It would be easy to brush it aside as a rehash of what you have played before. And in all honesty, it actually doesn’t change the formula too drastically; the game feels like a continuation of Borderlands 2 at a fundamental level. However, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel still manages to breathe some life into the cold vacuum of space, and flying high in the low gravity of Elpis, Pandora’s moon, brings a fresh take on combat and exploration, even though some story elements never reach escape velocity.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel tells the tale of how Jack, a low-level Hyperion Corporation employee (despite his massive office), became the face of terror known as Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2. But the story behind the villain isn’t as interesting as the character himself. Jack shined in Borderlands 2; he was antagonizing, sarcastic, and possessed of an evil that inspired awe. This particular narrative, however, treats his nuances and personality quirks as a checklist, with every line explaining his hatred of bandits or his distaste for claptraps promptly scratched off because it must be. In fact, much of the power that Handsome Jack wields in Borderlands 2 (such as his robot army) seems to come to him coincidentally throughout the events of the Pre-Sequel, and with little input from you, the player. In Borderlands 2, you play a major role; here, the predetermined plot is king, only requiring you to kill the right bad guys and press the right buttons. It's disappointing to be an impartial and unnecessary observer to Jack’s transformation, rather than a catalyst for it.
Pre-Sequel introduces several non-playable characters to help you on your quest, but they aren’t as formidable as your friends on Pandora. Janey Springs takes on engineering duty, and though she has a charming personality, she never commands the scene like Scooter can. The role of child genius is taken by the cockney-voiced Pickle, who is no replacement for the hilariously unstable Tiny Tina. On the other hand, Nurse Nina, who replaces Dr. Ned, is a great addition. She's an imposing woman with a thick Russian accent, and her love of medicine is only matched by the joy she feels when witnessing someone’s suffering. Ex-vault hunters Lilith and Roland also make appearances, but they spend most of the game in Moxxi’s bar emitting monosyllabic grunts and brief sentences. There is a reason for them being here, but that purpose doesn’t reveal itself until much later. Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate to see such prominent characters taking a background role for most of the game.
Each of the four new playable vault hunters comes prepared with a powerful action skill designed to aid--or hinder--in battles against an onslaught of enemy humans, monsters, and machines. Athena, as the gladiator, equips a shield that absorbs a finite amount of incoming damage before being hurled back in a resulting explosion of kinetic energy. Wilhelm the enforcer calls on two flying robotic allies named Wolf and Saint. Wolf showers enemy forces in hails of gunfire or missiles, while Saint hovers around Wilhelm, healing his injuries. The bots are useful not just as extra allies on the field, but during tactical retreats: releasing the drones when your health reaches critical levels allows one bot to heal you while the other keeps enemies busy.
Nisha the gunslinger automatically targets enemies while earning boosts in weapon damage, accuracy, fire rate, reload speed, and bullet speed, which are great boons during boss battles. Where Nisha’s ability doesn’t shine, however, is when confronting enemies that fling targetable projectiles. Flicking the mouse or thumbstick allows you to switch targets, but sometimes the reticle gets confused, unsure of which object is an enemy and which isn’t.
Claptrap the fragtrap, however, has the most interesting action skill of them all. Claptrap scans the area with his VaultHunter.exe program and chooses a skill that best suits the situation. That skill might be that of a fellow vault hunter, or, if you put skill points into Claptrap's fragmented fragtrap path, you might increase the fire rate of your weapons, or turn into a rolling bomb. With a quick scan, you may dual-wield your equipped weapon, mimicking Salvador the gunzerker, or slip into a rubber-duck outfit and reflect bullets while bouncing around like something out of a Saturday-morning cartoon. The best aspect of Claptrap's abilities, however, is that his action skill affects everyone on the team, so when Claptrap starts bouncing around, so does everyone else. Some of these transformations are welcome boons for your teammates; wielding two firearms during a hectic boss fight is rarely bad news, after all. But sometimes, the random and comical ride that is Claptrap the vault hunter can draw impatient sighs from your annoyed partners.
Other times, Claptrap tosses out a miniontrap, a miniature version of himself. The miniontrap is powered by a vault hunter ability, such as a small rocket turret (thus mimicking the soldier or commando classes), or a winged blight bot that deals fire and corrosive damage (mirroring Maya’s blight phoenix skill, as it were). Miniontraps bring humor to any firefight, taunting enemies or beatboxing dubstep. When all enemies are gone, Claptrap and his robotic minion sometimes tell each other lame knock-knock jokes, which is sure to leave a smile on your face or, at least, a groan in your throat. Claptrap can also play the role of team support by unloading points into an ability that adds a bonus to weapon damage and reload speed, as well as create a healing aura around downed enemies.
The story behind the villain isn’t as interesting as the character himself.
Like in Borderlands 2, all four vault hunters are given three sets of skill trees that grant the freedom of customizing your character to suit your play style. Athena can follow a path that adds more abilities to her shield, such as healing, or she can invoke the power of Captain America and have the shield ricochet off several enemies. Wilhelm can focus his points into either Wolf or Saint, raising their combat effectiveness, while Nisha can improve her skills with pistols or her trusty whip. Claptrap can play the role of team support by unloading points into an ability that adds a bonus to weapon damage and reload speed, as well as create a healing aura around killed enemies.
The moon Elpis is a treacherous, scarred rock complete with its own set of challenges and dangers to overcome. Without air to breathe, you now must use O2 Kits, or Oz kits, to provide a steady supply of oxygen. But Oz kits are not unlimited, and you must be vigilant lest you be left gasping for air. Oxygen isn’t all too scarce, however; the cragged lunar surface is dotted with oxygen geysers that can refill your air canister, and structures, atmosphere generators, and vehicles that also offer precious Oz are plentiful. You can double jump when equipped with an Oz kit, allowing you to leap onto tall buildings and high cliffs, or over wide chasms.
The low gravity and new weapons provide a welcome twist on the old Borderlands combat formula. Combat doesn’t slow down with the loss of gravity; in fact, it only gets more exciting. Leaping high into the air allows you to slam back down to the ground in a powerful air stomp, which is a fantastic new way to injure multiple enemies at once. This combat move is almost intoxicating: you feel like an action hero, flying through the air in slow motion while raining hellfire onto your enemies on the ground before butt-stomping the life out of injured stragglers. Oz kits can also offer small status boosts, such as elemental resistance or increased accuracy, as well as charging the shock wave with fire or corruption damage.
Claptrap and his robotic minion sometimes tell each other lame knock-knock jokes, which is sure to leave a smile on your face or, at least, a groan in your throat.
Combat awareness is key, however, as enemies can also use the stomp against you. But your enemies need air as much as you do, and shattering their face protectors momentarily stuns them and allows the vacuum of space to cause additional damage. Scavengers, or scavs, make up the bulk of human enemies found on Elpis, though the moon is also home to other creatures, such as armored kraggons that split into two when killed. There are two new types of weaponry to use in your fight against these creeps. Laser guns, ranging from beam rifles to blasters, add a dash of futuristic tech to any fight. A new form of cryogenic element, replacing slag, allows you to slow down or freeze enemies (possibilities that never get old), and shattering them to pieces with a melee attack is always a cold, tasty treat. There’s something poetic about using a cryo-sniper rifle to freeze an enemy’s head and watching it fracture into a dozen frozen bits that then float away into space.
Elpis is a beautiful place to behold, yet with its deep craters and creepy multi-eyed extraterrestrials it feels like a hostile and alien world. The impressive lighting effects emanating from the sun and reflected from the not-too-distant Pandora bathe the landscape in rich shades of purple, blue, and orange. Elpis is wrapped in a constant night sky that sparkles with stars; the only other celestial objects to be seen are various meteors, as well as Pandora and the massive Helios space station looming over the land below. Some areas glow red with hot magma that pools at the bottom of vast crevasses, while other sections glow blue with ice-cold pools of water. Elpis, however, doesn’t offer as many areas as in Borderlands 2, and the environments don't vary much beyond the aforementioned blend of colors, craters, and canyons, which make the areas feel repetitious after a dozen or so hours.
Traveling across the land can be done by foot, but it's more convenient to use one of Pre-Sequel's two new vehicles. Unfortunately, one of them, the moon buggy, is a disaster on four wheels. A slight bump in the road can send it reeling off course, and trying to control it via mouse and keyboard is nigh impossible. The stingray, a one-seated hovercraft, is a far more stable choice. Armed with cryo-rockets or a flak cannon, the stingray is slow but versatile, and a joy to control. With the press of a button, it can fly high into the air, allowing it to soar over lava-filled gorges. It is also armed with its own version of the butt stomp, making it the most combat-effective of the two vehicles.
This wouldn’t be a Borderlands game without awesome loot, and Pre-Sequel doesn’t disappoint. Weapons, shields, Oz kits, and grenade mods, all with randomized stats, drop from fallen enemies and appear in chests and trash bins. Don’t worry: from Maliwan to Jakobs, all of your favorite death-dealing brands have made the short jump to Pandora’s moon. The only notable change is the loss of the Bandit brand in favor of Scav. Choosing the right weapon and gear is one of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel's finest pleasures. Whether you prefer getting up close with a thunderous shotgun, or staying in the shadows while picking off enemies with a high-precision sniper rifle, you can bet that there is gear that will enhance your battle proficiency. Combining the varying skill trees with the right gear allows you to create a vault hunter unique to you, even if you’re not the only Nisha in a team. Further customization includes character skins and heads, many of which can be found as unlockable items along with regular loot.
Don’t worry: from Maliwan to Jakobs, all of your favorite death-dealing brands have made the short jump to Pandora’s moon.
Unfortunately, pursuing side quests reveals a number of Pre-Sequel's pacing issues. While missions don’t venture far from the usual design of “go here, kill this guy” or “get this key, then come back,” typical to Borderlands, some of the side quests have you repeatedly going through the same areas multiple times, to the point that attempting to finish every quest become tiresome. One level later in the game is nearly devoid of combat, but you are summoned there at least four times. It’s enough to have you sighing with every accelerated launch from a jump pad. These mostly empty missions make the game feel bloated with a lack of interesting content. Other issues are technical. It’s remarkably easy to get stuck in walls or behind containers, but you’re not the only one to suffer from such annoyances. At times, non-playable characters clip into walls, making it difficult to activate or finish a quest. Another occasional irritation is when the game doesn’t let you talk to quest givers in order to complete a mission. This usually requires that everyone quit out of the game and reload.
There is still a ton to do once the main campaign is complete. Once you have finished the story, several endgame missions are unlocked, as well as a raid boss. Much to my disappointment, however, the raid boss isn’t a completely different foe, but a more challenging version of the story’s final boss fight. You also unlock True Vault Hunter Mode, in which you can play through the campaign again, facing tougher enemies for better loot, and earn more levels up to the cap of 50. In your first run of the game, a captured Athena narrates the tale as the original vault hunters offer comments and occasional jokes. But in True Vault Hunter Mode, they are replaced by Tiny Tina and Brick, whose hilarious antics make your second trip all the more worthwhile.
Repetition and a lackluster story are its biggest shortcomings, but Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is different enough to separate itself from the shadows of its older siblings. Elpis provides some gorgeous scenery, and the low-gravity environments bring an exciting new dynamic exploration and combat. No, it never reaches the furthest edges of space, but Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel still offers some the best of what the series has to offer: good loot, good laughs, and good times for many hours.