In 2001: A Space Odyssey (but more importantly, on an episode of The Simpsons), “The Blue Danube” waltz scores the beauty of zero gravity. Tiny pens, massive spaceships, and potato chips twirl in midair, showing off dance moves not available under Earth’s unrelenting gravity. Each staccato note of the waltz might as well be replaced with an “ooh” or an “aah.”
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! frees your character from Pandora’s gravity, the planet where Borderlands and its 2012 sequel took place, and shoots for the moon—literally, the moon of Elpis. You can almost hear “The Blue Danube” playing as you set forth from your escape pod for the first time, the clear night sky betraying the marvel that awaits when you leap for the stars, free from Pandora’s oppressive 9.8 m/s2 gravitational pull. Then you realize you aren’t wearing a spacesuit and have to sprint to a nearby pressurized station. So you run reeeeeaaaaalllly sloooooowwwwwlllyyyy. A fitting soundtrack might be the Benny Hill theme song, played at half speed, underwater. Space can be a joyous dance, but in The Pre-Sequel it’s cumbersome and rote. The Macarena.
The moon locale informs what sets The Pre-Sequel! apart from its predecessors. Borderlands and Borderlands 2 followed a foursome of treasure-seeking vault hunters as they lit up the sky with bullets, bullets, and more bullets. Gun variety was, and remains, as infinite as the universe itself. Shotguns that sing! Shotguns that sting! Pistols and rocket launchers hiding in piles of animal dung! When one of the character classes in the sequel was named the “Gunzerker,” that was the bullet in the coffin: Borderlands was mindless, cartoonish, silly fun, and Borderlands 2 reveled in its excess.
This time around, you are the enemy, playing as one of three former bosses or as Claptrap, the iconic robot with the size of R2-D2 and the “Please just shut up!” factor of C3P0, all working for Handsome Jack, the series’ villain. Other than a fresh arsenal of zingers (choosing Claptrap as your character prompts the game to ask you, repeatedly, “Are you sure?” because you obviously made a mistake), The Pre-Sequel! adds little that doesn’t directly impact your space travel. The arms race once again includes modifications to your person, now in the form of O2 kits with varying amounts of oxygen and bonuses for shooting enemies while in a low-gravity leap or performing a deadly slam on the ground next to them (another additional feature). The vault hunter-on-the-go can once again pick up vehicles to ease travel, and The Pre-Sequel! is happy to provide hoverbikes that glide over the rocky surface. These are not new staples. They make the moon a bit more palatable, but The Pre-Sequel! is only interested in course-correcting the issues that come along with shooting into slow, empty space.
Issues such as: If the evil bandits are leaping high into the air or hovering using a jetpack, however will your moon laser find its way to their hearts (to kill)? In this particular case, The Pre-Sequel! decides that instead of rewarding finesse, it’ll just make aiming easier. One of the new playable characters, Nisha, is an Annie Oakley-type who first appeared in Borderlands 2. Her special power is called Showdown; when its active, guns auto-aim at enemies, even at vast distances. Showdown also increases fire rate and bullet strength. It’s Borderlands: Easy Mode. And it’s literally the first ability on her upgradeable skill tree. Wilhelm The Enforcer, another character who appeared as a boss in an earlier game, has his own flavor of autopilot, which is to launch autopilot on two miniature planes—one to shoot bad guys and one to heal you. Again, it’s the first ability.
There are limits to your power, but they are akin to limiting Jay Leno’s car collection to only five garages. Lest you forget, you are in space, where breathable air is a premium. The Pre-Sequel! has not forgotten and throws in an additional meter to keep track of your depleting air supply, used up faster if you decide to, say, glide across a large canyon. Firefights are when oxygen matters most, as you’re outside for the longest stretches of time, not to mention there are bullets whizzing past your spacesuit. Here again, The Pre-Sequel! overcorrects. Every fallen enemy provides a canister that refills your meter, so as long as you rack up a steady stream of deaths (which isn’t difficult if you’re automatically gunning down foes), you’ll be just fine. It is fun, however, to shoot off a bandit’s helmet and watch them suffer, unable to breathe. They do not have the luxury of built-in fail-safes.
It’s no accident that the fodder I’ve mentioned thus far has been bandits. Most of the enemies in The Pre-Sequel are exactly the same guys, only stronger. There are a few ice beasts and flying electrical brain-monsters, but mostly they’re generic banditos. They aren’t even found that often. The moon does not suffer from population density, so most of the game involves running along the empty countryside, the ticking clock of your oxygen supply very prevalent. Not only are you stuck with long swaths of nothing, you have to direct your route through the nothing to hit up enough air vents and oxygenated garages to fill up or you’ll start suffocating before you can find bad guys to kill by hitting the same button over and over.
If the new additions in The Pre-Sequel! don’t ultimately matter, then this is essentially an add-on to Borderlands 2, spread out over desolation. “The Blue Danube” never actually plays, but if it did, it would no longer signify marvel, only déjà vu, the nagging feeling that you’ve done this before, and it was better the first time.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
Developer: 2K Australia
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: PlayStation 3