Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel hands-on: more than DLC, but not quite a sequel
By the time I finished playing the short Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel demo I knew that I liked it and that I was probably going to play it beginning to end, maybe even multiple times.
With four new playable characters, a new setting on Pandora’s moon, and a couple of new, gravity-related gameplay elements that really change things up, it’s clear that 2K Australia has found its own particular spin on the familiar formula, which is more ambitious than what could have been accomplished with yet another DLC pack. And yet I’m not convinced that Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel can compete against the other standalone, $60 Borderlands games.
As someone who’s played the previous games for more than a hundred hours each, what excites me most about Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is its greater sense of mobility. Pandora’s moon comes with the floaty gravity you’d expect from our moon, so you can jump really high, double jump to go even higher, and butt-stomp your enemies at any time by pressing the crouch button. The higher up you are when initiating the stomp attack, the more damage it will do.
It’s not exactly revolutionary, but it’s super fun, and it will make going back to previous Borderlands with regular gravity kind of a bummer.
Learning how to use the jumps and stomps in combat took me no more than a couple of minutes and it felt like it was the way Borderlands was meant to be played. The series always had huge environments, and now you can leap across them swiftly, find the higher ground to snipe at enemies, rain hell on them midair, or jump into the fray butt first.
The short demo consisted of a huge open area on the surface of the moon. I played through it twice, and while I went through the same battles, enemies, and key locations, each playthrough felt different enough because I took a different approach.
When I first went through a complex overflowing with soldiers mounted on aliens, I thinned their ranks from afar before I felt it was safe to move in and finish them off. That’s how I usually play Borderlands. With a little patience, I was also able to shoot their helmets off and watch them die as they ran out of air, another cool detail that makes the new setting matter.
The second time through, I approached the scenario with guns blazing and jumped from spot to spot, holding down the fire button throughout and stomping when appropriate. I felt like my experience with arena shooters such as Unreal Tournament, Quake III, and even Titanfall was useful here. It made Borderlands more twitchy and airborne than ever, and I liked that. The faster, freeform movement meshes nicely with a game that consists almost entirely of putting bullets into things while side-strafing, giving you a whole new axis to dodge incoming fire.
The butt stomp, too, feels like a natural and welcomed addition to the tools that are already at your disposal. When I was overwhelmed, out of grenades, not equipped with the right gun, and still waiting for my special ability to cooldown, I leaped into the air, and used the stomp attack to give myself some space.
Your character also needs oxygen on the surface of the moon, which you can collect from most enemies and other sources. It’s never really a concern, but double-jumping will drain oxygen, so there’s some kind of limitation on how often you can use it.
There were plenty of other little differentiators in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. The Slag effect from Borderlands 2 is replaced with a bleeding effect, which makes enemies more vulnerable. There are new weapons, of course, with wild spread patterns, and, most importantly, a freeze modifier that allows you to encase enemies in ice and shatter them. The ice weapons were presented as the other huge game changer. It was definitely satisfying to shatter frozen enemies and watch them float away in bits and pieces, but from what I saw it was more about the cool visual effect than it was about new strategic opportunities.
And then there are the new characters. I got to play with Athena, whose special ability is a Captain America-type shield you can use to block damage or launch at enemies, and Wilhelm, who can launch two drones at the same time, one offensive and one defensive. Determining just how different they are to play with is the type of thing that requires much more than a short demo, but I can say that Athena’s special ability was more interesting. It gave me another weapon to control directly, as opposed to Wilhelm’s drones, which were more “set it and forget it.”
Technologically, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel looked exactly like Borderlands 2, which itself looked much like Borderlands. Pandora’s moon is littered with craters, rivers of lava, and industrial facilities that loom over the alien terrain dramatically. It’s all made with new art assets and populated with new enemies in line with the series’ signature, haphazardly drawn style. I also thought I noticed more particle effects than usual, steaming pipes, a huge variety of explosions, etc, which gave the game a more dynamic look.
However, there is no getting over the fact that I’ve basically been looking at the same game for five years now. 2K can create all the new assets it wants, it’s still going to look more or less like Borderlands from 2009, and at this point I’m ready for something newer.
That’s the issue here in a nutshell. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel looks like a great Borderlands game, and one that pushes innovation as much as it can given the inherent restrictions. Whatever leap forward I want from the series will have to wait until Gearbox gives us Borderlands 3. I’m happy that Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel will be there to distract me until then, I’m just not sure it can justify a $60 price tag, even if I get another 100 hours out of it.