It would be very easy to dismiss The Pre-Sequel. It is, after all, a stupidly-named interquel title out only on old-gen consoles and not developed by the series' creators. But 2K Australia has done a fantastic job of delivering a great Borderlands game, infusing it with some Aussie flavour along the way.
Set between the first two games, The Pre-Sequel tells the tale of Handsome Jack's rise to prominence as he fills the role of 'complete bastard'. The playable characters have also featured in the series' previous entries, and each offer their own distinct abilities. Nisha the Lawbringer, the character the review was spent with, can embrace her Old West roots and slow down time, locking onto targets in rapid succession with revolver-style shooting and accuracy, for instance, while Athena produces a giant shield which absorbs damage, converting any hits into energy which is then unleashed by throwing the shield at her foes.
Wilhelm spews robotic drones, and everybody's favourite service robot, Claptrap, can survey his surroundings using the Vaulthunter.exe ability and produce a fellow Claptrap to either help or hinder the fight.
As well as the individuality of the roster, taking the series to Elpis, Pandora's moon, has also added great variety to combat. While running to-and-fro oxygen geysers or searching for o2 tanks can be a pain, the new floaty mechanics coupled with butt-slams and glides means that taking down bad guys feels completely different to what went before. Juxtaposed with the indoor, oxygen-and gravity-filled environments, it means you have to approach the different sandbox clashes in a variety of ways. When in zero-g terrain, I can leap above enemies entrenched in cover and slam them into an early grave, whereas when inside, a little more caution is needed, though often never taken.
The floaty jumps also make exploration more interesting. Finding loot means not only looking at your feet and in lockers, but also trying to get atop every building you come across. Finding ways to traverse environments can be just as entertaining as the combat, though some side missions try to convert the mechanics into a pure platformer, which it can't quite achieve.
This being a game made by 2K Australia, it's probably not a surprise to learn that the development team has infused your enemies with a certain local 'charm' . Enemies will yell "Strewth!" upon their demise, you'll hear "Bonza", "Blimey" and other assorted Aussie slang throughout your time on Elpis, all making the inhabitants somehow rather lovable, which is tricky when you're shooting 95 per cent of them. The Pre-Sequel's humour and wit serves as a great mask for what is, at its core, a grim tale. It's always nice to know that, during some of the narrative's most wincing moments, I can always glance across to see "Your Mum" smeared across a wall.
While 2K Australia has spiced up Borderlands combat, it has wisely opted to follow the established rulebook for most other areas in the game. We still have the three-branch skill tree, Badass tokens, and so on. But this also means some persistent niggles remain. Why I have to manually pick up loot I'll never know. There's an argument that this is by design, for players in co-op leaving individual items for their compatriots, but I seriously doubt anyone would leave ammo or cash for another should they require it. Amongst all this high-tech weaponry, I don't think it's a stretch to imagine Vaulthunters having an item that allows them to automatically scoop up items. There's also a frustrating lag between opening crates and actually being able to collect, which can be a big issue in boss battles and hectic encounters.
Pacing is also an issue. The first half of the game trudges by at a snail's pace and can be filled with long walks or drives from quest-giver to objective, which gets old quick. Once you move beyond this point and get to the real meat of the story, action becomes much more frequent and there are far more combat sequences to distract you from the traversal. It's just a shame it takes so long to shift gears.
The focus on old-gen, too, brings issues. The game's style is still distinct, but technically it is starting to show its age a bit. The comic-book art style means the colour palette can paper over the cracks, but this world has more sharp corners than a 1980s Skoda.
Despite these issues, Borderlands The Pre-Sequel is an enjoyable game. It does exactly what a Borderlands game should: offer great shooting and fun looting. The introduction of moon-based combat has added some spice to general gameplay, while Aussie voice acting has also injecting some more character into what was already one of the more entertaining series on the market.
Version Tested: Xbox 360
Three things new-gen Borderlands can learn from The Pre-Sequel
Retain the space combat
The addition of Halo-style combat on Elpis' moon really added something different to the series. I never knew that jumping up and slamming a character's backside to the ground could be so satisfying, but it now feels like an integral part to any encounter.
The great thing about The Pre-Sequel's dogfights is that they combine both zero-g and 'normal' environments, mixing up how you deal with different enemies as you run around the terrain. Adding such variety to Borderlands 3 would give players more to think about than a mindless run-and-shoot. In The Pre-Sequel, I'm constantly juggling my oxygen levels, the terrain, my abilities, ammo and the location of foes above and below, and this level of focus and concentration needs to carry over to the next entry.
It would also do a great deal for loot-hunting. Jumping around the rooftops searching for lockers and crates can absorb a surprising amount of your time, but none of it feels like a waste, and is in fact far more interesting than opening five lockers in a row.
It needs a shiny new engine
This may seem obvious, but the Borderlands engine is ageing and the 30 frames lock could do with a nice bump to 60.
The comic book art-style could look great on new-gen, with a more vibrant colour palette and smoother textures to really add some depth to the environments. We've seen a big push from new-gen titles for 'photorealism': with a new engine Borderlands' focus on distinctive art direction could both help it craft bigger, more intricate worlds, as well as help it stand out even further from the crowd.
Keep the Aussies
2K Australia did a great job developing this title, and the introduction of Aussies to all aspects of the project has paid off. Having Australian voices in the game was a great addition, and it would be nice to hear their accents return, especially for the outlaws, because I want to hear "Strewth" shouted as often as possible unironically. I know. I'm not even Australian. I don't even watch Neighbours. It's just funny.