Whether or not you'll find Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel worthwhile boils down to one essential question: Do you really need more Borderlands in your life?
It only took the series' debut for me to realize I'd had enough. I bought it, played a good 50 hours—often in spite of myself—and looked back on my experience as a strangely addictive one riddled with frequent annoyances. At my former place of employment, I reviewed Borderlands 2, hopeful that Gearbox would deliver a much-improved sequel, but what I played confirmed the series' intent to coast by on its immense popularity alone. And a recent playthrough with some old friends reaffirmed my criticisms of 2012: By the time we reached the game's halfway point, our Skype chat centered around nothing but Borderlands-related complaints. (I swear, we're normally a carefree group of knuckleheads.)
This previous experience might make me seem unfit to review yet another Borderlands sequel, but hear me out: I love the core concept so much, I'd like nothing more than for the series to meet my semi-reasonable expectations. So, with Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, I brushed the chip off of my shoulder, and walked into this installment with all prior grievances cleared from my mind. And while early parts of the game had me thinking this would be the Borderlands I'd love, developer 2K Australia only had so much room to play with Gearbox's original idea, meaning those same old Borderlands issues haven't gone anywhere.
Still, The Pre-Sequel does what it can to improve the formula. Thanks to its focus on low-gravity environments, characters can now double-jump, and The Pre-Sequel's level design focuses on verticality to exploit this increase in mobility. Vehicles—an underdeveloped and rarely fun feature of the series to date—have been made mostly unessential, and it now takes much less time to run from one end of the map to the other. Flying enemies—one of the most annoying elements of any Borderlands—are much easier to fight, now that they no longer dart crazily across your field of vision in the few seconds they're vulnerable. Just with this handful of changes, it's clear 2K Australia understands the flaws of the series, and set out to soften the series of minor irritations that makes Borderlands much less fun than advertised.
Even with these admittedly welcome improvements, The Pre-Sequel soon falls back into Borderlands' old habits. My issues may seem petty, but, over time, they add up to an experience that has the tendency to be wearying. Why, for instance, do I pick up some items (like money and health) automatically, but not others? Especially when playing single-player: Why wouldn't I want as much ammo as I could possibly get my hands on? Even the increase in mobility is a double-edged sword: Jumping from platform to platform works just fine, but when The Pre-Sequel tasks you with determining how to reach a distant point on the (still terrible) map, you'll end up scraping your face against countless ledges, since the game never does a great job of communicating the limits of your jumping power. And, outside of these minor issues, The Pre-Sequel manages to make some crucial mistakes. When selecting your character class, for instance, you won't be able to see their respective skill trees until you start a new game with said class. It's an incredibly small problem, but still, The Pre-Sequel manages to find countless ways to waste your time.
My biggest issue with The Pre-Sequel can be found in its leaden pacing: Seeing as this installment is coming after two games and an incredible amount of DLC, who is it made for outside of the Borderlands faithful? I understand the need to assist new players, but The Pre-Sequel features the same slow, steady progression as the first two games—meaning the first 5-6 hours will be spent unlocking its most basic features before you can explore the pros and cons of your chosen class' unique skill tree. After playing the first two games, being taught once again how to jump, throw grenades, buy items, and perform the rest of your standard Borderlands actions felt especially egregious. And, unless you have a desire to play those boring early sections again, you're essentially locked into whatever character you choose from the outset. It's great that The Pre-Sequel offers a way to respec your character on a whim (as with the last game), but what's missing is the ability to jump into an entirely different class at any point during the game. As it stands, you may have already invested 8-10 hours into a class before realizing it's not the right one for you—and the only solution is to start a new game and suffer through those tutorials all over again.
And, for a series that does its best to provide frivolous fun, The Pre-Sequel continues the Borderlands tradition of being oddly restrictive. Enemies a just few levels below you offer a meaningless amount of experience, while enemies just a few levels above you act as hard-hitting bullet sponges, and the rewards you'll earn rarely justify the risks of suffering through these one-sided encounters. And, once again, Borderlands' focus on randomness gradually makes sifting through piles of dropped weapons and other equipables completely unrewarding—by the time you compare the stats on your hundredth dropped gun, it's easier to just throw up your hands and stick with the one offering the highest attack number. Rarely did I find a weapon significantly more powerful than anything I had equipped, so I eventually began to ignore dropped weapons altogether until the level of my current stock dropped well below my character's.
Ultimately, The Pre-Sequel feels incredibly dated—which isn't surprising, seeing as its core gameplay stems from those reletively ancient days of 2009. In a world where Destiny exists, it's unclear why anyone would opt for The Pre-Sequel over a much more well-crafted co-op FPS that features a similar crowd of addicts who can't stop playing in spite of themselves (or so the Internet says). Admittedly, The Pre-Sequel managed to hook me from time to time, but whenever I thought I'd settled into its world, those old problems would crop up again and remind me that, yes, I'm still playing a Borderlands game. I'm sure Gearbox has lots in store for whatever current-gen installment they're currently dreaming up, but until that sees the light of day, Borderlands remains a series that never quite delivers on its wild ideas.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: If you've played Borderlands in the past, The Pre-Sequel won't surpise you, but those cel-shaded characters and environments still manage to be visually interesting.
- Sound: You most likely won't be able to hum a bar of The Pre-Sequel's soundtrack, but it does a great job of underscoring the frequent gunfire, screams, and curses you'll never stop hearing throughout.
- Interface: Borderlands' maps could definitely use some improvements, meaning the interface has gone completely unchanged. It still works, but it's in desperate need of a revision.
- Lasting appeal: With four new character classes, there's a lot to dig into here, but exploring the strengths and weaknesses of each new class requires the patience necessary to replay the game's uninvolving early stages all over again.
If you've played Borderlands and the sequel, devoured all the available DLC, and still want more, that's exactly what the Pre-Sequel delivers. If you're looking for anything measurably different than your prior experiences with the series, though, The Pre-Sequel won't satisfy. And this lack of ambition only serves to disappoint: there's a fantastic game buried in here, somewhere, if only its caretakers would perform a serious overhaul.
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