Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel review: in the air

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, Win
Publisher 2K Games
Developer 2K Australia
Release Date Oct 14, 2014

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel's name is a joke made at the expense of off-year sequels and filler content that popular series use to buy time for bigger, better things.

This is particularly funny because that's exactly what The Pre-Sequel is. It's not like original developer Gearbox isn't in on the joke. This is the first Borderlands game developed outside of the Plano, Texas-based studio, as they've handed the reins to 2K Australia.

The result is ... well, more Borderlands, really. In many ways, shy of a setting full of Australian accents (no, really, it is), it's an exercise in covering the series' bases as competently as possible without rocking any boats. But Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel stakes a valid claim on the series with a mechanical quirk that sounds like just another bullet point on an off-year sequel's checklist.

The Pre-Sequel explains how Handsome Jack went from not-quite-hero to villain
pre-sequel review screen 1

In the event that you haven't played a Borderlands game, here goes: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a hybrid loot-based action role playing game and first person shooter. As a Vault Hunter, you'll gain levels and earn more health and unique ability modifiers for your character as you complete missions and take down enemies.

Set primarily on the Pandoran moon Elpis, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is populated by a mostly different cast of characters than its bookends. Taking place between the first and second games, it's an origin story for Borderlands 2 villain Handsome Jack, ostensibly to show how he "fell" from hero-ish to big bad. He's not the only origin story though. All of the new character classes in The Pre-Sequel appear in various capacities in Borderlands and Borderlands 2, as friends or not-so-much.

Three out of the four "new" characters are relatively recognizable to Borderlands vets. I personally preferred the Lawbringer, who focuses on revolvers and sniper rifles with a skill that gives a brief period of auto targeting and rapid fire. Then there's the Gladiator, who absorbs enemy damage in a shield that she can later use as a weapon; the Enforcer adds more and more tech and augmentations over time.

borderlands the pre-sequel gladiator tall

The only truly new-feeling class is Claptrap, newly christened the Fragtrap. Claptrap has been given new programming that takes bits of each pre-existing vault hunter class and sort of "remixes" them when you activate his special ability. It is completely unpredictable — there's no way to know if you'll pull out an identical, second weapon and fire both until you're out of ammo, or, say, a spinning rainbow disco deathball. This unpredictability is fun ... assuming you're not running solo. Claptrap is easily the character most dependent on other classes to stay alive.

Not that death means much. Maybe more than either previous Borderlands game, The Pre-Sequel doesn't really care if you die (outside of boss battles, that is, where dying allows heavies to regain their health and shields). There's not much penalty or consequence aside from the same minor respawn fee that's always been there. You can keep throwing yourself into the same firefights until you conquer them, if that's what you want to do.

It's all very Borderlands. And that's ... sort of The Pre-Sequel's biggest problem. This is the least essential game of the series. It feels smaller than either previous Borderlands. There's less variety in environments and enemies, and it's considerably shorter — about 18-24 hours to mainline the main story with some side missions thrown in. And if that were all that was there, just about anybody could skip The Pre-Sequel and continue living their life without worry or care.

But Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel fixes one of the biggest detriments to the series' moment-to-moment play: It makes movement fun.

Before, simply getting from point a to point b in a mission was tedious and plodding. Areas were frequently gated by low platforms that you had to find a way around to make your way up. Combat movement was the same circle strafing and mild bunny hopping over and over again.

Apparently, low-gravity is the answer to all of this.

As Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel takes place mostly on the surface of a moon (or in deep space), gravity isn't the hindrance it is on Pandora. This allows for absurd jumps and, once you have a life-saving oxygen kit, the ability to give yourself an extra bump, slow your descent, and even change direction while in the air.

This does several things. First, it allows for even more involved vertical traversal problems that are fun to solve in a way nothing in the previous Borderlands games was. Second, it adds a new kind of item to the game with O2, or "Oz" kits as they're called, each of which has its own perks and allow for variations on the air stomp attack you have when you're hovering. For a game like Borderlands, more kinds of loot and more gear to min-max is a great thing.

pre-sequel review screen 4

But most importantly, it's more fun to move around, and it's more fun to fight enemies with that newfound mobility. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel has better gunplay than any previous installment because there's more to do at any given time.

This is assisted by a less jagged gating of parts of the world than Borderlands 2 exhibited. There are fewer instances where I collided with enemies I couldn't kill while sticking to the critical path of the game. It's worth mentioning that some sidequests hid entire systems as rewards, such as an item grinder that lets you break down unwanted items for randomized new gear. This makes for a mostly easier game, but it also allows you to finish the main campaign and unlock harder, more loot-rewarding game options. It also means solo-ing the game the first time through is a reasonable option, underlined by boss fights that aren't extended damage sponges — at least in comparison to previous games.

This revitalized movement and gunplay keeps Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel interesting to play once the series' routine gear-grind has set in, and it makes moving through previously explored areas on the way to new missions much less of a chore. It's the kind of thing that seems like a complete no-brainer once you've used it, and the idea of playing another Borderlands without it is barely fathomable.

Wrap Up:

Low gravity makes The Pre-Sequel more than a simple rehash of the Borderlands formula

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel doesn't feel like a game that needs to be, exactly. It's a story filling in gaps, adding a bit of nuance to a world that's already had two games worth of exposition rather than exploring new ground. It's the same recipe that's driven two full, long games and a host of downloadable content. But the lark of low gravity proves that the tedious parts of previous games don't have to stay an anchor holding the series down. That addition makes this one last run through the world of Pandora (or its moon, anyway) on the last generation of consoles worth the time.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel was reviewed using a pre-release Steam build provided by 2K. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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