In space, no one can hear Steve yell "HEYOO!"
Two massively successful games each accompanied by slews of downloadable content left little doubt that there would be more Borderlands, even after Gearbox Software President Randy Pitchford said that his studio was not working on Borderlands 3. As it turns out, another studio (2K Australia) actually is working on a third Borderlands game, but you know, to-may-to, to-mah-to. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel will insinuate itself between Borderlands and Borderlands 2 on the series' timeline, sending four new vault hunters into space to battle low gravity, zero atmosphere, and raving, psychotic astronauts.
In a meeting where Pitchford and 2K Australia General Manager Tony Lawrence revealed the new game, they were quick to explain the ways that The Pre-Sequel is not what they imagine Borderlands 3 to be. That would be a next-gen experience built on a new engine (though they clarified that no such game is in development); The Pre-Sequel is built on the Borderlands 2 engine and is slated to release for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC only. According to Pitchford, Borderlands 2 has sold more copies than Xbox Ones and PlayStation 4s combined, so of all these potential Borderlands fans, only a fraction of them have new consoles.
And so the business of shooting and looting remains a last-gen affair, for now, and in a gameplay demo of the PC version, The Pre-Sequel looked as sharp as Borderlands 2 at its best. The action took place on Pandora's moon which, like Earth's beloved companion, has no atmosphere and very little gravity, both of which affect the action in notable ways. Unlike our moon, however, it has a variety of different biomes (though we only saw a grey, cratered surface environment that looked very familiar) as well as a giant H-shaped space station intermittently blasting holes in it. (Borderlands 2 players will remember that Hyperion construction as the space station that was trying to blast holes in them.)
The space station had gone a bit haywire, apparently, and the vault hunters were helping Handsome Jack get it back in order. Yes, before he was the taut-faced villain of Borderlands 2, it seems that Handsome Jack was a well-meaning, somewhat overzealous main character of The Pre-Sequel. He provided direction and encouragement to the player throughout the brief moonwalk, reflecting your role as a member of the team that helped him on his rise to power. I hope you're proud of yourself.
So who exactly is the new fearsome foursome? They're all characters that Borderlands players have encountered at one point or another, but the most notable is the one, the only, Claptrap. Okay, so for much of Borderlands timeline there are literally thousands of claptraps, but this guy is the Claptrap that ends up surviving the cull and accompanying the player in Borderlands 2. He showed up briefly in the demo as a "Fragtrap" class, but as to what that means and what his active skill may be, the developers remain tight-lipped. We do know one thing: Claptrap's POV will be quite low to the ground, a la Oddjob in Goldeneye 007.
The Pre-Sequel's quartet of vault hunters also includes two women, a first for the series. Nisha the Lawbringer was the only vault hunter who didn't make an appearance in the demo, but she appeared in the series previously as the law-happy Sheriff of Lynchwood. During your escapades in Lynchwood in Borderlands 2, you certainly angered Nisha and possibly even killed her as part of a quest. She was Handsome Jack's significant other at the time, so it's a pretty safe bet that we'll see some budding affection between the two in The Pre-Sequel (and it will probably be gross).
Playing a support role in the demo was Wilhelm, who you may remember as a giant robot-man-boss from Borderlands 2. He appeared mostly human in the demo, looking a bit like Wolverine from X-Men with his stocky build and vicious sideburns. His voice had a metallic edge to it, however, indicating that his gradual integration of machine parts is already underway. Will you be able to add more machinery as you level up his skill tree? Cosmetic customization of characters has been just that, cosmetic, so perhaps skill-related costumes will be a new addition to The Pre-Sequel? A guy can dream, but it's more likely that Wilhelm's active skill will be some version of the shoulder-mounted mortar launcher that he rocks in the BL2 boss fight.
The star of the demo was a character named Athena, late of the Crimson Lance and introduced to players in the Borderlands DLC, The Secret Armory of General Knoxx. In the raid on the Armory, she assists the vault hunters in her quest for revenge against her former employers, wielding two swords and leaping about like an assassin in the elite female Omega Squads. By the time The Pre-Sequel rolls around, though, she's ditched the ninja act and started doing her best Captain America impression. Her active skill is the kinetic aspis; "aspis" is another word for shield and she chucks the thing around with vigor, hence the "kinetic" bit.
While active, the shield absorbs all damage from the front, and when the skill timer runs out, Athena throws it wherever she is aiming (you can also trigger the throw prematurely). Depending on what skill tree you develop, the kinetic aspis can be used for healing, drawing the attention of enemies, or absorbing elemental damage, and the throw can be upgraded to automatically target multiple foes. Our demoer tended to use it when he was taking serious damage as a kind of safety net, but this defensive strategy didn't diminish the aggressive sight and sound of that big metal shield whipping out to clobber some moon psychos.
Sorry, "lunatics." That seemed to be the preferred term for moon psychos, and given the etymology of the word, it's no surprise. The enemies in the demo included little scavs and little lunatics ("little" being perhaps a more sensitive take on the "midgets" of Borderlands' past), as well as a few badass outlaws that looked like Buzz Aldrin altered his period moon garb with a jetpack and monster truck headlights. There was also a glimpse of a miniboss character named Red Belly, who was actually two smaller characters that jumped into garbage cans and stacked themselves to look like one bigger character. Enemy attack patterns seemed par for the Borderlands course, with some coming straight at you and others shooting from a distance, but there are a few new elements designed to mix things up in combat.
The big ones are environmental. Low gravity means the floaty jumps of Borderlands are even floatier, but now you have a few more maneuverability options when you're soaring through the sky. A ground pound ability lets you deal damage to nearby enemies, and you can enhance this ability to hit harder and deal elemental damage using a new type of gear called an oz kit. The name seems to be both a bit of self-referential humor on the part of the 2K Australia developers as well as a very Borderlandsian misreading of the letters, "O2."
Yes, oxygen is a factor in these low gravity environments, and you now have to keep an eye on the new oxygen status meter that accompanies your health and shield. If your O2 runs out, you'll start taking damage rapidly, but there are lootable O2 canisters as well as indoor spaces and O2 generators to help you stay charged. O2 can also be used to double jump, though what we saw of this ability looked more like a slow glide to control your fall than a way to reach higher places. There's also a tumble maneuver that depletes O2, and it's not a stretch to imagine that this new resource will be used in some creative ways in the character skill trees.
The low gravity and zero atmosphere environment also affected the way enemies moved, both in life and in death. Floaty, jetpack-fueled maneuvers were frequent, and the incoming enemies all had oxygen bubbles around their heads which, of course, you can shoot to deal extra damage. Dead bodies don't fall to the ground, but rather float off depending on the inertia of the damage dealt to them. Launching bad guys with grenades seems like it'll be a delightful new activity, though waiting for floating loot to fall back down to the surface so you can grab it seems less amusing.
On the weapon front, cryo ammunition offers the ever-enjoyable opportunity to freeze your enemies into solid blocks and then blow them apart into meaty, icy chunks. The effect is especially good in low gravity when the bits slowly drift in an ever-separating cloud. There are also new laser weapons that harken back to certain Eridian guns from the original Borderlands. Burst fire blasters and prolonged energy beams were the two variants we saw in the demo, and it's likely that more is in store.
Well, of course more is in store, as this is only the first we're hearing about The Pre-Sequel. We caught glimpse of a hovering motorcycle-esque vehicle called the stingray and heard rumor of a gyrocopter, but vehicles remain a question that is sure to be answered in the coming months. This new Borderlands is certainly looking like a lot more Borderlands at this point, and for fans of the series' Pandoran antics, this is certainly a good thing. The developers are even sweetening the deal a bit for return players, promising rewards of some kind for those with previous Borderlands saves or achievements. There's a lot more about The Pre-Sequel to come as the fall 2014 release date approaches, and GameSpot will be on the scene, no matter how much atmosphere there is or is not.