Editor's Note: Maiyannah's copy of this game was provided free of charge as a gift by a reader. Tabitha's copy was one she paid for herself.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a third-person shooter developed by 2K Australia and Gearbox Software, and published by 2K Games. The Borderlands franchise has always been somewhat polar in gaming, with some people rather liking the games, and some hating it. The humour put a decent skin over what are fairly tired and repetitive mechanics, so the question becomes: has it improved? Does the humour still carry it? Or has it falling into the endless chasm of mediocrity in which resides sequels to originally popular first installments.
Given that Borderlands has always been a co-op focused series, Maiyannah Lysander and Tabitha Dickerson played through the game together, and we combine their thoughts below.
Tabitha: I've always had somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the Borderlands series. While I liked the first one enough to go through and do challenge mode (True Vault Hunter), the other two just didn't do it for me. Here was a series with a lot of potential. It had the tried and true formula of Diablo randomised loot mixed with some really stylistic sci-fi gun violence set in a setting akin to the world of Mad Max. it was something unique. The music was off the wall, the guns were pretty and the cell shading brought it to life. The plot was never anything to write home about but at least it made sense, with no obviously glaring plot-holes.
The second title in the series tried to mimic the success of the first, but came off as lacking. The gun-play mechanics weren't as tight, the characters were less likable than those who barely talked in the previous one, and while trying to cram in an elaborate plot and ret-conning the first somewhat, glaring plot-holes reared their ugly heads. This sadly has carried over to the Pre-Sequel.
Maiya: The problem of course, with the second game came in the fact that it was a fairly different game. The original Borderlands was a fairly open-ended and open-world exploratory romp through the barren wastes of Pandora as you search for that fabled Vault that you are after. You are given a fair few colourful folk you can do jobs for - or not - and that's that. The choice was left to you and the game was rather loosely-structured at best, and the attempt to introduce structure to Borderlands was what made Borderlands 2 such a different game from the first - Borderlands 2 was much the Skyrim or Oblivion to the original Borderlands' Daggerfall - a fairly-more-structured, but still-sandboxy game. Some people loved that, some people hated it, and I suspect most were somewhere in between, but regardless, it was a fundamentally-different experience.
As Tabitha mentions, it started as it meant to go in that vein, as Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is very much the same in that regard as Borderlands 2, except in this case with a fairly more restrictive sandbox to boot, and a much more linear story. Let's touch on the story first.
The story of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel loses the plot somewhat
(or: subtlety? Who needs subtlety?)
T: For all intents and purposes, The Pre-Sequel is actually a sequel, just told in a similar fashion to Dragon Age II. It has a prologue at the beginning and a wraparound/cliffhanger at the end. While the majority of the story content actually takes place in-between Borderlands One and Two, the actual timeline is set after Two and presumably leads into Three.
You play as a Vault Hunter hired by Jack "John" (No "Handsome" this time) to help him get the Helios "Eye" space-station back under control. It's been taken over by a Dahl Mercenary crew of the Drakensburg. It's never really explained entirely why they're using the laser to try and destroy Pandora's Moon, Elpis, they just are. The story is told retroactively by Athena. One of the hired Vault hunters who is held at firing squad as Lillith interrogates her, much like Varic and the Inquisitor in Dragon Age II.
The story feels quite dumb to anyone who is a fan of science fiction stories and insults you at every turn; often coasting on popular memes or references to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album. You will constantly feel like your intelligence to grasp concepts and subtlety is undermined. This game has no subtlety.
Whether it be pointing out an obviously gay character like Janey Springs or hitting you over the head with a "twist" you saw coming a mile away, the exposition can be rather cringe-worthy at times. There's even a line of dialogue after you finish the game, in Helios station spoken by a claptrap that states an "ironic joke". Just because they lampshade that the game feeds off memes and pop culture references, doesn't make it any less annoying.
M: If anything, highlighting the fact that the game's closest thing to wit is pop culture referencing, just pointing at something and saying "isn't this so funny, laugh!" highlights how lazy and slap-dash the writing is. You know, I'm not the easily-offended type, but if I weren't more thick-skinned I would take a lot of umbrage in how paper-thin the characterisation of the gay characters is, coming off as quite awkwardly and deeply uncomfortable when it isn't coming off as pandering stereotypes. It's like the writer responsible for characters in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel got told to make it more "inclusive like Bioware RPGs", saw the Dragon Age II Tabs mentioned, and decided this meant we had to "gay everything up." It's the hallmark of lazy story-telling indeed when you can essentially boil down each of the plot's characters to a single character trait, and if this is what we are sacrificing that sandbox gameplay for, then it's a sacrifice made in vain.
My fundamental problem with the story is that when you peel away the wacky veneer of all them dang "funny" pop-culture references you have ... very little. A generic story arc with entirely-expected plot twists you'll probably see coming half an hour before the game seems to expect you to, especially if you didn't fall asleep during Borderlands 2 or drink heavily to erase all memory of it from your mind. This is as generic and bland a story you can get, the entirety of which comes down to a single quest to get back the station, without any real development on who, how, or why. There is some explanation to the motivations of the principal antagonist, but not much, and the protagonists aren't really sufficiently characterised by the game to pick up the slack either. This is the typical retake the base story-line I was sick of when Baldur's Gate II had me retaking De'Arnise Keep, let alone so many years later when I'm playing a supposedly more modern, "progressive," and developed game.
It's a flimsy plot, to put it simply. And don't get me wrong, plot is a device to carry the game forward, but neither game nor the plot advance in any real fashion with or throughout TSP. I don't think there's a single major event that really serves as anything but "lore" in the story of Jack, except the ending which serves as the sequel hook for Borderlands 3. The gameplay was not enough to salvage the story, either.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel does nothing to advance gameplay,
and in many ways is much grindier and much less fun, given a smaller sandbox
T: The same sloppy gameplay from the second game rears it's ugly head here. The bullets all mostly have travel time and you often have to lead your opponents. The guns are all randomised once more but this time the drop table is skewed badly. Most drops you'll get are either white or Green, with the occasional blue and purple towards the endgame.
It took me til after I'd finished the game in order to get one measly Legendary weapon. It was also far worse than any purples I had. You will often find yourself trudging through thankless fetch quest after thankless fetch quest for hours, only to find your time and effort just wasn't worth it. You're more likely to find a better gun doing the quest than actually turning it in for the reward.
Another aspect missing from the game was the E-Tech. I found no mention or hint of Eridian weapons available to the player as they were in the One and Two. This was a real letdown as for me part of what really made the gunplay of borderlands was uncovering mysterious alien tech with thousands of randomised stats rather than the run of the mill manufactured guns with thousands of randomised stats.
As for the aspect of fighting on the Moon there are one or two improvements but once again, they are waylaid by little nagging issues. The 02 kits allow you to breathe on the Elpis's surface for a short amount of time. It's a novel, unique idea but ultimately it fails in execution. Once you run out of oxygen, you can replenish it at a nearby air fissure in the planet or a designated atmosphere area. Where this concept breaks down slightly is as soon as you run out of oxygen, you start to lose health. This would be a really cool idea, if not for the fact that even at the very start of the game, it takes forever. People generally die pretty quickly in space with no life support or pressurised system.
If you wanted to avoid having to travel the rather long distances on the Moon's surface you could just let your air run out and go back to the nearest checkpoint. Sadly, due to this unfortunate system of the "suffocation" it's not really a viable gameplay aspect and can make the game even more grindy having to wait to either suffocate or just "hoof" it to your next destination.
While you can use the excess oxygen in your 02 kit to get sort of a jump boost, this too breaks the game and causes it to deplete quicker. The world of Borderlands The Pre-Sequel looks quite expansive and full of exploration. You can jump around and go practically anywhere. Anywhere that is, until you hit one of the numerous invisible walls. If you like me have a desire to explore a lot you will encounter these to no end, while thinking that direction should be something you can explore. The walls seem to have no rhyme or reason to them, break immersion and can be very frustrating at times.
You heard it right, double-jump is your singular, innovative game mechanic they added to Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. That's it and that's all. The oxygen mechanic is basically in service to it, although you can pop guys helmets to make them die a fraction of a percentage quicker, I guess, but really, the addition here is double jump. And where you could have a system like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare where this makes the combat more mobile, it usually doesn't - the actual boost is not very substantial and it can actually make you miss your target or maneuver poorly more often than it helps, especially since I found that where you ended up was on the game's whim a lot of the time and even when I felt I had a decent handle on it I didn't feel very confident in using it, except where I had to.
And well, that's just it isn't it - you have to use it. What good would a new game mechanic be if the game didn't relentlessly push it into your face? No good, if you followed the developers on this one. The game incorporates several missions that are just jumping puzzles, essentially, the absolute nadir of which was one that took Tabs and I a good ten minutes of attempts to get right with that one creepy lesbian lady nagging you the whole time. It was enough to make me turn down the sound effects volume so that I didn't have to listen to it anymore. Tabs can attest to the fact that I tossed off my headset a few times in frustration over that. It only made an already un-fun, busy-work quest into something completely intolerable.
Bullet-spongey is a term that was used to describe enemies in Borderlands 2,
and it's only gotten worse and much more applicable in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
T: Finally, the enemies. The bosses too, but also the enemies are bullet sponges. You will need to rely on the different elemental types of guns, with frost weapons being a new addition. The enemies will take quite a long time to take down, regardless what gun you use. it can often take a good 3 or 4 minutes to bring down an enemy of the "Badass" variety, while using it's weakness element damage against it.
The enemies also hit way too hard. The difficulty curve is freaking ridiculous at times. I started as Athena the Gladiator and found it was easier to switch halfway through and restart the entire game as Wilhelm due to his Termination Protocols being an almost essential ability to finish the game. Second winds can be quite frustrating to achieve and compared to the previous titles, the enemy difficulty is all over the shop.
The game also has this annoying trend of doing everything three times. Whether it be flipping switches, taking out one phase of a bosses attacks, or just having to fetch-quest three items, the number three will pop up time and time again.
Also unlike the previous games in the series, if you die while fighting a boss, it will regenerate it's entire health bar. You won't get the expended ammo or the time put into fighting it back either. This is really frustrating as some of the bosses can be quite difficult, even in co-op and you will expend a lot of ammo without the ability to refill your stock, hemorrhaging money the whole time.
M: The fight with the final antagonist wasted so much of our time that I feel it wouldn't be fair not to mention it to our readers, not to mention with how much of my time it wasted well damn if I don't waste someone else's time with it. I won't spoil the setting, but the important point is this: every time you die and respawn, there is a hazard gauntlet you have to navigate, that enables and disables on a timer, and then an elevator, just to get into the boss arena again. You do this every single time you respawn. If your partner goes down and you haven't gotten up that elevator again in time, then you're shit-out-of-luck and starting it over again.
We must have been fighting that boss for two hours given it's propensity to use a bullshit fuck-you attack that does an AOE around her and hits for what was for me at least 7/8s of my health bar. Did I mention there's also all kind of mooks you're avoiding at the same time? Between the two we went up and down faster than the knickers on an indecisive whore and I got to the point where I was frustrated enough that Tabs was asking if I was sure I wanted to keep playing. But hey, this job isn't about doing what I want always, so I soldiered on.
Worth noting I sure ain't replaying that boss fight though. Fuck that noise.
The best part though? That's not even the end of the game. They find a way to arbitrarily pad it out even longer after that, and I was just very quiet and sullenly miserable through the rest of it. I was not having fun. And if ever there's a condemnation of a game, it's that.
Borderlands' devs oughta taken notes from Bayonetta and given us mid-boss-fight checkpoints if they were going to pull that kind of crap on us.
Art direction in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a mixed bag
T: The graphics for the most part are fine. It doesn't really look any different from the First Borderlands which might put a lot of people off it. The same cel-shaded outline is present and everything is clean and crisp enough. The occasional clipping of a players arm through a weapon or a foot through terrain is noticeable but not so much to break immersion.
The character animations look goofy as hell and the people don't feel like they move quite right. The whole thing feels very uncanny valley, but if you're playing The Pre-Sequel, you're likely used to all that by now. The colours overall are far more vibrant however and the gun effects look as impressive as ever. The environments are varied enough, apart from the times you're on the Moon's surface, which is 80% of the time.
M: Maybe I'm just spoiled by the many better, not-shitty-fidelity games I've played of late, but I'm going to have to be a dissenting voice here: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel does not look great. It's passable at best. Start licking walls (as often you might be doing to not die and have to restart another boss sequence) and you will see that the texture quality is in most cases quite poor. The game is stylised for a reason: it lets you get away with that, to a point. But while it's subjective, I never really liked the art style of Borderlands, and when you're looking worse than the Source engine that was released yonks ago now, as an engine designer you need to go back to the drawing board, I think. Not to mention the constant clipping issues including one case where Tabs and I had to restart a boss fight because she died and I had literally clipped outside of the game-world and was falling infinitely through the nether planes of non-existence.
The voice acting is some of the worst in a game
T: The sound design is mostly the same as the previous game, with one slightly major issue. This was developed in Australia. The voice acting at times honestly sounds like they got the nearest homeless bum to come in and dow a few lines, with badly written dialogue poorly delivered in the traditional "occer" accent that the majority of us actually don't have.
On the occasion you hear Jack, Moxxi or any of the original Vault hunters pipe up you'll be begging them not to leave you. Not to mention they kill off the only remotely likable character in the game off pretty quickly. Borderlands The Pre-Sequel has that typical brand of Australian film, novel, and game development where it has to be really obvious our country was somehow involved. As an Australian myself, I found most of the accents for minor and even major characters (including one obnoxiously nasally aggressive lesbian) rather painful to listen to. Elpis is basically Australia, and honestly it's unpleasant to talk to people and do side-quests for that reason. Hell the Moon is even as barren as our country too!
M: Did we mention the bit with Torgue? Oh dear god. Well, I won't spoil it for our dear readers, but suffice it to say, I tossed the headphones across the room in disgust midway through that one particular sequence. And honestly, if I'd been streaming, I can already see the memes that would have come out of that. It's easy to understate how bad the voice acting really was, and how much it bothered me. I can only sympathise with how much the accents bothered Tabitha, because the voice acting really did sound like 2K Australia started employing homeless people behind the studio to fill in the less-important roles, and damn it Tabs, you know that was my joke I made during the play-through.
At least I never had to fight giant spiders.
The Final Verdict
T:I can't really recommend Borderlands The Pre-Sequel to anyone. While fans of the series will appreciate the loot and shoot aspect that's been prevalent in the series, the story, characters, dry dialogue delivery and even the difficulty curve playing co-op with a friend in this are really inexcusable. This game feels like it should have been made back when the original Borderlands game appeared. On the occasional joke the team gets right you'll giggle at most. You may possibly enjoy this with a friend if you are a severe masochist or obsessed with the series. For those that aren't any of those things however, this new title in the series will feel lackluster and completely uninspired.
M: The question that a critic like me has to ask with any game is: who is this game for exactly? Video game taste is subjective, and it's important to consider the target audience. I can't really imagine fans of the series nor shooter enthusiasts in general really being too fond of the Pre-Sequel however: Borderlands fans are likely to be disappointed if not angry at paying full price for what would probably be a Farcry: Blood Dragon sized expansion/"expandalone" if the gameplay time wasn't so atrociously padded with bullet-sponge enemies and having to restart boss fights so frequently. Shooter fans meanwhile are likely going to be turned off by how absolutely grind-laden Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is. There's more grind in this game than a Korean MMO, and that's saying something. Personally, as I said above, I was not having fun by the end of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, and I have absolutely no plans to replay or revisit it.