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Preview: Borderlands The Pre-Sequel is a low-gravity ballet of combat

In space, no one can hear Claptrap whine. Or can they?

Players will be able to test that theory come fall 2014, when Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel ditches the planet Pandora in favor of its airless moon, Elpis. It’s the same moon that hung heavy in the sky throughout Borderlands 2, positioned just behind the villainous Handsome Jack’s H-shaped Hyperion base. It was a tempting MacGuffin — Borderlands in space! — that remained forever out of reach… until now, with the combined efforts of 2K Australia and franchise creator Gearbox Software bringing The Pre-Sequel to PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 this fall.

Story/Concept

Borderlands 1.5. The Pre-Sequel gives the player an opportunity to see how Handsome Jack came to be after spending so many hours waging a private war against him in Borderlands 2. Who is the man behind the mask? What is it that made him so evil? Where the heck did he get his diamond pony, Butt Stallion? We know Jack as a sadistic monster, but he wasn’t always like that. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel explores his origins, as seen through the eyes of the four new playable characters.

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The rogues’ gallery. The Pre-Sequel‘s four new playable characters have all appeared at some point in past Borderlands games (or DLC). It’s not clear what brings them together or why they’re fighting to help Handsome Jack, but this isn’t a crew that those versed in the series lore would necessarily expect to see teamed up. 

  • Athena, the Gladiator: A former Crimson Lance assassin who appeared in the first game’s The Secret Armory of General Knoxx DLC. This was the main character featured in the demo. Athena’s action skill is the Kinect Aspis, a buckler shield that blocks damage and can be thrown at enemies like a discus. We got a brief glimpse of her Phalanx skill tree, which focuses on tanking and healing. The top-level skill — Wrath of the Goddess — causes her thrown shield to ricochet between multiple enemies.
  • Wilhelm, the Enforcer: Wilhelm was the first major boss in Borderlands 2, appearing in the older game as Handsome Jack’s towering robot henchman. He’s much more man-like in The Pre-Sequel, though he apparently starts to look less and less human as you level him up in the coming game.
  • Nisha, the Lawbringer: She first popped up in Borderlands 2 as the Sheriff of Lynchwood. Little is known about Nisha’s history. She is, or will be, Jack’s lover, and at some point she helped him capture Brick, one of the first game’s playable Vault Hunters.
  • Claptrap, the Fragtrap: Just to be clear… this is the Claptrap. The sadsack Hyperion robot that’s been a constant in both games and every DLC release. He’s like Borderlands’ whinier, more talkative take on R2-D2.

The events of The Pre-Sequel are meant to set up where each of these characters end up by the time Borderlands 2 starts. You’ll learn why Claptrap was living out in the frozen wastes, all alone. What led Jack to give Nisha control over the Lynchwood region of Pandora. How Wilhelm came to be a towering Hyperion loafer half-breed. And Athena… well… she doesn’t appear in Borderlands 2, and there’s a reason for that.

Gameplay

Catching air. There are plenty of interior locations to be explored in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, both the facilities on the surface of Elpis and the giant Hyperion station that looms larger than ever in the sky, but all of it is connected by a series of airless outdoor environments. Characters bound around on the moon’s surface in short hops, while the low gravity makes for slow, arcing jumps that cover a considerable distance.

Your air supply — tracked in a new gauge located just below the health and shield bars — is a constant concern when you’re wandering around outside, though you’re able to upgrade it using new Oz Kits. It’s a new piece of equipment with its own gear slot, just like shields and class mods. As with all other loot in Borderlands, Oz Kits come with various stat adjustments and are color-coded by rarity. You refill your air supply by collecting a new, blue-colored pickup that some downed enemies drop or by stepping into an oxygen-rich environment.

Air isn’t just for breathing in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. It’s always draining at a slow rate whenever you’re outside, but you can also “spend” your air on jump jets that give you an extra boost when you’re aloft. This is useful for crossing wide gaps, but the enhanced mobility also promises to add an element of verticality to The Pre-Sequel‘s combat. 

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A larger billion-strong arsenal. It’s not a Borderlands game without a bajillion guns to collect, and The Pre-Sequel grows the familiar arsenal with a few new additions. Laser weapons come in a variety of forms, from Star Wars-style blasters to sustained-fire beams. There’s also a new elemental effect enhancing certain weapons: Cryo. Nothing complicated here. Enemies hit by Cryo-enabled weapons suffer from a movement speed penalty in addition to regular damage. They’ll even freeze solid under sustained fire, which gives a huge damage bonus and can eventually shatter the target (if it doesn’t thaw out first).

Borderlands. In. Spaaaaaace. Fighting across the surface of Elpis mixes up the flow of Borderlands’ arena-driven combat quite a bit. The low-gravity environment plays a big role in that, since you’ve got so much more hang time on your jumps than you have before. Firefights turn into a riotously graceful ballet of death as characters and enemies alike swoop around. There’s also a new Mario-style ground pound maneuver that you can use by crouching when you’re mid-jump. It’s more than just a new attack for your arsenal; you’ll also use it to get to safety quickly when you start to draw fire during a long jump.

The lack of air also creates some new opportunities. You need to breathe, sure, but so do your enemies. Score a headshot and you’ll puncture their mask, stunning them briefly. It’s not an insta-kill, since the magic of Borderlands’ sci-fi technology simply Digistructs a replacement helmet onto their heads, but it’s an effective new tactic that opens a window for dishing out some extra damage. 

Presentation

Moon unit. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel may see a new developer introducing a new setting, but it’s still immediately identifiable as a Borderlands game. With the exception of the new air gauge and a few other small additions that inform the game’s new take on Badass Ranks – no details on that yet — the HUD is identical to what we’ve seen in the past two games. The real shift, as you might expect, comes from the setting.

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The outdoor portions of Elpis that we saw are wildly different than anything we’ve seen previously on Pandora. It’s very gray, with towering mountains looming large over deep valleys. There appears to be some volcanic activity — at one point during the demo, the characters made air jet-assisted leaps across a yawning lava pit — but there’s not a whole lot of color on the surface of the moon, based on what we saw.

That’s not to say The Pre-Sequel is visually boring. There’s an austere beauty to Elpis itself, and the lifeless environment is dotted with an assortment of structures. There’s also the H-shaped Hyperion base, which consumes a huge chunk of the sky. In combat, the slow dance of death is broken up by hilarious moments of ragdoll glory as the combination of low gravity and explosives send downed enemies rocketing off into deep space.

Takeaway

It’s always hard to sit down and talk about a game that you’ve looked at without playing, but this is Borderlands. If you’ve ever played anything in the series before, you know how this one works. As much as Elpis promises to introduce some new gameplay possibilities, the basic flow of the action in the demo we saw is immediately familiar. 2K Australia wisely opted against reinventing any of the series’ core mechanics, and that means we’ve got a shiny new lootin’-and-shootin’ good time heading our way.

Look for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel on PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 in fall 2014.