Borderlands The Pre-Sequel! Review: New World, Same Problems, But Oh What A World It Is
Have you ever watched someone else play a video game? It is a strange experience; you get all the joy of the story, explosions and whatnot, but you do not get to actually affect any of that. You are a silent observer to somebody else's adventure.
Playing though Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, the third entry into the beloved RPG/FPS hybrid series, I could not help but feel like I would rather be watching all of this. That is not to say that the game is not enjoyable - it is - but the little frustrations add up until those are the only things you are focusing on. In true Borderlands fashion, it is the characters and the story that will keep you going during the very long stretches of gameplay that send your character back and forth across the moon, Elpis.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! tells the story of the rise of Handsome Jack. Basically, it's the entire Star Wars Prequel trilogy distilled into a single game: a story of a 'good' man who becomes corrupted. As villain origin stories go, a conceit I generally loathe in media, the Pre-Sequel! is quite excellent. The game is written by Anthony Burch and Maurice Suckling, who have worked on the previous entries, too. The dialogue is pithy and biting, everyone is a sarcastic sonofabitch and while it shouldn't work, they are all sarcastic in different ways. If there were awards for best supporting character in a game, it would go to Handsome Jack. Sure, he's not a PC (though there is new DLC which lets you assume his role in all of this), but he's by far the most interesting person you're going to meet on the moon.
Which is not to say that the four Vault Hunters you can choose from are uninteresting. Far from it. That is the strength of the writing and world-building of The Pre-Sequel! The new Hunters are all familiar faces from previous games: Nisha The Lawbringer (who you kill in Borderlands 2), Athena the Gladiator (seen in the original Borderland's DLC), Wilhelm The Enforcer (another boss in Borderlands 2) and everyone's favorite dub-stepping robot, Claptrap (The Fragtrap), who aided you both previous adventures but makes his playable debut here.
Each of the characters' playstyles are more suited to certain player's proclivities and preferences. I, being a fan of sniping and general gunplay, spent the majority of my runthrough as Nisha, whose special abilities are all about the guns (bout the guns). Athena's shield makes her an excellent close range fighter and I would be remiss if I failed to mention that playing her is kind of like playing Captain America. Wilhelm and his cybernetic helpers are for more advanced kids, who can juggle many things at once. Fun as hell, but not my style.
And then there's Claptrap, who defies any particular playstyle and opts for a buffet of abilities. He's a storm, the physical manifestation of chaos and chance. You never know what you're going to get with Claptrap, whether it's a useful second gun in your off hand or a nuclear bomb.
The newest game mechanic in The Pre-Sequel! is the low-gravity jump and the 'butt slam'. A whole new moon of verticality is now available to the level designers. Sadly, the jumping is a bit hard to control and while butt-slamming enemies is fun as hell, trying to physically move anywhere above the surface is, at times, difficult. There is rarely a clearly marked area to jump to and the number of narrow ledges that you will inevitably miss on the way up, or down, is frustrating. Jumping works best as a supplement to your battle strategies in wide open spaces, of which there are many, and not as a means of travel. I don't know how many times I died by underestimating the distance of a jump.
Dying is a big part of The Pre-Sequel!. You're never in much danger, and in fact, sometimes dying is the best way out of a tricky situation. The problem with the constant death is that the rez chamber is usually far away, which forces you into more backtracking across a now empty wasteland. Dying, jumping and the verticality of levels all form a perfection union of frustration early on in the game with the boss, Deadlift.
Firstly, do not attempt Deadlift alone. He will kill you, you will rez close by and find all of your hard work at just trying to knock his shield out to be wasted. The boosting platforms laid out all around the very tight area make it difficult and downright aggravating to get a shot off. I walked away from this boss battle on more than one occasion. Say what you will about the previous Borderlands games, but at least you didn't have to worry about so much Y-axis annoyance.
Where the gameplay of Borderlands does shine, however, is in its co-op mode. You can open your game up to the public and have other players drop in and out. The enemies become harder to kill, but the added support of other characters more than makes up for it. On bosses like Deadlift, the extra firepower, not to mention the added benefit of having multiple players on multiple levels, is much appreciated. You might miss a lot of the story, but you will be having fun while doing it.
The promotional videos are not lying. There are so very many guns in the game. You will never come across the same weapon twice. The variety of arms; laser, sniper, shotguns, rifles, pistols, six shooters and the depth of customization found in each, is mind boggling. Overwhelming, actually. A good portion of your playtime is going to be comparing every weapon you pick up to every weapon you currently have. That is not how I always want to play my games.
Nor are the upgrades ever really that powerful, it's all a matter of degrees. A robust weapon system is appropriate for RPGs, but never really satisfies in a hybrid like this. First Person Shooters live and die on a quick pace; if you aren't shooting something, what's the point? RPGs, on the other hand, can afford to take their time. Putting them together can severely affect the pacing of a game and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! suffers from a lot of slow drudgery, followed by moments of adrenaline panic.
The game also introduces new Cryo weapons, which allow you to freeze and then shatter your enemies like they're the T-1000 from Terminator 2. This never once got boring.
The Pre-Sequel! offers a bunch of new mechanics while retaining a lot of the flaws from the previous games. The world of Borderlands is a great one! the characters are all 'characters', the dialogue is sharp and the storytelling is some of the best in the medium. Unfortunately, you have to play through what's soemtimes a not-fun game to experience it all. If there is a way to experience Borderlands without necessarily having to play Borderlands, sign me up.
Oh, wait, there is!
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! was reviewed using a PS3 retail copy provided by the publisher. It's also available now for the Xbox 360 and PC.