It’s not a fatal flaw, but I dislike it enough to say that it spoils my game in the low-gravity areas. Skating about is one thing, but the weird “I’m disconnected from the ground” leaping just feels oily and incongruous. I’ve long enjoyed the “just get back into cover when your shield is down” sort of play, and that feels compromised here.
The payoff for this is the slam, which is an air-drop move which sets off an AoE shockwave, knocking back enemies. It’s fun. It’s probably not fun enough.
Ultimately, though, the Pre-Sequel just fails to hold my attention. This could be in part to overall Borderlands fatigue, but I think it’s more simply down to this not being quite the cohesive whole or formidable package that it might have been. There were a load of chuckles, but I didn’t find it funny overall. There are some spectacular locations, but I found myself bored by the world. The bosses come as fast and as furious as ever, and none of them stuck in my mind. The playable Claptrap is funny, but all the new vault hunters felt like the guys you wouldn’t have chosen in the previous games.
There’s a lot of but. Big but.
Borderlands 2 felt like a huge step on from the original, and it was more colourful, with interesting characters and intense situations. The Pre-Sequel seems to try so, so hard to keep up, but this is not Borderlands 3, and the game – and everyone who plays it – knows that.
In conclusion: Seven out of We Don’t Do Scores.