Borderlands was a genuine and pleasant surprise. Borderlands 2 was also a jolly good time, even if it was less impactful given it was a second dose of a medicine we’d already grown accustomed to. (I’m indifferent about Claptrap at this point.) Now we have Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, and the only thing I can wonder is: why?
There’s nothing wrong with a studio forging ahead with a series when the general population thinks they’ve tapped that vein to its full potential. It’s a proven fact that people often don’t know what they want because they don’t know what’s possible, and that holds especially true in this regard. That’s how we end up with franchise games like Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed II, two games that belie their lineage with meaningful contributions to the family tree.
In the case of The Pre-Sequel, though, it’s been handed off to another studio. Whether there was a pitch made by 2K Australia or Gearbox Software simply thought they could make more money, it’s unclear, and it’s really unimportant at this point. What we have is The Pre-Sequel as it exists now, and it is unequivocally more Borderlands.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it makes the differences all the easier to highlight. The big addition to the game over the first two Borderlands is the lunar landscape on which you’ll be doing your vault haunting. On this moon, you have lower gravity, which necessitates high arching, slow-paced jumps. Luckily, they’ve added additional mechanics for your locomotive needs.
By way of an oxygen kit, this includes various ways to gain additional jump height, slow your fall, and change directions, often in the form of a butt-stomp that will promptly and aggressively return you to the ground. This is the single most significant contribution to the game because it makes moving around actually not tedious.
In past Borderlands, getting from one place to another was slow and boring and, especially at higher levels, a serious nuisance. At least at lower levels, slogging through enemies got you meaningful amounts of experience and loot. But beyond that, transporting yourself across the vast expanses of Pandora was a frightfully and literally flat affair that even rocket-boosted vehicles couldn’t fix.
With this moon-induced setup of bounding, boosting, and stomping, getting around the admittedly smaller world of Elpis (Pandora’s moon) is inherently more interesting. At any given time, you have what feels like infinitely more options to pursue, whether it’s running straight ahead or jumping around like an idiot between higher and higher ledges. It adds some egregiously missing verticality to a previously pancaked gameplay.
Mixed in with the actual shooting of the game, though, you end up with something far more muddied. This new, confused, slow-paced shooting strides closest to that of Halo and the old days of Counter-Strike 1.6 on one of those (usually) low-gravity maps like scoutzknivez. Both of those invite alien but engaging rhythms to their firefights because of their floaty feel.
With Halo (and, to an extent, Destiny, as they’re from the same studio and have very similar moment-to-moment sensations in their mechanical interactions), the cartoonishly empty movements and weights of characters and items in the world lend a certain strategic element to each battle. The best way to describe Halo fights is that they have a cadence, where enemies and players build their actions around the idea of jumping around and shooting and moving around cover.
In the scoutzknivez experience of old school Counter-Strike, it’s much more about the limitation of the game setup that plays into the lowered gravity of the map. As the name implies, you only have a scout rifle and a knife, which by itself is both a faster and slower sort of game. But in a match where everyone can jump to the top of one of several towers in a single bound, the gameplay becomes massively more interesting.
Now, the act of scouting is expanded so much higher and lower and wider than before, and risks become more enticing because of the ability to actuate on impressive moves, like skying upwards, scoping a headshot, and falling back down into a window to knife someone. It actively plays into the restrictions set by the map.
That’s where The Pre-Sequel loses out. It often feels like low gravity for the sake of low gravity. The pace of combat in Borderlands is neither strategic enough nor snappy enough to be either end of the spectrum that supports moon gravity. Instead, the best thing to do is keep things on the ground and let fly the lead (or lasers).
It’s not that an acrobatic approach isn’t viable; it’s that it isn’t the most viable. That only invites a struggle towards tracking and a lingering descent back down to the ground. And when you are playing a game, hopefully at some comfortable range of difficulty, it’s the most viable option in combat that affords you survival, not the ones that let you goof around up in the air.
Integrating the spacey maneuvers into your repertoire is entirely possible and can be fun, but it never feels necessary, leaving the addition behind in the pile of useless toys. Other integrations of the concept like in Halo and scoutzknivez plays into the innate rhythm of the ridiculous situation. The Pre-Sequel just kind of holds it above its head like some sort of trophy.