Two years ago, Borderlands 2 did a great job of fusing loose and fast shooting with surprisingly deep character customization. It did have its share of pacing blemishes though – blemishes I was really hoping that a new standalone game likeBorderlands: The Pre-Sequel would fix. It doesn’t, but it does provide an entertaining story and a handful of successful gameplay additions that spice up its already excellent core of shooting and looting. This is, essentially, more of the Borderlands I love with just enough new twists to pull me back in, and mostly make up for the things the series still doesn’t get right.
The real star of the show in The Pre-Sequel is Jack. In Borderlands 2 he was perhaps the most gleefully sadistic, and effective video game villain since Final Fantasy 6’s Kefka. Seeing his journey from hero to maniac is perhaps the biggest reason to make the 20-or-so-hour trek across Pandora’s moon, Elpis. Writer Anthony Burch shows a real knack for storytelling here, drawing a more sympathetic portrait of Jack without ever making him into the clichéd misunderstood villain. He’s every bit the hilarious, ego-centric asshat here that we remember him as, and his excellently written and delivered dialogue is responsible for the lion’s share of the laughs.
It’s a good thing too, because those laughs were often all there was to carry me through the long stretches of purposeless wandering around with barely anything to fight. This is part of a problem Borderlands has had since the beginning, and The Pre-Sequel hasn’t solved it. The inadequate waypoint system that doesn’t save you from going in circles while looking for your next objective, the boring trek back to your quest-giver at mission’s end… it’s all still here. The early hours on the moon were particularly trying, since everything is incredibly spread out, and every low-gravity jump takes seemingly forever. I just don’t want to walk towards a diamond on my mini-map for god knows how long to get to where the fun is.
And I really don’t want to go on a multi-step wild switch hunt to trigger said fun once I get there. The Pre-Sequel is cardinally guilty of this one. Apparently neither the Hyperion or Dahl corporations know how to make doors in space, because almost every single one you need to go through requires you to throw a breaker or manual override somewhere back in the area you just slogged through. In a game about shooting and looting, I should be doing those things almost constantly, but in The Pre-Sequel there were times when 10 or more minutes could easily pass without me doing much of either. Things do pick up in the latter half of the campaign, but this sort of buck-and-stall pacing has plagued the series for years, and it gets harder to forgive with each iteration.
But once The Pre-Sequel hits its stride, we get down to what Borderlands has always done best: the bullets start flying, the loot starts dropping, and joyful chaos ensues. The Pre-Sequel delivers a whole lot of that, starting with its four new playable characters and their positively nutty skill trees. Their action skills feel wildly different from one another, and from any of the vault hunters that have preceded them.
Wilhelm’s flying drone duo, Wolf and Saint, really stands out. Not only does one of them go on automated bombing runs against nearby enemies, but the other hangs back to heal him, or even your allies with the proper skill points invested. Nisha’s washes the screen in classic Western sepia, turning her into a godless, gunslinging killing machine for a short while, which is a bit more straightforward, but no less satisfying. Athena’s shield allows her to go all Captain America on fools, but Claptrap’s is by far the craziest, granting him different abilities depending on the situation at hand. Those who love a more anarchic, unpredictable approach to combat will get all the mayhem they’d like out of it.
In fact, everyone’s skill trees are flush with abilities that reward specific playstyles with powerful temporary effects, like mini achievements you unlock over and over. Borderlands’ mascot robot Claptrap, now playable for the first time, is the best example. I happen to be a compulsive reloader with a mild death wish, so his Boomtrap skill tree seems to have been made just for me. By rapidly reloading, I can get a variety of big buffs that have explosive results, but at the cost of some health and accuracy. Oh and I have chance of actually griefing my teammates with my action skill (serves you right for joining my game without an invite…jerk). Just reading some of the other characters’ high-level skills made me think, “How does THAT work?” A copy of whatever gun I’m holding appears in my off-hand? I turn into a walking nuclear bomb? I just had to try this stuff out.
The Pre-Sequel has a few other tricks up its sleeve too, and most of them work out. Not the new Stingray hovercraft – which handles like a wet mop with a ceiling fan strapped to it – but the new low-gravity mechanics are a success. Coming to grips with my elongated jumps took a while, but once it clicked, I started using my new freedom to deadly effect. It becomes so easy to put space between you and your enemies that sniping becomes a more viable option, and being able to bound over cover to slam down behind your foes’ cover makes getting up close and personal easier, and more satisfying than ever.
The new gearing options are a blast too. Freezing enemies solid with cold-based attacks and burning them to a crisp with the new laser-class weapons feels great, but just wait until you see some of the mods that come on the Oz kits that keep you breathing in space. Some grant you accuracy and damage bonuses while airborne, while others give you an entirely different set of buffs depending on whether you’re in vacuum or atmosphere. The Pre-Sequel is really generous with loot, too, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to shape your character in interesting ways. I mean, my Claptrap basically waltzes into the middle of groups of enemies and decimates them exclusively by reloading and dying. I can’t think of another game I can do that in.