A Blast from the Past
FBT is a good-guy fighting for the bad-guy in the good-bad pre-sequel.
If asked about the Pre-Sequel, I usually just expel air in a way that’s supposed to imply “welllll”. Mostly I just think ‘I can’t go through that again’. I recall times where it was Borderlands 1 brilliant, and times where it was Borderlands 2 ffs. I don’t think it actually prequeled BL2 or sequeled BL1 but it was hard to keep track – my memory is of endlessly trying to get somewhere and not caring why. You know the bit in Matrix Reloaded, the ‘Burly Brawl’ which started off awesome then just got tiresome? It’s that, for 40 hours. And I was no Neo.
PS felt like a Borderlands clone, and it was. 2K’s Australian studio stepped in when Gearbox said BL3 would be years away and it felt like someone copying their homework. It’s like a band’s label putting out a Greatest Hits album to keep the fans going. But I am Borderlands’ biggest fan. Maybe I just need to learn to love it.
Still a Blast?
We’re a group of bounty-hunters answering the call of Jack, a Hyperion employee who is onto something big. But his omnipresent ‘H’ space-station is attacked by a Dhal force led by ‘General Zarpadon’. Jack sends us to Pandora’s moon, Elpis to find a way to retake the station, and along the way, the events of BL2 are set in motion.
What’s interesting about PS is we’ve already met the characters we play as – that’s not a surprise as a prequel, but two choices are BL2 mini-bosses; Nisha, a gunslinger type who became the sheriff we put down, and Wilhelm, a cybernetic soldier we battle early on. It’s an interesting twist to be playing folks who will become bad guys, and as the game progresses and Jack’s plan is revealed, they’re totally onboard with his more extreme solutions.
The other two are Athena (I want to add ‘out’ to her name) who was a mission giver in BL1’s General Knox DLC, and … Claptrap. It’s ballsy making him a playable, but he was intended as a support in Coop, as his special power helped/hindered the team like a random event generator. I nearly played as Claptrap but I can’t quite bring myself to do it. One day ...
Instead I picked a DLC character, Jack’s double. We battled one in BL2 but rather than a villain, this ‘Jack’ took the job to pay off his student loans and isn’t remotely capable of handling the situation. Originally I played as Nisha, and it was fun being the bad guy but Jack’s double realises he’s made a terrible mistake - and I can relate.
Elpis is a lot like Pandora, except for one detail – no atmosphere. Which is a pretty good description of PS. It just doesn’t have Borderlands’ attitude or vibrancy, or BL2’s intensity or compelling plot; we already know what happens and BL’s backstory wasn’t exactly a burning question like who was the Space Jockey in Alien – and thanks to Prometheus we have the answer, and a shit film - we know Jack’s bad news and even if we’re watching him turn into a super villain and become deluded about his place as the hero of the story, it’s just not compelling, and neither are the plot points – I don’t care how Jack got his robot army.
Elpis does have areas of atmosphere, but outside you’re jumping about in low gravity, which is fun but you’re also searching for air pockets or oxygen tanks. Mid-air fire fights and slamming to stagger enemies is never going to be boring, but it feels gimmicky and air is plentiful so you sort of wonder why bother, it feels unnecessary. Like traversing regions.
The fast-travel points and checkpoints are so far apart it can take hours and lots of second winds to just get back to where you started. BL required you to commit hours to a region but it has a sense of progression, or purpose at least, but here you’re humping through it, then back again, then sent back yet again and often it feels like it was for no real reason.
It’s reliance on backtracking is spirit-breaking – in BL1 it was pitched just about right and you could have fun with it, but in PS it’s tiresome. Not even the promise of level ups can convince you to dive back in, especially when we’re not fortune hunting, we’re on a pre-determined route to set up BL2.
Which I don’t care about. The best thing about BL1 was that you were out for yourself; it was all about you not saving the world - in PS I’m just a lacky, not a lunatic running into danger for loot; I don’t want to spend hours trudging through frustrating regions battling uninspired creatures to help Jack stop Zarpadon because none of it matters anyway.
We know Jack’s the bad guy but his descent into madness isn’t interesting or tragic and nothing altruistic he says or does rings true. I don't have a different perspective on him now. I’m not stupid enough to be complaining that a BL plot was weak, but combined with a weak game, there’s just not a lot of point to it.
So far this is exactly how I remembered it – a thankless slog, but I have realised it tried; there’s more humour, quirky characters and bizarre side-missions than in BL2 and Jack's double does have some good level ups; his super power is to generate two holo-versions of himself, which at least reduces the length of time you’re fighting. He is good company, and questions the extreme acts he's forced to commit; he kinda reminds me of Broken Sword's George - he's out of his depth but trying to be heroic, either with his half-hearted attempts to be a badass Vault Hunter or honest ‘oh shit!’ reactions.
Meanwhile I’m less ‘oh shit!’ and more ‘oh, shit.’ The worst encounter is the most common, the Kraggon, this game’s Skags; when killed, the bigger ones spawn 2-3 smaller versions and once you reach badass levels the spawned spawn more and there’s 3-4 Kraggons per encounter. It’s like fighting a Russian Doll.
There’s other creatures, and the Scavs (Elpis’ Raiders) also have jump/slam which make for great fights, but somehow it’s not the hectic, skin-of-your-teeth scrap of BL1; maybe it’s the zero-g but PS feel like it’s in slo-mo as you float along like Mary Poppins – having a Scav slowly drift toward you isn’t as exciting as Psychos rushing you so it feels less intense and threats feel like they’re there to just complicate things, like you’re battling obstacles rather than beating the odds.
You get the feeling a lot of PS’s missions looked great on the page, huge, exciting set-pieces like raiding a downed spaceship for an AI or attacking a facility to create Jack’s robot army look to be meaty adventures but to play they’re just over-long missions within missions and a lot of ‘fend of x while I fix this’ filler instead of killer moments you don't mind dying for.
And if you die, you’re sent so far back that the enemies have all respawned – again, that’s classic BL but instead of thinking ‘come get some’ you just skirt around them, trying to get where you need to be, and by the time you reach the objective you’ve lost all interest or the will to carry on, knowing what's coming will be pointless and painful.
Still, PS does occasionally make BL1 proud. Being produced by 2K Australia, it’s got a real ‘down under’ feel with typical Aussie humour and references which feeds into BL1's outback charm and wildness. Side missions are great fun; one reveals Zarpadon is a thoroughly decent person - she even rewards us for helping an Atlas soldier, and it’s a nice reminder we’re fighting for the wrong side.
A new character, Janey, a peppy scavenger fits right in with classic BL’s quirky off-kilter mission-givers – she has ‘the Grinder’ where you can sacrifice 3 weapons and randomly generate a new one from their perks, and she has some amusingly petty missions for us. Janey crushes on Moxxi, understandably, who along with a vacationing Lilith and Roland get dragged into Jack’s plans.
The plan is being related by Athena in flashback, and classic BL characters are listening in, chiming-in with choice comments, annoying her with irrelevant questions, sending her off on tangents or highlighting plot holes. NPCs react differently based on which character you’re playing, and our Jack gets completely tongue-tied around Moxxi – who had a relationship with the real Jack, something our Jack fails at trying to take advantage of. The Playables are the best thing about PS; playing as Nisha or Wilhelm is a great idea - Nisha was indifferent to the struggles on Elpis and amused at the pain and suffering we caused, and it’s one of the few games with character choice that isn't reduced to classes, they’re actual characters.
Weirdly, the best part of the game is Claptrap – or rather, his insides. Claptastic Voyage DLC is a Fantastic Voyage meets Tron caper where we get uploaded inside him to unearth a secret file. It’s so brutal that I retreated, started True Vault Hunter mode, got my Level way up then went back to standard play and actually had some fun with it. It’s not cheating ... It even gives you a new perspective on the series’ love-hate mascot. Kinda feel a bit bad for him. I wished I had played as Claptrap now, there must have been some wicked in-in-jokes. Plus you get some game-changing weaponry from it, guns that ‘glitch’ and occasionally become super-powered; one yells ‘kill!’ every time you fire … Now that’s Borderlands.
Maybe I’m just suffering from Borderlands PTSD but once we’ve left Elpis to finally retake the station, we’re back into BL mode and it gets good; sadistic, twisted, second-wind reliant, unforgiving, but fun. And that’s what we signed up for not floating about. PS’s final mission to uncover the vault clue is an firefight that surpasses BL2's raid on Angel, but it rushes the story ending making you wonder what the point of it all was, but somehow it wins you over.
I enjoyed that last push so much, against my better judgement I stuck with True Vault Hunter Mode beyond just over-powering myself for Claptastic. More capable now, I could enjoy it and realised it’s a lot quirkier and weirder than I’d noticed. Most of the stuff on the moon is sheer filler but as a Badass it’s not actually bad and I think perhaps this was the intent, that standard mode was to weed out the lightweights and True Vault is the real game. But it’s not strong enough to earn that reward.