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Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel review for PC, Xbox 360, PS3


Platform: PC
Also On: Xbox 360, PS3
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Australia, Gearbox Software
Medium: Digital
Players: 1-4
Online: Yes
ESRB: M – Mature

"There is no good loot-based shooter."

My friend decides this an hour into the new Borderlands game; he also feels burned by Destiny, a game we thought would replace the need for any cooperative shooter over the next decade. He's agreed to join me in getting the most of a multiplayer game while I'm reviewing it, and several days after completing the campaign in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, I'm still not finding a reason to dispute his initial remark. For whatever reason, this is a genre that can't get its shit together.

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Ignoring other games, what Borderlands gets right, and always has, is that it rewards players with loot for everything they do. The value of what guns and accessories is debatable, but the assets are there. It's always been the game to fill gaps of time, no matter how small they may be, with a chest to open, or another container to pop the lid off for a couple dollars. I'd say it's always been an amazing co-op experience, but the first game does a lot to stifle that claim. For now, it's got the loot locked down.

What it's gotten worse at, almost as if it never knew how it discovered the formula it jotted down, is the other half of its appeal: the gunplay. Enemy encounters are beginning to feel more like mishaps than events, with weapons that feel more like accessories than awesome tools.

While I never cared to finish the first game (it lost me somewhere after the first 7 hours of Pandora), I played Borderlands 2 to near 100% completion at about 10 times what I put into its predecessor. I can't say I enjoyed it, but I did get to spend time with some friends in a fully accommodating co-op shooter, and in the face of the persistently obnoxious universe that Borderlands takes place in, I came to treasure what it gave us. This friend with me, in the first paragraph, is one of those who shared most of Borderlands 2 with me. This friend is a person who, like me, can be won over with the right mix of magic in an otherwise mediocre game. Borderlands 2 was that game for the lot of us, but when it came to playing the Pre-Sequel, we couldn't be done with it quick enough. So what's changed?

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For starters, The Pre-Sequel is developed by Gearbox and 2K Australia, who's identity is strong in the game's nomenclature and accented voice-acting. The Australian presence is refreshing to have in a big game like Borderlands, and actually does a lot to charm me into feeling as if it's taken some of the edge off its inherent 6th grade writing. I only wish it was more than a sensation, as the writing in the Pre-Sequel appears to have reached an all-time low far beyond when Borderlands was simply in love with itself in Borderlands 2. Now, it's as if Borderlands is also in love with the people who would write fanfic for the series. While we're spared spending any time with the likes of Tiny Tina, the game has now replaced previously annoying characters with a new cast who are either miserable or devoid of personality. Those who play the Lawbringer class, for instance, will be treated to loads of VO barks and some backstory about how morbidly gratifying the death of this character's mom has been. This happens incessantly as post-combat dialog includes lines about how great things are going "since mom died" almost every time you shoot a group of two or more enemies.

It also turns out that Handsome Jack is only worth writing if he's the bad guy, because until then, he doesn't have any identity except as a foundation for a tragic figure who can't catch a break. Sounds like someone who could go bad, huh? The Pre-Sequel will beat you over the head with this revelation.

Aside from a few crashes between players, the Pre-Sequel online co-op is as competent as it was when Borderlands 2 established a no-hassle drop in/out system for players to join and leave each others' games. It's so consistent that it feels almost like a copy/paste of the Borderlands 2 UI, likely a product of not fixing what isn't broken. The controls, for that matter, are identical to the Borderlands franchise, with a few low-gravity tweaks to scrape together an identity for 2K Australia's game.

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It's all the other tweaks that seem to have found them stumbling through an interquel of the original two games. It's the interest in telling Handsome Jack's origin story that pigeonholes the plot. It's the inclusion of low gravity as a major gameplay component that causes the movement to feel loose and sloppy. It's the poor navigation checkpointing that tether players to constantly referring to their map in a poorly designed open world. It's the confinement of marrying themselves to the space between two games that has lead to Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel landing at a level of quality set between the two.

What could we expect, in that case? How does one approach a "pre-sequel," let alone a prequel? This handing off of Borderlands suggests that Gearbox doesn't trust the series to stand on its own while they work on a new IP. Why else would a totally different team be assigned an incidental game that can neither damage nor improve the series pedigree? Are they being groomed to inherit it? This isn't exactly a glowing example, if so.

It's certainly not because there was any necessity to flesh out the antagonist from the last game. Then again, maybe I'm wrong and that's exactly why we're here, but this would suggest an even more embarrassing scenario where the Borderlands franchise is being given direction by the whim of its easily receptive fanbase. Here's hoping the Pre-Sequel is just 2K's way of telling us that if we wait another two years, we'll be reading previews for Borderlands 3 on next-gen platforms.

Ultimately, we're given exactly what we could have expected, which is more of the same. More incessant characters, more co-op gameplay, and more loot than we can fit in our inventory. On every level, however, it happens to be at a lower quality than Borderlands 2. Even the art is worse, somehow, with a special nod to the splash titles that introduce a character looking like mockups.

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In a nutshell, it's simply not designed in any thoughtful manner that suggests refinement or forward thinking was present. The map design is a mess, and communicating how players can utilize the oxygen and low gravity maneuvers is poorly handled. Then there are the interiors, an ungodly maze laid out in the least circular fashion I've seen for these games, which lead to party members spawning at weird checkpoints and being generally lost once backtracking comes into play. Guns appear to be less meaningful, somehow, and the abilities that each class brings to the table haven't really got any focus. It's as if the designers are asking us whether or not some of these mechanics are even working or not. Some of the special abilities will actually go so far as to impede core abilities, such as reviving teammates, when in use.

We could assume that Borderlands is simply not for me, but I'm already well-aware of this. What I can't seem to understand is how in 2014, these open-world, co-op, loot-based shooters can't even take valuable lessons from games that share some of the same genres. Why are the guns in Borderlands so inaccurate? Where is the hint of enemy AI from Destiny? Why can I teleport to a vehicle another player is driving, but if they're on foot then we have to trek across the map for 5-10 minutes? Is Diablo 3 the only game with that "teleport to player" feature? Did Blizzard patent it or something? Are there vehicle physics for an open world, or is everything with four wheels supposed to handle like an arcade racer from 2003? Is it unfair to hold a Diablo-meets-Halo game to the same standards of its two most prominent influences, or should we try to be appreciative of its existence in the first place?

By the time there's a third game in the series, I'd hope that it would at least have the basics of what make its influences fun to play. The Pre-Sequel is a shining example of taking references from previous entries and tossing them in a mixing bowl of things players like to see in games today. Sprinkle the store-bought RPG seasoning on the in-your-face FPS, make it open world, chop, toss, chop, roll out, add garnish, hope it turns out okay. Serve?

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In everything that Borderlands does to make a seamless co-op shooter, there are no improvements to the inconveniences that have grown into the franchise. Instead, we're given everything as a legacy feature: bone-headed phrases like "son of a taint" that aren't funny in the least, four new wacky characters, another vault to hunt for, clunky controls, poor mission design, and another forgettable story.

It still has an identity as a co-op shooter that I can play on a flexible basis with a handful of friends, and I'm grateful for that. For everything else, I wish that there was an FPS influenced only by the no-fuss co-op of Borderlands and none of the other things it has. From the looks of The Pre-Sequel, we shouldn't be expecting anything other than stagnant design in the near future. Maybe that's the Borderlands way — to regurgitate settings and characters until we're at Borderlands: The Megamix by 2K Singapore, crammed inconveniently between the 4th and 5th numbered franchise.

Grade: D

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel [Online Game Code]


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