Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel takes the loot 'n' shoot series into space
The Borderlands series is probably the best reason, in the unlikely event you still need one, to stop listening to videogame analysts. Rather than being 'sent to die', as one rent-a-mouth famously predicted in 2009, the first game was a hit that spawned a sequel which went on to become 2K's best-ever seller. An avalanche of DLC later, now this: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. It's due out this fall, and as the name suggests it plugs the gap between the previous games. And it's (at least partly) set on Pandora's moon. And you can play as Claptrap. Who wears a beret.
Huh? You want more? More than a witty robot in a beret? Tough crowd. Okay, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is the next project from 2K Australia, who began work immediately after wrapping up on their contribution to Bioshock Infinite. Gearbox is overseeing development, but its main team remains focused on some as yet unannounced next-gen IPs. [You can read our QA with Gearbox and 2K Australia here.] Note that the Pre-Sequel isn't coming to PS4 or Xbox One, which may be a source of disappointment for our console cousins, who probably hoped for an uptick in resolution and/or frame rate, but there are no such worries on PC. The game is being built using the Borderlands 2 engine, which as we know runs buttery smooth at high resolutions when powered by a half-decent GFX card.
Watching The Pre-Sequel being played, it's tempting to wonder what the need for much more horsepower would be anyway? A large part of Borderlands success is surely due to its startlingly cool art style, which remains impressive here. The cel-shaded moonscape is a wash of pink and blue pastels over which your co-op buddy bounds along in low gravity. There are four characters to pick from – all of whom are playable for the first time, but will be familiar to fans of the series, and all of whom have new skill trees.
Joining Claptrap, who's now dubbed the Fragtrap, and whose abilities Gearbox won't mention at other than to say he'll have a low-slung camera POV, is Athena, an assassin who was once part of the 'Crimson Lance' (an elite private military company), and who was first introduced in The Secret Armory Of General Knoxx DLC. Her 'Phalanx' skill tree enables you to turn her into a tank thanks to her Aspis shield—which also doubles as an oversized sci-fi discus. There there's Wilhelm, the Enforcer, a Wolverine lookalike who was also the cybernetically-enhanced first boss of Borderlands 2, but here has yet to undergo his transformation. As you upgrade him so he'll become more machine than man. Mwa hah, etc. Last up is Nisha, Handsome Jack's squeeze, and as the Sheriff of Lynchwood represents the Lawbringer class, but who otherwise Gearbox also isn't willing to discuss yet. Because marketing plans.
The Pre-Sequel tells the story of how Jack came to become the villain of Borderlands 2, with you helping his (initially well-meaning) rise to eventual super-villainy. In the demo Athena and Willhelm are trying to storm a Hyperion base in order to stop a giant death-ray that's blasting lumps out of the moon.
The lack of atmosphere has a couple of gameplay implications: Firstly you need to keep your oxygen meter topped up by collecting O2 canisters, which drop in the same way as other loot. Not fun in itself, but you can also vent these to enable double jumps and to power jetpacks. This creates cool platforming opportunities—one massive jump sees the characters land on a pillar of moon rock, below which lava from a laser strike flows—and adds a pleasing verticality to the shootouts as enemies whizz around. You can also shoot out their helmets to rob them of air. As if being shot in the face wasn't already inconvenience enough.
Oxygen-assisted jumps also enable another move: the mid-air ground pound, which is essentially a first-person interpretation of Mario's butt stomp. Pleasingly, you can also give this move an elemental effect, for example unleashing a fiery or electrical aftershock as your rear-end connects with the lunar surface.
Whereas Borderlands 2 only introduced one element type (the enemy-coating, damage-enhancing 'slag') The Pre-Sequel has two significant two additions. Cryo has a freeze effect that gradually encases enemies in crystal, leaving them open to being smashed like so much Ming vase by a melee attack. There there are lasers, a self-explanatory new gun type to add to the already bewildering array of procedurally-generated possibilities. They laser types vary from 'Pew! Pew!'-style blasters through to massive beams, and the effect, when multiple characters are trading fire, is all very Star Wars.
If Star Wars had been made by Australians.
Even in this short demo there are some cute nods to the guest developer's homeland, from a boss character called Red Belly who's armoured up like the outlaw Ned Kelly, to the impish scavs which all yammer at you with Aussie accents. Gunning them down will be a joy for cricket fans the world over, or anyone who's not a fan of Mel Gibson's output. The demo ends with Athena being blasted out of the moon base and into low orbit by Red Belly, from where flips the bird with both hands back. It's essentially Gravity remade by a madman.
At first glance, Borderlands – The Pre-Sequel looks like a halfway house sort of follow up. It feels faithful to its super popular predecessor, offering plenty of new content but without attempting to reinvent the formula that made it successful in the first place. In that sense, the obvious comparison would be with Batman: Arkham Origins, which also stuck to old-gen consoles while serving up a prequel storyline. In either case it seems churlish to complain about what's likely to be a solid piece of fan service. And ultimately: more Borderlands is more Borderlands. In a beret.