E3 2014: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel - Butt Stomping on the Moon

Xena: Lunar Princess.

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As an Australian myself, it was exciting to see 2K Australia take the lead on the development of a new Borderlands game, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. The studio is collaborating with Gearbox and instilling a uniquely Aussie sense of humour (along with genuine Aussie accents) in this new story set in between the first and second Borderlands games. The Pre-Sequel is set primarily on the moon of Pandora--the planet prior Borderlands games were usually confined to--and this moon has become something of an Australia as seen through the lens of Borderlands' inherent psychosis. Picture Crocodile Dundee by way of Borderlands 2's sadistic antagonist, Handsome Jack, and you'll be on the right track.

In my short hands-on time with The Pre-Sequel, Handsome Jack was my benefactor, rather than my adversary. The game chronicles Handsome Jack's takeover of Hyperion Corporation and the creation of his robot armada. To this end, I had to retrieve an artificial intelligence which Handsome Jack planned to use to militarise Hyperion's robot forces and begin his rise to power.

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I played as Athena, A Xena: Warrior Princess-like gladiatrix who first appeared as a non-playable character in the Secret Army of General Knoxx downloadable content for Borderlands. Her active skill brought out a shield which absorbed damage when it was hit by enemies for a small amount of time, and then was thrown at the nearest enemy to deal damage depending on how much was absorbed. One of her three skill trees, called Xiphos, focused on making enemies bleed with her melee attack, which caused damage to them over time. As I reached the end of this skill tree, I earned significant health regeneration for every enemy I made bleed, resulting in a play style that promoted survivability through attacking as many enemies in close range as possible.

The level design rewarded exploration of my new jump abilities by providing hidden loot and sniping perches at high, out-of-the-way locations.

Venturing across the lunar surface to the AI's resting place in a crashed ship highlighted how fun the new low-gravity mechanic the moon's smaller size resulted in. I could jump much higher and further than in any previous Borderlands game. The level design rewarded exploration of my new jump abilities by providing hidden loot and sniping perches at high, out-of-the-way locations. Jump pads created an even larger focus on vertical movement by boosting me even further and even higher.

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On descent, I could perform a downward slam--affectionately referred to by 2K Australia as a butt stomp--to inflict area-of-effect damage on any enemy around my point of impact. Combined with the moon's low gravity, this was a useful new mechanic; the Borderlands games often swarm you with enemies in close range, and The Pre-Sequel is the first game in the series to give some measure of crowd-control ability--through this jump and butt stomp--to every playable character from the outset. The new Kraggon enemy--a kind of ice-covered moon skag--was a prime example of this. Killing one caused it to split into two smaller Kraggons, who themselves divided again--like a series of Russian nesting dolls with sharp teeth. One of Athena's skills enhanced this slam by creating a small black hole that drew enemies closer for more damage--creating, in genuine Borderlands style, a butt singularity. Verticality didn't provide invincibility, however, as enemies with jetpacks existed to ensure threats can still come from above.

The new cryo elemental damage type allowed me to freeze enemies with ice weapons, then shatter them by following up with a butt stomp or melee attack. Its effect didn't feel significant during my hands-on time, however; the demo was set at a low difficulty, and enemies went down so quickly that the benefits of tactically freezing higher threats was lost. As is typical of a Borderlands game, any new weapons available to you will also be available to enemies; though I was never on the receiving end of a cryo weapon, it will be interesting to see how 2K Australia handles players getting frozen themselves. Laser weapons are new to The Pre-Sequel too, and they are very fun to use. One laser rifle fired a continuous beam, which became less accurate the longer it was fired. It felt like I was unleashing a proton stream from Ghostbusters.

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Being set on a moon with a thin atmosphere, The Pre-Sequel adds a new resource: oxygen. It had its own meter on the HUD, which slowly depleted whenever I was on the lunar surface. 2K Australia does not want you to worry too much about your O2 levels, however; the game provided regular oxygen vents and generators that form oxygen bubbles to refill my tanks. Oxygen does allow for new death animations for enemies, though, such as seeing a lunatic (catch the moon pun, there) suffocate after I shot his helmet off.

The heavy methane presence also allows 2K Australia to provide visual variety in the environments by positing that this moon is volcanically active.

The thin atmosphere wasn't the moon's only hazard. Methane vents and pools caused areas of the lunar surface to inflict damage upon both enemies and players who came into contact with them. The heavy methane presence also allows 2K Australia to provide visual variety in the environments by positing that this moon is volcanically active. You won't be spending the entire game bounding across lifeless, grey rock; indeed, my preview session hinted at some lava-filled locations visible at the far reaches of the game's impressive draw distance.

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2K Australia does not want The Pre-Sequel to feel like it could have been a piece of DLC. On the surface, it isn't; the game is an entirely new story, with four new playable characters, along with some unique and fun new mechanics like low gravity, cryo damage, and laser weapons. However, from the hour I played, The Pre-Sequel doesn't feel significantly different enough from Borderlands 2 to entice people like me who aren't already superfans of the series. The problem is an enviable one: Borderlands 2 was so good and so big, and enhanced by a number of fantastic DLC drops, that there is already so much Borderlands out there. The Pre-Sequel risks feeling like more of the same--or, more specifically, more of the same good thing. Gearbox is aware of this, embracing the fact that this isn't Borderlands 3, with a view toward launching The Pre-Sequel at a lower price point than a true sequel would warrant. Depending on how differently the remaining three characters play--Wilhelm, Nisha, and an actual claptrap--and whether more surprises are in store for the campaign, I'm not sure The Pre-Sequel will be more than a fun new twist on Borderlands 2's formula.

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