Borderlands: The Pre Sequel is the latest addition in the Borderland series, which has been running since 2009, and has the tricky situation of not only satiating the fan’s desire for more Borderlands but also prove itself a worthy entry in the franchise, avoiding cries of “Cash in!” etc. After a strong opening, TPS does dip a bit but it recovers for a strong second half to the game and an excellent finale that is essentially Borderlands; pitch-black humour, good writing, crazy abilities, kaleidoscopically colourful environments and more guns than you can shake a Claptrap at (the first Borderlands had over 17.5 million possible different gun combinations and the amount has only risen since then!).
The gameplay in TPS is classically Borderlands but has a few unique additions that help it from feeling like a complete rehash with no new ideas of its own. Somewhere between half and two thirds of the game take place on Elpis, the moon orbiting Pandora, itself the location of the first two games. While Elpis is filled with a variety of environments (admittedly far less varied than Borderlands 2, although in this case it is limited by design), almost all of these environments take place in a zero-g environment. Oxygen bubbles and vents can be found all over Elpis so if your Oz Kit (which you acquire within the first thirty minutes or so) starts to run out of Oxygen you can easily recharge…however there is another use for your Oz Kits. While you have Oxygen left, you can either give yourself a boost while travelling through the air which could make the difference between life and death for a perilous jump, or you can perform a butt-stomp! The butt-stomps are…pretty addictive. They deal a certain amount of area of effect damage to any enemies around you and can also have one of Borderlands’ elemental properties such as fire, corrosive, electricity, explosive or slag. It makes for a great entrance to a fight as a mob of enemies mill around talking and interacting before getting butt-stomped from above and getting coated in acid or fire.
The controls while mid-air are suitably and deliberately sluggish and while I did occasionally die from over-shooting a jump (as you can imagine from the picture above) or butt stomping into a lava pit, my deaths always felt like my fault and not the fault of unresponsive controls. As in the first two games, you can choose from one of four Vault Hunters as your character for TPS, with each one having their own unique abilities as well as three different skill trees, with one typically devoted to team-work and co-op play, while the other two are a mix of pure damage and enhancing your unique ability. All of the characters have featured in past Borderlands games; Wilhelm was Handsome Jack’s cyborg enforce in Borderlands 2, Athena was an ex-Crimson Lance operative who appeared in Borderlands 1 DLC, while CL4P-TP (aka Claptrap) has featured as a sometimes loveable but always infuriating NPC from Borderlands 1 and 2 while the final character is Nisha, who in Borderlands 2 tyrannically ran a town called Lynchwood while also being Handsome Jack’s girlfriend. All the characters do a good job of standing out on their own as their action skills give them a unique feel; Wilhelm can call in two drones who will either heal him and his allies or hunt down his enemies, Athena can go full-on Captain America and use a hard-light shield to absorb bullets before throwing it back at enemies, Nisha can create a hard-light copy of her gun so she dual-wields while auto-aiming in a truxican-standoff with any enemies in the area while Claptrap…is incredibly random. Claptrap’s action skill is VaultHunter.exe while activates one of his many subroutines which are largely dependent on the situation he is in. If he’s near full health and surrounded by enemies he begins to dual-wield his guns and Gunzerk, while if he’s weak and there’s a powerful enemy nearby he will create a hard light copy of himself who begins to serenade the strongest enemy with poetry, song and dubstep. You can unlock many other subroutines which include turning into a pirate ship and shooting rainbows and while the random nature can sometimes by infuriating it’s all in-sync with Claptrap’s character and rarely gives you something that is not of benefit in your current situation.
The guns feel much the same as they did in Borderlands 1 and 2, which each manufacturer’s weapon having a very distinct feel, so a Hyperion gun fires quickly and is wildly in-accurate but becomes laser-focused the more you shoot. This helps ensure a variety in the guns as unless you get a gun that is truly outstanding and does a huge amount of damage compared to what you have already, you can go through some periods where you don’t get many upgrades in your gear. In Borderlands 1 you tended to get a set-gun for a certain quest or an enemy which would scale to your level when it dropped while Borderlands 2 adopted a more Diablo-esque approach with some guns having ludicrously low-drop rates (0.1% for a certain legendary shield and a certain legendary gun!) and while TPS sticks with BL2’s more Diablo-esque approach it does a far better job of doling out good guns periodically and the previous near-useless gun vendors now regularly sell guns that are worth your money and offer a good upgrade compared to what you have and have a chance of selling purple (Ultra-Rares) and orange (Legendary) gear. I still feel like Borderlands 1 compared with TPS’ vendors would be the best mix but I’ve yet to find myself farming a particular boss dozens of times to get a loot drop so it’s not all bad.
The story in TPS is good, although as always in the Borderlands games, the story is really there to carry you through a variety of environments and shoot more enemies than you can count. TPS is told in-media-res but the core takes place between Borderlands 1 and Borderlands 2 as you play as one of four Vault Hunters, recruited by a Hyperion programmer called John who is in charge of Helios, a Hyperion space stating in orbit around Pandora. As the game starts, you crash land on Helios as it is under attack by commandos lead by the zealous Commander Zarpedon (the ridiculousless of the names of some characters is never lost on the game and jokes are regularly made) who seemingly want to destroy Elpis, Pandora’s moon. As the Vault Hunters (as even if you play solo, canonically all four Vault Hunters have teamed up) team with with John to try and evacuate and then get-off the station, John voluntarily stays behind when the automatic-controls are damaged. The first act of the game then sees you trying to disable Zarpedon’s forces on Elpis to allow free travel from Elpis to Helios while the rest of the game is focused on both taking down Zarpedon herself and reaching the Vault on Elpis which supposedly contains a cache of weapons and ancient eridian-technology (the sci-fi prerequisite ancient civilization) which John wants to find to prove his worth to Hyperion. The writing in the game is good and as the game was developed by 2K Australia, most of the characters on the moon are Australian (Earth still exists in the Borderlands universe) and there is also a lot of british humour in the game as well. I never found it grating but the use of some stereotypes could be annoying to some (a cockney-kid who is something of a technological Eliza Doolittle appears in a few too many quests) but a lot of characters from previous Borderlands games appears such as the four Vault Hunters from Borderlands 1, Mad Moxxi and Tiny Tina – the most dangerous 14 year old explosive expert in the known universe. While everyone gets their time to shine the main characters of the game are your Vault Hunter, John, Roland, Lilith and Mad Moxxi.
Without giving away any spoilers every character feels unique and has their own voice and the game is not afraid to be suitably blunt about painting previously loved characters with a darker brush in TPS. By the end of the game, John’s journey to becoming Handsome Jack is convincing and is quite sympathetic as his arc from wannabe-hero to villain is a genuine fall from grace that was not his fault…and that’s all I’ll say on that matter!
The core campaign is the shortest of any Borderlands so far but is largely well paced. After landing on Elpis some of the areas and missions can feel a tad tiresome if you decide to tackle many sidequests but the second half of the game is excellent and among my favourite set of missions from any Borderlands game, culminating in the most videogame-y final boss of the series yet, although this is no bad thing as Borderlands 1 had a bullet sponge of final boss while Borderlands 2 had one so much bigger than you it felt like your gameplay style had to change purely for that one boss. There are a large amount of side quests that all offer a variety of rewards and it certainly avoids the saturation of Borderlands 2 with sidequests needlessly revisiting older areas in the end-game and the like and the way the game structures a New Game Plus with True Vault Hunter Mode (which deliberately takes place after your first playthrough and changes the narrative somewhat) helps ensure that the game has some replayability and if you like Borderlands, you are certainly getting value for your money.
The game has a very synth-inspired soundtrack which works well with it’s environments, while the guns sound suitably punchy (if not to the class of a game like the Battlefield series) and the positional audio and reverb helps a sense of immersion as you move in an out of oxygen bubbles, buildings and gargantuan caverns. The voice acting is largely good, with the stand out being John/Handsome Jack’s voice actor, while some of the natives on Elpis sound very one-note and monotone although it’s not a particular problem as the vast majority of the cast do a good job and help ensure each character is expressive and has a distinct personality. I did find myself coming across one or two glitches where the ambient dialogue in Concordia, the hub city of the game, was played at the same volume as the main character’s audio no matter where I was, although it was nothing a reload didn’t fix. Compared to playing Borderlands 2, which in my experience was hardly a glitch fest yet had it’s fair share of bugs such as invincible enemies, TPS was largely glitch-free. There’s promise of DLC to come in a Season Pass scheme, although you can purchase items individually, and much like Borderlands 2 I don’t get the feeling that either Gearbox or 2K Australia cut areas out of the game for DLC or that there were ideas held back. Borderlands 2’s DLC did well because it did things in environments that would not have fitted in the vanilla version of the main game and I hope that the same will be true for TPS although I suspect it may be a bit more limited as BL2 was set on Pandora, an entire planet, while TPS is set on the Moon.
The graphics and art style of the game hold up well and yet again are classically Borderlands. The Comic3D graphics help the exaggerated art style stand out from the crowd and certainly give Borderlands a distinctive look, whether it be from chunky guns to colourful bandits, ancient aliens or anything inbetween. While you can tweak the black outlines or texture resolution size in the .ini tweaks, I didn’t find myself doing this as performing some tweaks on Borderlands 1 rendered it pretty unstable and the game ran amazingly well for me anyway. While setting Nvidia’s PhysX option to anything above low often carved my framerate in half during intense and large firefights (I have AMD GPUs), with every other setting on Max and at 1920×1080 I got at least 60fps throughout the entire game with no noticeable drops unless I had PhysX enabled. While the game lacks the colourfulness of BL2 and its DLCs, there is a good variety in locations on the moon and Helios, and the final two or three areas before the final boss are a kaleidoscope of colour and otherworldliness that Borderlands now does so well.
In the end I would say that TPS is definitely worth your time and money. With it’s slightly shorter than the others and more fully-featured nature it’s the most accessible Borderlands yet and has four distinct character to pick from and ensures a great co-op experience. Doing a reasonable amount of sidequests and dabbling in some co-op, my first playthrough took me about 18 hours and I immediately wanted to continue the co-op through True Vault Hunter mode and I would expect the 15-20 hour mark would be about right for most people. Rather than being a cash in of something half-assed, TPS is most definitely a worthy addition to the Borderlands franchise, although now the wait begins for the full-Borderlands 3.