Feels like an overlong expansion for Borderlands 2
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is basically Borderlands 2 in space–a fun little stopgap game for fans to play while Gearbox works on Borderlands 3.
For months I’ve been referring to Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel as More Borderlands or, occasionally, Morederlands Borderlands. That’s still an apt description. Other possible titles could be Borderlands: The Largest Borderlands 2 Expansion or Borderlands 2 in Space.
That’s what The Pre-Sequel is at its core. Just more Borderlands 2.
Let them eat Borderlands
Borderlands is the latest franchise to fall prey to what I think we can now safely call an industry trend—stopgap games. In other words, “Our new game won’t be ready for an extra year, what do we do?” syndrome. Other privileged members of this club include Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Batman: Arkham Origins, and (going back a few years) Call of Duty: World at War.
With the “main” product still in development, a secondary studio is called in to create something to keep the franchise relevant and make a bit of cash while also (hopefully) not screwing everything up in the meantime.
Merely charged with regurgitating what’s already popular while the primary studio works on something actually innovative, these games are inevitably just retreads of what we’ve already played with enough story hooks to keep core fans interested and maybe one or two new features. Arkham Origins had the audacity to place you on the exact same map as Arkham City except everything was Christmas themed. Revelations had that hook-thing that made you a bit more nimble while climbing, but otherwise felt like just another Assassin’s Creed II expansion.
In Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel it’s the ability to jump higher. This latest iteration of Gearbox’s loot-driven shooter series takes place story-wise between Borderlands and Borderlands 2 and explores the rise of the second game’s villain Handsome Jack. Rather than fighting on the planet of Pandora as in the last two games, this time you’re going to the moon—thus the low gravity.
You’ll also have to monitor your oxygen levels, as most outside areas don’t have an atmosphere. And there are now laser guns.
In just two (short) paragraphs I’ve listed literally every new feature in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Sure, plenty of work has gone into this piece of content in terms of writing, voiceovers, et cetera. It’s definitely long enough to be considered a “full game,” whatever that means, and it’s backed by a full story and new lore. I also really enjoy the way low gravity opens up the level design, adding more verticality and allowing you to scale some truly impressive structures.
But it plays everything so safe, it’s impossible to think of The Pre-Sequel as anything but a long expansion pack. It’s not just the same engine as Borderlands 2—it’s the same enemies, the same sorts of environments, the same everything. Oh, except these skags are white and are called kraggons, and the raiders now wear little transparent masks over their faces to breathe in space. Oh, and smaller enemies are now called “Lil Raider” and “Lil Lunatic” because Gearbox apparently realized the word midget is perhaps not the kindest term to throw around.
Even two of the classes feel like thin re-skins of old games. Athena throws her shield almost the same way I used to throw Bloodwing, and Wilhelm is clearly the heavy weapons class just like Roland and Axton. Nisha’s Lawbringer class, a play on her role as the Sheriff in Borderlands 2, lets her lock onto enemies without aiming, but it’s a relatively useless skill and actually is worse to use on a PC because it’s faster to line up headshots than to auto-aim body shots.
Only the iconic robot Claptrap feels like a truly original and fresh class choice—Claptrap’s special ability is actually a wildcard that emulates one of the other ten or so classes from previous games. Unfortunately, in order to play Claptrap you have to put up with listening to Claptrap for an entire game. If you can do that, well, you have more endurance than me.
Fans will inevitably pick this up, though. It’s not bad. It’s not broken. It’s still fun. It’s Borderlands. You’ll get a quest, you’ll run to a spot on a map, you’ll shoot a lot of things, you’ll collect the guns that pop out of their exploding heads, and then you’ll most likely sell all those guns.
2K Australia has made a few small tweaks to the loot system. In Borderlands 2 you’ll collect moon rocks as a secondary currency. These moon rocks can still be used to purchase character upgrades, but also are used to unlock special chests at the end of most story missions.
There’s also a device called The Grinder that lets you put in three guns of the same tier and get a rarer gun in return.
Unfortunately i think both of these additions slightly undermine the core loot grind. I felt like I received a lot more white and green guns in The Pre-Sequel, with blue-and-higher loot few and far between. Opening one of those special moon rock crates confirmed my fear—purple items are basically guaranteed to spawn in there. However, the gun inside is totally random which means you could save up for three hours (as I did) only to purchase the crate and find a nearly-useless rocket launcher (as I did).
And it’s just not as satisfying to get a gun from a crate as it is seeing a bunch of rare loot erupt out of a boss after a hard-fought encounter. You’re lucky when that happens, and even luckier if you can manage to grab those guns—I counted more than a dozen occurrences during the game where an enemy dropped a rare-ish weapon but low gravity made it float over the edge of a cliff and fall into oblivion.
The story of The Pre-Sequel also has its issues. The game is actually a frame-story where Athena, the Gladiator class, is telling some of the previous Vault Hunters (Roland, Lillith) about Handsome Jack and his rise to power. That setup is true regardless of whether you’re actually playing as Athena. If, for instance, you’re playing as Nisha and you’re standing in an elevator by yourself, you’ll still hear Athena talking about how she rode up the elevator.
It’s a small thing, maybe, but it took me out of the story every time it happened and finally made me wish I’d just played as Athena in the first place.
And on top of that, the story just feels unnecessary. Like Arkham Origins, I realized that I didn’t really need to know the origin story of Handsome Jack. I liked him better when he was just an asshole for no good reason. Trying to make him (and characters like Nisha) into sympathetic figures just undercuts the strength of the writing in Borderlands 2 proper.
If this review feels overly negative, it’s because the positives of Borderlands seem hardly worth discussing—we’ve already had two games (and countless expansions) worth of this stuff. This is a decent bit of fan-service, the loot grind is still addictive when it works, the writing is solid when it’s not simply aiming for bottom-of-the-barrel meme and reference humor, and the shooting has a good feel to it.
But there’s nothing innovative here, nothing interesting to bring back those who felt sated by the end of Borderlands 2, no real hook. It’s a stopgap. It’s more Borderlands. For some, that’ll be enough. For others, well, I’m sure Borderlands 3 is on its way.
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