Friday, 6 February 2015

Borderlands the Pre-Sequel | review by Howard Watts

Borderlands the Pre-Sequel sits chronologically between the original Borderlands game and Borderlands 2. The developers (2K Australia) have managed to write a fairly convincing partner to the first two games, even though their appointment caused some concern within the gaming community. Many players and journos alike feared the move from 2K’s Texas outfit to 2K Australia was perhaps a cost cutting move that would impact quality and continuity. Others commented the Texans had perhaps farmed the pre-sequel out, as they didn’t want to be associated with it, for whatever reason or reasons undisclosed, or had other projects to develop of more importance. Let’s be fair, considering the huge sales generated by the first two games and their various DLC, it was all too obvious BTPS wouldn’t sit on the virtual shelves of pre-order retailers.

I couldn’t wait for its release, having watched a few trailers on YouTube. The thought of playing in a low gravity environment, blasting away at space-suited adversaries, was a huge attraction to me – not only from a gaming POV, but also from an SF gaming perspective in general. Lasers! They have laser guns! Sadly, eviscerating an opponent is not on the cards, slicing off limbs and or even halving opponents cannot be done. This was a little disappointing, as I really enjoyed corroding a shoulder joint to which a bot’s gun arm was attached in Borderlands 2, a wonderful way of disarming (if you’ll pardon the pun) bot combatants.

More of the game play and my expectations later. For now, a brief overview of the story.

BTPS shoehorns itself into the overall Borderlands mythos. A great deal of thought has gone into expanding the plot, character origins and motivations from the first game, working these up so they segue (almost) seamlessly into Borderlands 2. If you’re a fan of the first two games, some of the explanations given here for various characters’ behaviour and origins will make you smile, nod in recognition or gasp, “Oh, so that’s why so and so did such and such, that makes sense now, brilliant!” For the most part, these explanations work, others are a little contrived and feel forced, as if the shoehorn doesn’t match the size of the foot or the shape of the shoe. Yes, amid the frenetic combat there are moments of sheer brilliance as we play our way up towards the events of the superb B2, but sometimes it’s impossible not to groan and wonder “WTF?” Furthermore, a few key characters from B1 and B2 are noticeably absent from this outta space outing, three or four of which I must admit are my favourites, and are sadly missed along with their backstories. There are instances mentioned in B2 that, at the time of playing the game, I wished I could witness, and that these are sadly not seen during BTPS is a drop the ball moment for 2K. This aside, there are many more new characters added to this saga, again, some effective, others cardboard walk-ons serving to further your main and side quests, or simply get in the way.

Essentially, this is Jack’s story, how he came to be handsome, and absolutely crazy. This is worked up perfectly, and we can feel Jack’s determination to achieve his goals as he slowly grows into a psychotic madman before us. Voice acting is wonderful, you really can feel for the character as time and again he loses it in the face of stupidity. Familiar faces from B1 and B2 witness this, and you’ll be surprised at the original relationships between these characters. But again, I cannot help feeling something is missing here. Perhaps it’s all to do with the sheer number of characters from the previous games – impossible to cater for them all? I don’t know, and I don’t think 2K did either – obviously there’s a point where you have to (as a developer) say “No more, enough is enough there’s no more room.” This is where the problem lies I think, there’s just too much “story” to figure out from the previous outings, and then make it all work in such a short game. Okay, prequels seem to be in vogue at the moment, but releasing the second part of a (now) trilogy is a momentous task in any genre. BTPS has a lovely narrative from familiar voices, but be warned, playing the story missions only to complete the game will remove these comments and observations once the story is complete – leaving you with a gap in the soundscape as you play the side missions.

From a technical POV, the game looks identical to B2, all the inventory screen layouts exactly the same – so it’s an easy task to just jump from playing B2 to BTPS. There have been a few tweaks – you can now order weapons by value which is cool when it comes to selling off unwanted items, but usually the rare items enjoy the highest value anyway. These games have always been about the millions of weapons, shields, grenades the game code generates, and this game is no different. In fact, it builds upon the first two games by adding freeze and laser weapons. The former can be great fun, freezing an enemy and them hitting them so they shatter into tiny pieces. But to be fair, this does become a little tiresome after a while as it’s all about the guns. When you’re running around the lunar surface you have to keep an eye on your oxygen level, but killing an adversary causes them to drop oxygen canisters, and this, along with patches of terrain that vent oxygen for you to replenish your tank, means this “threat” quickly becomes a “meh” moment of little consequence.

There’s a neat new machine called the Grinder. It allows you (after much trial and error) to place three weapons into the machine and “grind” them together – essentially combining their attributes and receiving a new weapon of higher ability in exchange. This is great fun, and the same technique can be used for shields and grenades. However, nine times out of ten the machine informs you your three offered weapons cannot be ground together – it seems to be a bit hit and miss and frustrating. Couple this with the machine moaning at you to hurry up just as you scroll through your inventory for suitable objects to grind, and it all gets irritating quite rapidly. Bloody annoying #1. Unfortunately, the game is not without its playability problems. It feels a little “heavy” with the controller, not as smooth as B2, not as fluid. I have made numerous kills while in “Fight for your life” mode that have gone undetected, thus ending my life when it should have been saved. I’ve had a few collision detection problems where a shot has not registered even though it was clearly on target. On one occasion I stepped out of my vehicle to land beneath the actual floor level, unable to jump to another area – essentially “glitching out”. There’s also a noticeable lag to some places, the frame rate dropping off causing all kinds of combat problems – bloody annoying #2.

Saying this, the game is, well, a game – and it’s a great deal of fun! Perhaps some missions and areas are a little too much fun rather than serious, considering the storyline, as it certainly has an Australian humorous edge or flavour. If you’re familiar with Australian humour, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Strictly Ballroom and Bad Boy Bubba spring to mind here as cinematic examples of how off the wall this humour can be – sometimes hitting the mark, other times way off target. At times the Australian influence is repetitive and irritating, as character after character fall into parody (even the oxygen canister’s label, originally to be marked as “O2” is explained in the story as being printed badly, making the label appear to read “0Z” – ouch!). Sure, it was made in Australia – my wife’s favourite country in the world, having lived and worked there for just over a year – yeah why shouldn’t they introduce a little of their culture into the game? But even my wife raised a critical eyebrow at the Australian archetypes inhabiting Pandora’s moon, Elpis. You have the drunk, talking gibberish about billabongs and fair dinkum, cobber, and you begin to believe that Elpis is somehow representing a NuAustralia, a kind of new world in space. Other characters are equally annoying, and this aspect distracts from the overall Borderlands experience we’re so used to. There’s the little cockney kid that speaks in cockney rhyming slang – although he doesn’t, because after he’s spoken the slang he drops in the actual word the slang refers to. “Mind the apples and pears, stairs, mister.” I was expecting him to mention Mary Poppins at some stage. Pointless and bloody annoying #3. Another character points the finger at colonialism – the intrepid upper crust Englishman replete with handlebar moustache and monocle, staking a claim on Pandora’s moon on behalf of the king. As the player, all you have to do is hoist the flag and protect him as he salutes it, humming along to a national anthem, and fetch a broom to support his arm as he grows tired saluting. A comment along the lines of “Why do they all sound Australian?” from one of the familiar narrator characters that pops into the soundscape now and again for a critical or amusing comment would have taken the edge of this – but hey, Mr Torgue still has a few amusing and bleeped out lines, and thank goodness for him.

From a visual standpoint the game’s various environments are beautifully rendered. One level in particular took my breath – a huge space station partly completed. It was wonderful to jump around this place, assisted by jump pads – small illuminated chevrons that boost your jump height and distance from one area to another. Exteriors are extremely colourful and boast a plethora of interesting natural plants, objects and indigenous life forms. There are a few hidden areas that provide tough bosses – these are essential as they allow you to farm upgraded loot, again, essential to complete the entire story mission, but somehow the majority of these areas seem truncated compared to B2.

The game took me two weeks to complete – playing a couple of hours perhaps four or five days a week. I’m now on my second play through, but have capped my level out at 50, so completing the remaining missions will not afford any more experience points and therefore upgrades. I’m certain there will be a downloadable upgrade allowing you to play other areas and gain more XP, much in the same way B2 did some time ago, but for now – I find it pointless to continue playing. BTPS’s length sits between its predecessors, being a little longer than B1, but much shorter than B2. So perhaps this is the issue for me, as replaying the missions still so fresh in my memory and for no reward other than doing so seems somewhat pointless.

If you’re a Borderlands vet, you’ll have to play this – that’s a given. But I think you’ll soon tire of it during the second play though as it’s very tough and unforgiving – glitches aside – although there are another three characters to play (four if you include the Handsome Jack add-on available for purchase) to keep you busy and feeling as though you have value for money. Today I found my mind wandering as I played, and loaded up B2. The difference between the two played back to back is startling.

If you’re not familiar with the Borderlands games, then for heaven’s sake buy number 1 first, then number 2, and when you’ve completed them and their add-ons, BTPS will probably be available for around a fiver, representing excellent value for money.

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