There’s really no getting away from it; Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is pure fanservice, down to its bones. It’s a ‘greatest hits’ album, or one of those clip-show compilations that sitcoms run when they start getting into their eighth season and running out of ideas. Oh, make no mistake, it’s still a very solid game, but it doesn’t really want anyone new to join its clubhouse. The game takes virtually every opportunity to bring back previous characters from the series, to the point of having the four playable characters being NPC ‘also-rans’ from previous titles.
The plot, set between the events of the first two games, is familiar territory as well: there’s a vault, you’re hired to go find it. In this instance, your band of colourful mercenaries is enlisted by Jack, a low-level software technician working for Hyperion, and fans of the series will instantly recognise him as Handsome Jack, the big bad of Borderlands 2.
However, this being a prequel, he has yet to come into his own as an evil mega-maniacal asshole. Handsome Jack was one of the best things about the last Borderlands title, and his writing was genuinely funny – to date, he’s the only character with any depth or personality beyond one-dimensional punchlines.
Naturally, he retains all his previous charms in The Pre-Sequel, and since it’s set before his descent into megalomaniacal assholery, we spend the majority of the game palling around with him. This means that there is far more room for spades of sarcastic incidental dialogue, which goes a long way towards injecting life into the otherwise slightly lonely stretches between mission objectives. The only downside is that he suffers from ‘Jack Sparrow Syndrome’, overshadowing the supposedly ‘main’ characters with endless quips and witty one-liners.
The main characters themselves are pretty standard fare: Nisha’s a gunslinger, with skills built around stackable buffs and sharpshooting, Wilhelm’s an augmented soldier that can summon drones for healing and combat, and Athena’s an assassin with a handheld shield that can be thrown at enemies. They’re slightly more varied than those seen in the first two, but they’re all still basic and gun-based.
One wild card, however, is the inclusion of Claptrap as a playable character. Aside from the fact that I can’t possibly imagine a demand for it, it’s clear fan-wank. His main action skill will randomly simulate that of a character from previous games in the series, and it’s painfully clear that it’s the developers saying ‘Hey, hey, look! Look! Remember this? Huh? Wasn’t that great?’. It’s not an actively bad thing, but it can’t help feeling a little tacky.
Also available is the Handsome Jack Doppelganger pack, unlocking one of Jack’s body doubles as a playable class for those who didn’t get quite enough of him as a central NPC. Of course, why a software engineer needs, or has the resources to hire, a body double is conveniently left to the player’s imagination, but he’s a continuation of Gearbox’s trend of surprisingly awesome DLC, and it’s a neat addition.
The gameplay is, as you’d expect, basically the same. It revolves around Borderlands’ signature ‘shoot and loot’ style, focusing on a fusion of FPS combat of the old-school twitch shooter variety and the obsessive equipment upgrading common to RPGs. It’s shameless Skinner-box tactics, with new loot and abilities dangled in front of you like a particularly deadly carrot, but it’s a compelling blend – the combat is reminiscent of classics like Doom and Quake, and the randomly-generated guns are among the most unique and interesting you’ll see in a game.
As an example, my favourite shotgun was one that screamed crude, expletive-laden phrases in an Australian accent any time you did anything. You’d think that hearing your gun shout “I’M GETTIN’ A F**KIN’ LADY-BONER” after turning a bandit’s face into pastry filling would get old after a while, but it really doesn’t, and the Pre-Sequel maintains that sense of unpretentious juvenile glee throughout.
One place the game is a little hamstrung is its inventory system. It’s been a total pain to navigate ever since the first game, and it hasn’t really improved since. For a series that encourages you to spend huge chunks of your time comparing your current equipment to the weapons you’re picking up like a kleptomaniac redneck, the interface for checking stats is incredibly frustrating at times. I found that my character was frequently standing in the way of the stats I wanted to look at, which was highly irksome.
It’s also pretty grindy gameplay; pretty much all the missions are either ‘shoot a bunch of dudes and collect a thing’ or ‘shoot a bunch of dudes so you can press the button that makes the plot move on’. The combat is fun and well implemented, but freshness and variety are not the watchwords here – if you’ve played Borderlands 2 or any recent MMO, you’ll find this very familiar indeed.
It does do a couple of new things, however. Rather than being set on Pandora, this game takes place on its moon, Elpis, which means greatly reduced gravity and no atmosphere: in order to survive outside, you’ll need oxygen, provided by refillable ‘Oz kits’. While the amount of oxygen sources dotted about the environments means that you’re never in any practical danger of running out, it’s a cool mechanic, and it enables an even cooler one.
Due to the lower gravity, jumping takes you much higher than usual, and you can use some of your oxygen to boost yourself into a makeshift double-jump. This opens up a range of new exploration and combat possibilities, from gaining an aerial advantage to slamming down on your enemies from above for big damage. It really lends itself to the frenetic ’90s-style combat, and does a lot to change up a gameplay model that hasn’t really evolved since the first instalment.
For one thing, it almost makes melee combat a properly viable option for the first time in the series, allowing you to close distance fairly quickly. It pairs well with the more melee-focused characters like Athena, although the lack of swappable hand-to-hand weapons is still baffling given the amount of related skills the game has.
Where the new setting really comes into its own, however, is the writing. Vast chunks of the Pre-Sequel were developed solely by 2K Australia, and boy howdy, does it show. Elpis is basically Space Australia, and the entire production is peppered with references to Australian life, culture and history. In addition to the aforementioned foul-mouthed weapon (which shall henceforth be known as the C**t-Gun), there’s references to Captain Cook, Ned Kelly, Crocodile Dundee and more.
It’s also screamingly funny. There’s the usual amount of in-jokes and niche references (with a deliberate and merciful absence of memes), but the fact that it’s parodying Australiana rather than U.S. culture makes it feel new and fresh, with the incidental dialogue and flavour text actually engaging me in the game’s world.
Gearbox and co. have really stepped it up a notch with the visuals as well. The cel-shaded art style is still visually arresting and definitely makes a change from the unremitting realism of modern gaming, but while previous titles could be accused of simply swapping from ‘grey corridor’ to ‘brown scrapyard’ and back again, this game really makes the most of its cosmic setting, with more dynamic environments and breathtaking vistas than both predecessors put together. It’s got its fair share of corridors and scrapyards, sure, but this time they’re thankfully in the minority.
This isn’t a game without problems. The inventory system still feels like wresting with accounting software from the mid-’90s, the player characters have all the warmth and personality of a damp sandwich, and the gameplay is still basically a parade of colourful dickheads for you to perforate. It’s not going to revolutionize the genre, nobody’s going to use it as an example of ‘games as art’, and if you’re bored of Borderlands, this probably won’t do a huge amount for you. But it’s fun as hell, the writing’s funny and engaging, and it’s still more compulsive than Pringles laced with crack. In an age where major publishers are farting out greedy, microtransaction-fuelled turds like Assassin’s Creed Unity, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel feels honest and heartfelt, and that’s enough to earn it a recommendation in my book.