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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Borderlands, The Pre-Sequel! Review: Life on other planets.

I have been on board the Borderlands train since the light turned green in October 2009. The first was rough, but each DLC pack improved on itself. Each slowly refining it's sense of character and humor into something special. Something I could really appreciate. By no means a masterpiece, it was still a game I played into a bloody pulp.

Borderlands 2 was a massive step forward. Not just in graphics, but it also made the scant story elements of the previous game retroactively relevant. Borderlands 2 is a masterpiece. It didn't need a villain that compelling, but it had one. It didn't need to have so many great act breaking story moments, but it did. It didn't need to add four spectacular (well all right, Hammerlock's hunt was just ok) DLC packs making a 60 hour game exponentially longer. But they're there. It remains one of the best games I ever played, and as of now, steam says I played it for 499 hours over 2 years. Damn.

The Pre-Sequel had some big shoes to fill, even with tapered expectations. The guns all looked the same as 2, Gearbox wasn't even working on it, and all the trailers didn't make Elpis (Pandora's moon) look like a terribly interesting place to be, even after spending 499 hours staring at it. And honestly? It's not as good. Not even close.

But it's still very good, and in some subtle but important ways, better than either game before it. For one, the appallingly stingy vending machines of 2 have been reverted to BL1's standards of rarity. In 2; the loot in machines were almost always green, sometimes blue, hardly ever purple, and only once (once!) in 499 hours did I ever find something orange.

Not so, anymore. Blues and purples abound, making money actually useful again. Moonstones, the new eridium, is more bountiful allowing you to max out your backpack and a couple of ammo stock piles halfway through the campaign. But they can be thrown into the grinder too, which is the single best thing about this game, and something that needs to be front and center in BL3. You have a bunch of green grenades? Pop them in the grinder and it just might spit out a blue one. Same goes for blue to purple loot, but that's the limit. There is a way, and an achievement, for grinding up an orange piece of gear, but it's nowhere near as straight forward. I love the grinder and soon you will too.

But what about the actual game? I happened to enjoy a lot of that too. I found the "SCAVs" a wonderful upgrade from the bandits in 2 (and who were mostly cut and pasted from 1 except for the nomads). They have wider battle rolls, employ flanking tactics, and have delightful Australian accents. The moon gravity and new stomp attacks are a welcome switch up that I'll miss in subsequent, non moon related, Borderlands games.

The only area that leaves me cold is the story and about a third of the environments. They both just kinda tread water. I like the younger, more reasonable, and less villainous Handsome Jack. But the story plays out as if half the time it wants to keep the twists from 2 a secret and half the time it doesn't. I was hoping for a deeper look at Jack and Angel's relationship. I'd watch a whole movie about that. But she only shows up in a picture (an admittedly spectacular picture, but still, boo.) on Jack's desk, a couple audio logs... and that's it. That really, really, bummed me out. I bet money that's what the DLC will be about, and by gum, I'll let them take my money. But for god's sake 2k Australia, why didn't you even tease that aspect of Jack? His relationship with his daughter (two year old spoilerz!!!!) is the single most interesting thing about him.

But I digress. Yes, Jack's arc is mostly stagnant. Yes, the first third of the environments are repetitive and kinda dull. But once you get back on the giant H, you won't care. The game opens up after that. Sure, you can't use your butt stomp as much anymore, you'e on  normal gravity turff. But this is when you start to notice how much work went into all the character's skill trees. Everybody is going to love their level 18 character. Because every skill tree has some cool keystone halfway through that dramatically changes the way you play.

You get warned if you choose to play as Clappy. Because you should be.

Claptrap has automatic freezing with his butt stomps (and save clappy for your second character... trust me, he doesn't leave you with a good first impression) Nisha starts racking up faster reload speeds for every enemy she kills within a clip, and so on. The "Borderlands only has passive skills" complaints have been answered. While they aren't new action skills, each tree for each character is markedly different now. As a grizzled old vet, I say that's a first, aside from Krieg and Gaige.

So yeah, this is a "fans only" kind of a game. Newbies should start from 2 at bare minimum. Just wait til' Steam sells the GOTY for $10 again, it's a hell of a deal. But if you are a fan, you're gonna at least get your money's worth.The series' heart and humor is intact, and the new ideas are successful and delightful in equal measure. The only thing holding 2K Australia back I feel, was budget, not passion. The game is about 4/6ths the length of 2, but it ends on a mother of a high note that makes it worth it. If you missed the Eridians from 1, like I did, you'll appreciate what goes on in the end. Especially the very end. It's the best final fight in the series.

In summation, a cash-in budget holds the pre-sequl back from standing out on it's own. But just barely. It's charmed voice performances and canny callbacks to the first game, give it a reason to exist. If all cash-in games were 2/3rds as good as this, the industry would be much better off. Just look at what they put into a poster you can barely read without a sniper rifle scope:

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