Review: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (360)
I've never heard the word "d***" uttered so many times in a videogame. And I love it.
I think it might be my favourite insult. It's got the perfect balance of humour and aggression; if someone calls you it, you know you've been attacked, but it's almost impossible to offended.
It's such an Australian word. Sure, it gets plenty of use elsewhere (New Zealand included), but Australians have mastered the art of calling someone a d***. The word is at its most impactful - and most entertaining - when laced with a thick, regional Australian accent. Say it out loud, and try not to laugh.
In light of this, its repeated use on Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! is a perfect fit, and a perfect summation of the game. This new outing from Gearbox and 2K Australia is decidedly, unapologetically Australian, in the best possible way.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is exactly that - part prequel, part sequel (an "interquel," if you want to get fancy), taking place between Borderlands and Borderlands 2. It tells the story of Handsome Jack, Borderlands 2's villain, before his turn to evildoing, when he was more or less a decent guy. Sort of. With the Hyperion space station Helios under assault by an explicably angry woman called Zarpedon, Jack hires a group of Vault Hunters (you, and up to three friends) to come to his aid. Before long, Jack and co. find themselves on Elpis, the moon that orbits Pandora, the planet upon which Borderlands and Borderlands 2 take place.
Elpis is to Pandora what the Australian outback is to 1800s California, which makes it a perfect fit for the sci-fi western aesthetic of Borderlands. It's a lawless wasteland dotted with shanty-towns, and populated with bushrangers (called "scavs," though - short for scavengers), all manner of poisonous wildlife, and people who call one another "d***."
Love or hate the Australian accent, its use in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel gives Elpis a remarkable sense of identity. Mixed with fantastic world building and level design, places with names like Burraburra, Banjo Point, and So Much Serenity (this game's going straight to the pool room), and Borderlands' trademark comic-like visuals, and you've got a world that's as believable and immersive as it is bizarre and ridiculous.
And boy, is it ridiculous - it's a Borderlands game, after all. The plot itself is nothing special, but the storytelling is exactly what you'd expect, if you're familiar with the franchise: filled with characters that are as lovable as they are psychopathic, and dialogue that's irreverent and hilarious. Given the Australian development team and setting, there's an Australian twinge to the humour in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. It's dry and quirky, bringing to mind Aussie film classics like The Castle and Strictly Ballroom.
The moon setting comes with moon physics and new mechanics that take advantage of them that, somewhat paradoxically, are a massive success and a disappointing failure at the same time.
The major new addition is the Oz Kit, a fancy piece of Elpis tech that lets you breathe while outside oxygenated zones, boost jump, and "butt slam" down on enemies. The marketed catch is that all these consume the same resource - oxygen - which would need to be carefully managed. Too many butt slams and you'd find yourself out of breath and quickly losing health.
In practice, there isn't much resource management involved. Sure, boost jumps and butt slams use extra oxygen, but this is so easily replenished thanks to items dropped by defeated foes and plentiful oxygen vents that the effect of the extra oxygen expenditure is moot. And even if you do somehow run out, the health drain from the lack of air is laughably slow. Go forth, Vault Hunters, and butt slam to your heart's content.
The butt slam itself is a thing of pure, unadulterated joy when it works properly, and of intense frustration when it doesn't. Mechanically, it's fairly simple: you drop quickly from the air, sending out a shockwave around when you land that knocks back enemies and does damage. The higher you drop from, the more damage and the bigger the knockback. This can lead to some wonderful scenarios; nothing quite compares to butt slamming a scav off a ledge, then pulling out your firearm of choice, and sending a bullet through his skull as he helplessly floats away thanks to Elpis' low gravity.
The problem is that butt slams only hit the enemies around you when you land, and not directly under you. Not only do you not hurt the enemy you land on, but your butt slam doesn't come out at all, making the whole thing a wasted effort. Considering that this is a move whose primary use is crowd control against enemies that like to bum rush you incessantly, these failed butt slams as a result of enemies getting underfoot are frustratingly common.
There are some more subtle gameplay tweaks borne from the oxygen system that are much more successful, however. Most human enemies can't breath on the moon, so if you're outside an oxygen bubble, they'll be wearing Oz Kits, just like you. Which you can destroy. If headshots weren't painful enough already, they now come with an additional damage over time effect thanks to the whole can't breath, gasping for breath thing. It's great.
Oxygen also affects how flammable things are, since fire needs to breathe, too. This leads to some interesting strategic developments against enemies that like setting you alight - you can use the lack of oxygen to shield yourself from fire, or put a fire out. Conversely, if you're using a fire-based weapon, you'll need to negotiate oxygen bubbles to get the most out of your gun.
Where Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel stumbles is around enemy, encounter, and quest design. There are a few neat enemies, like Shuggaruths, but for the most part, the things you'll be fighting are uninspired, both visually and mechanically. Foes will either hang back and shoot, or rush you down relentlessly; the former make for easy targets for a bullet through the cranium, but the latter are actively annoying, especially with the butt slam problems taken into account.
Bosses don't offer much variation on this theme, and even when they do, the "hang back and snipe" and/or "use my super move as often as possible, then hide" strategies almost always work out better than whatever approach the encounter's designers had in mind. There's also no sense of difficulty curve with boss battles. They're all over the place; the first boss outside the tutorial area is also one of the hardest, most annoying fights in the game. Had I not been playing the game for review, I would quite possibly have rage quit at that point.
Quests are repetitive, with a lot of excess running around, even by RPG standards. It seems like everything on the moon is broken, so almost every quest has a "go here and fix this, then go there and fix that" structure. The odd anomaly provides a breath of fresh air, and the game does leverage its quest design to form the butt of some pleasantly self-aware jokes, but these things are too rare to really counteract how samey quests can become.
Beyond the fights and quest design, though, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel plays like a charm. The levels are expansive, with countless nooks and crannies littered with loot. Though they take some getting used to, the boost jump, moon buggy, and hoverbike all add extra movement options that wonderfully complement some platformer-like sections. And even though they're not perfect, butt slams are a world (or moon?) of fun when they work as intended.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is worthy successor to the main Borderlands series, if a bit rough around the edges. Enemies and boss fights are bland, but this is more than made up for by excellent level design, hilarious dialogue, loveable characters, and an expertly realised, brilliantly Australian world.
Oh crap, I have to go - someone just called me a d***.
Borderlands: The Pre-sequel
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Developer: Gearbox Software, 2K Australia