When creating sequels, developers constantly run the risk of getting stuck in a cycle of escalation. Everything must be bigger or funnier, have larger explosions or more poignant and relatable story beats. Last year we saved the city, this year we’re saving the country, and next year we’ll be saving the planet.
But no matter the kind of game, there usually comes a moment when it becomes incredulous or melodramatic and fans finally tune out. You probably already know that moment from the TV trope "jumping the shark".
Your tastes may vary, but for me personally, that threshold is much lower when it comes to self-styled ‘wacky’ games. The Third Street Saints and I parted ways when dubstep guns became a thing. As a child of the ‘80s, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon spoke to me directly, but its kitschy neon lustre also faded fast.
The problem is that these kinds of games often invite creative laziness from developers. They’re fun, but there’s no arresting vision. If the code is buggy, well, apparently that just adds to the hilarity. Many of these games circumvent scrutiny by being transparently shallow and meaningless, an unfunny in-joke that everyone already knows. That’s fine, but it’s also uninteresting.
So when developers from 2K Australia started to explain away illogical concepts in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel by saying with a wink, “In the Borderlands universe this makes perfect sense”, that gave me cause for concern.
The Borderlands series has been the perfect counterpoise to gaming’s creep towards dour creative legitimacy. Borderlands 2 was gaming as pure entertainment: witty, energetic, skillfully designed, and smartly packaged. But the universe’s parameters were also clearly defined. Nothing happened in the games just ‘cos.
Happily, my panicked misgivings that the idiot brigade was about to hijack one of my favourite franchises and shoot it out of a confetti cannon into Clown College were entirely unfounded.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is clever. Its plot and Vault Hunter arcs will engage fans of the series, its character design is inspired, and its push towards new gameplay dynamics is applaudable.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is set between Borderlands and Borderlands 2, hence the have-it-both-ways title. It focuses on the rise and fall of Handsome Jack. Players of Borderlands 2 will know Handsome Jack as the game’s font of one-liners and villainy. Here, Jack – not yet handsome – is the hero, a Hyperion employee who has hired four Vault Hunters to reclaim the company’s moonbase after an attack by the rival Dahl Corporation.
2K Australia has capitalised on the unique conditions of the setting to change up the gameplay dynamics established in the first two games. Elpis, Pandora’s moon, has very low gravity and no oxygen, and features much more verticality.
Cover is far less important when players can be suspended above their enemies for seconds at a time, and it means that combat in The Pre-Sequel is less stodgy, and, weirdly, more Borderlands than Borderlands ever has been. To that same end, the importance of iron sights has been minimised and the overall accuracy of weapons has been improved. In short, The Pre-Sequel shoots superbly.
In the event that foes slavishly adhere to cover, 2K Australia has also added a new way to flush them out, a slam that hurtles the Vault Hunter back to the ground to deal area effect damage.
2K Australia has also capitalised on the lack of atmosphere on Elpis, making it an opportunity to explore new ways to play. Vault Hunters have a generous but limited supply of oxygen, which they must use to breathe via a new piece of gear called the Oz kit. They can also expel oxygen in bursts to double-jump in the low atmosphere.
As fire requires oxygen, players with fire elemental weapons can also use it to inflict that particular kind of elemental damage. Players set alight inside Hyperion’s moonbase can even flee to the exterior to douse the debuff. Finally, enemies also have Oz kits, and successfully scoring headshots will pop their oxygen bubbles, leaving them stunned and choking.
The Pre-Sequel star four new Vault Hunters, all of whom have been drawn from the supporting casts of Borderlands and Borderlands 2. The first of these is Athena, who appeared in the Borderlands downloadable add-on The Secret Army of General Knoxx. Athena is an assassin who doesn’t yet know whether she’s good or bad. Her action ability is a shield, which she uses to absorb damage and throw at enemies. Upon impact, it explodes for twice the damage absorbed.
Wilhelm is one of the more interesting of the new Vault Hunters. Borderlands 2 players may recall confronting Wilhelm early on in that title. By then, he’s a Hyperion Loader with a human head attached. In The Pre-Sequel, Wilhelm is a Vault Hunter who is addicted to augmenting himself. One of his skill trees, Cyber Commando, explores this augmentation and as Wilhelm selects skills, his physical appearance changes. His action ability is to call down two drones: one offensive, and one defensive.
In Borderlands 2, Nisha is the Sheriff of Lynchwood, and Handsome Jack’s romantic partner. In The Pre-Sequel, Nisha is a bad cowgirl. The game will explore how she and Jack meet and fell for one another. Nisha’s action ability is Showdown, which is essentially an aimbot. When she hits it, she can’t miss, she fires faster, she reloads faster, and her guns do more damage.
The final Vault Hunter is the robot Claptrap, whom returning players will know as Borderlands’ erstwhile comic relief. Claptrap brings a chaotic element to cooperative gameplay as his own action ability, VaultHunter.exe, usually affects all other Vault Hunters around him. VaultHunter.exe (“currently classified as malware”) is Claptrap’s befuddled interpretation of what Vault Hunter skills might be. When he hits it, one of several things could happen.
Miniontrap is a miniature claptrap that fires missiles in all directions. Another ability spawns rubber ducky rings around all nearby Vault Hunters, making them bounce uncontrollably. It may sound frustrating, but when played right it allows players to slam for massive area damage constantly. Another sees Claptrap turn into a pirate ship and fire cannons to the tune of the 1812 Overture. Nearby Vault Hunters will also be able to spam their grenades. Finally, there’s high-five: if Claptrap calls for a high-five and receives it, the entire party gets a number of buffs. If he’s left hanging, he’ll get buffed himself.
What wasn’t shown in our preview session was how The Pre-Sequel captures Borderlands’ visual and thematic identities. The Borderlands series is about sci-fi pioneers in rickety shantytowns fighting the untamed wilderness on one front and the “civilising” forces of corporations on the other. How that translates to a story about a feud between weapons manufacturers on a moonbase remains to be seen.
Whatever the case, the smart Vault Hunter design, the intriguing, character-driven narrative, and the mixed-up gameplay dynamics are all good reasons to keep a close eye on The Pre-Sequel as it nears its release date.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is coming to Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on October 16.