2K Games’ Borderlands series—a role-playing/shooter franchise that blends fast-paced gun-blazing with deep character customization and piles of quirky quips—has drawn quite a few fans since its inception in 2007. So it would seem to be a pretty safe bet that game number three, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, wouldn’t go straying into strange territory all that much.
And … it doesn’t.
(Which is not to say the areas older games have already explored aren’t strange.)
Why Jack Gets Jeered
The “anti-star” of the last game, Borderlands 2, was a quip-tossing psychopathic bearing the name Handsome Jack. Gamers chose from one of a group of gifted “Vault Hunters” and worked their way through that game in an effort to stop this sharp-tongued maniac from gaining ultimate power and obliterating everything. (Think a poor man’s Batman vs. the Joker in a Mad Max film, only with bigger guns and much more gore.)
Pre-Sequel jumps back to several years before all that happened, a time when Jack was (slightly) more likeable. He’s more of an egotistically jerky computer programmer at this point, trying to save people living on the Pandorian moon Elpis from a group of marauding soldiers called the Lost Legion.
Those corporation-backed intruders have captured a mega-powerful space base and are using its weapons to attack Elpis. You play as a gun for hire, navigating a series of quirky quests on the moon’s surface while trying to help Jack win the day. And in the end we find out what truly drove Jack so stark-stirring bonkers and made him such a power-hungry horror.
Pick Your Almost-Hero
Let’s face it, though: What really drives these games isn’t the quirky, humor-packed story as much as it is the customizable characters, the boatloads of shoot-’em-up loot they can pick up, and the big bloody bang it all delivers. So most of the “newness” here is relegated to four fresh playable characters.
Athena is a gladiator type whose Aspis shield is her power-it-up focus. That beneficial buckler can ricochet gun blasts back at foes and be thrown with Captain America-like baddie-bashing muscle. Wilhelm is a part human, part android rampager who relies heavily on his flying drones that run bombing raids on nearby villains and heal any wounds he might suffer. Nisha has special upgradable skills that turn her into an unstoppable gunslinging killing machine for short periods. And the clunky robot Claptrap can do everything from tossing a constant barrage of grenades to transforming into a cannon-blazing pirate ship.
Of course Pre-Sequel also gives gamers a new environment to play in. The Elpis moon has no oxygen and very little gravity. So you must plan your movements based on the nearest pocket of breathable air and how high and far you think your leaps through this near-vacuum world can take you.
A Land Without Borders
To “equip” your character, thousands and thousands of possible machine guns, sniper rifles, pistols, shotguns, RPGs and laser weapons can be either discovered or purchased—many with special explosive, freezing, burning or corrosive side effects. They all add up to a frenetic, gory mess in Pre-Sequel, just like they did in the first two games. Nope, no handle jiggling or dial tweaking going on in this area. Whether you aim down your gun sights or blaze away from the hip, enemies screech and scream and do everything from doubling over in blood-spurting pain to, well, exploding into red smeary chunks.
Severed heads tumble, bodies split in half, necks fountain crimson, limbs fly and dead bodies flop like rag dolls in the low-gravity sky. As Jack gets more angry and bloodthirsty, he gets up-close-and-personal in a couple of cutscenes, too—painting one with a victim’s blood and slowly choking out someone in another.
Ultimately, death and killing are deemed fairly inconsequential things in this amoral, gun-to-your-gut world. Jack may state that we’re trying to save the people of Elpis, but one group of corporate-sponsored killers is pretty much the same as every other. And we sure do freeze, blast, chop and dismantle a whole lot of moon base residents in the course of savin’ ’em.
The caustic and giggling dialogue is just as foul as in past Borderlands editions, too. There are crude sexual conversations and allusions (including discussions of rape). And the staccato punctuation of “h—,” “jacka–,” “a–hole,” “b–tard” and “g–d–n” may do just as much damage as the hail of bullets. One talking shotgun, for instance, is a particularly foul-mouthed addition: Every other sentence it blasts out includes at least one f- or s-word (both bleeped). We also hear at least one (again, bleeped) c-word, as well as some Aussie-accented foulness related to female genitalia.
See? Not much at all has really changed in the borderline crazy, boundary-pushing Borderlands franchise.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.