Review | 10/13/2014 at 8:01 AM

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Co-Op Review

Let's be bad guys.

Back in 1955, Jackie Gleason made a promise to the world: "One of these days", he said, "BANG, ZOOM! Straight to the moon!" Nearly 60 years later, we're shot out of a cargo cannon from a giant space station to a fictional moon orbiting a fictional planet in a video game. We also get to fire lasers at space squid, freeze armored bugs, and butt-stomp until we regret skipping leg day. Mission accomplished, Jackie!

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is the third game in the main Borderlands series. The story takes place between events of Borderlands 1 and Borderlands 2, making it a prequel to the sequel, hence the name. That hyphenated title also neatly explains the gameplay experience. It's not the next big Borderlands, it's an evolved Borderlands 2 with enough extras to give it walky legs of its own. Call it Borderlands in Space, call it a super-glorified Borderlands 2 DLC, but we're going to call it a solid and satisfying game with the best co-op of the series.

If you played Borderlands 2, you already know how Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is going to look and feel. The menus are the same, the animations are the same, the little vwoo sound when a window opens is the same, and so on. We won't re-review the identical underpinnings of Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Instead, we're going to do something much more geeky: introduce the new features, then start nitpicking!

The story in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is framed in a flashback told by Athena, one of the new playable characters. She's being questioned by Lilith and the other heroes from the first game, and boy does she have a tale to tell, one that involves giant robot armies, AI girlfriends, a mad woman named Zarpedon, and maybe an alien that can kill you with its brain. The vault has already been opened and General Knoxx is dead, but Handsome Jack has yet to become the evil daughter-torturing madman we know him to be. This creates a comfy space to tell the story of Jack's rise to power and his subsequent fall into corruption. It also allows us to technically be the bad guys, in a way.

Now, about those new characters. Athena, Wilhelm, Nisha and Claptrap were NPCs in previous Borderlands games, but for Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel they're classed-out and ready for action. One of the first things you'll notice in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is that the newbies have a much wider variety of skills than the characters from previous games. It isn't as easy to drop them into neat little categories, such as Roland as a soldier or Salvador as a guy who really really likes guns. Instead, you get four characters whose skill trees allow tweaking to suit your playing style. You're never locked into one particular battle strategy or weapon type.

As a sample experiment, let's take the kill-happy Wilhelm and make him a little more team friendly. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is packed with abilities that boost other players, which is why we were all "the best co-op of the series" up above. Wilhelm has two flying drones he uses in battle: one that heals (Saint) and one that attacks (Wolf). Saint only heals Wilhelm, but there are abilities you can activate that buff your teammates' shields or create health regen zones everyone can use when Saint leaves play. You still get the bulk of the benefits no matter what you do, but suddenly the guy with a death piston for an arm is a contributing member of a team.

A nice side effect of the customizable skillsets is that ability costs have been reduced. By the time you reach level 50, you can comfortably reach terminal skills in two separate trees. You won't be able to max everything out on both of them, but it means you don't have to specialize nearly as much as in previous games.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel takes place on Pandora's moon Elpis, named after the ancient Greek personification of hope, the last item left in Pandora's box once everything else escaped. Moons aren't known for an abundance of gravity or atmosphere, which very neatly creates a foundation for fundamental changes in how Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is played.

For anyone who isn't a robot, keeping a constant supply of oxygen is important for staying alive. Science has a clever solution to the whole breathing in a vacuum: Oz bubbles. Oz bubbles provide a limited supply of O2 that can be refilled by walking over air vents, picking up oxygen canisters from fallen enemies, or by stepping into atmosphere bubbles generated by special machines. Oxygen depletes at a steady rate in a vacuum, and once it runs out, you start losing health.

Since you're walking around with a portable air supply, might as well use it for things other than breathing. Double jumps are now a thing in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Sacrifice a bit of O2 and you can leap longer distances and gain extra height with stationary hops. Exploration is a lot more fun when you've got a built-in jetpack. Oxygen can also be used to revive fallen comrades faster than normal. It's pretty costly to use this method, but if there's a fresh supply of O2 nearby, your teammates will appreciate the expedited service.

Keeping an eye on your oxygen meter doesn't require that much attention. As long as you aren't jetting around like a flying squirrel, you'll find the naturally occurring air pockets to be more than enough to keep you comfortable. If you just have to have more, you can always hunt down a different Oz kit. Like shields and class mods, Oz kits can be found or purchased throughout Elpis and equipped to give your stats a tweak. Everything from O2 maximums to mid-air ability buffs are tied to these kits, making them a nice addition to the equipment screen.

Another thing Oz kits play into is the ground pound, a.k.a. the butt-slam, a.k.a. the gravity-assisted rapidly descending aerial impact maneuver (for when you're showing off at parties). This new move seems a little awkward at first, as it isn't easy to hit enemies that never stand still. Once you get the hang of pounding, you and your buddies will be hopping around like thwomps in a swimming pool. Ground pounds also come in elemental varieties and are great for fighting groups of weak enemies with area of effect attacks. Swarm of bugs in the way? Hop and slam!

Even though they look otherworldly, many of the creatures who inhabit Elpis are similar to those on Pandora. You'll find analogues to things like skags, spiderants and rakks, but there are also moon-equipped bandits, psychos, badasses and midgets. Humanoid enemies have O2 bubbles of their own and love to jet around the sky, which can be frustrating when you're itching for a ground pound kill. Or, you know, any kind of kill. Aerial combat was always clumsy in Borderlands, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel makes that situation a little worse with the increase in airborne combat. There are a few abilities that help contend with flying foes, but for the most part you'll just have to run around with an eye in the sky, hoping your accuracy score is enough to hit that tiny hovering target pecking at your shield.

With new enemies comes new weapons. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel adds two new categories of guns to the mix: lasers and cryo. Lasers are their own type of gun that come in several different shooty varieties, such as the Star Wars-style blasters and Ghostbusters-style wave zappers. (We tried crossing the streams. Nothing special happens.) The cryo element is Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel' interpretation of ice. When the attack connects it freezes enemies solid, allowing you to walk up and melee/butt-slam them to pieces. This plays surprisingly well with the rhythm of combat, and it's especially effective in co-op. Nothing says teamwork like freezing the badass who's about to decapitate your best friend.

And now for the nitpicking!

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is built on a Borderlands 2 frame, meaning everything from badass ranks to the storage bank is still around. The list of added features is just the right size for a pseudo-sequel, so the game has enough new-bait to attract seasoned players with the rich smell of co-op looting. Despite the butt-slams, laser weapons and oxygen meters, though, you'll still encounter some moments when the game feels a little too much like its predecessor. Missions that don't take place on the moon are especially bad, as ground pounds and Oz attacks are practically gone. This doesn't detract from the game as a whole, but it does dull that feeling of freshness you get when diving into a brand new game. Sometimes you have to remind yourself this isn't Borderlands 2.

The writing in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a notch above Borderlands 2. Ask around and you'll discover I wasn't a fan of the labored, puerile humor that dominated the second game. Borderlands doesn't have to be a best-selling novel, but it doesn't have to sound like a 13 year old's Tumblr account, either. 2K Australia brought in some of their own talent to help script the pre-sequel, and their efforts definitely show. One of the more noticeable changes is how Australian the dialogue feels, something you wouldn't expect is possible from a sci-fi shooter on a moon. From the jokes to the slang to some of the names (it's Moon Zoomy, not Catch-A-Ride), it's obvious this game came from down under.

Along with the writing comes a plenty of spoken dialogue for the playable characters. A few reaction lines and idle comments was pretty much all the characters had to say in previous Borderlands games. Now they practically have entire conversations with NPCs, making the storytelling a lot less one-sided. Amazingly, their personalities hold up to this extra attention, even the lovable failure Claptrap and his pathetic attempts at not being pathetic.

Having to track oxygen levels seems like it would be an enormous pain in the rear. In practice, it's balanced well enough to not pose much of a problem. There are some annoying moments when you're out exploring in the vacuum and start running out of air. Those put a damper on the Borderlands "yay let's go climb on top of things to look for loot chests!" spirit. You can't go quite as far or stay out quite as long, but that's somewhat mitigated by the fact that you can actually climb higher and jump further than before.

Speaking of loot chests, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel seems to suffer from a shortage of hidden booty. Level design has been tweaked to accommodate more vertical layouts, but hopping between rooftops doesn't yield much more than a few nice views of the scenery. It's only a slight step down from Borderlands 2, which itself was a step down from the original game. Or maybe everything's just hidden better and we're terrible at hide and seek?

Now for the big question: did Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel add enough to make it a distinct product? The answer is... yes. Take the new features in with the subtle tweaks and suddenly Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel has a style all its own. It still shares plenty of core elements with its predecessor, but just because two people have the same skeleton, internal organs and cheesy haircut doesn't mean they're the same person. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is Borderlands 2's close cousin. They grew up together, built blanket forts and tree houses together, but then Pre-Sequel went to high school on the moon. Now they're back together and have rediscovered why they got along so well in the first place. Feel free to invite Pre-Sequel over for dinner even though you've had Borderlands 2 over every Thursday for the past two years. They'll tell some of the same stories, but Pre-Sequel learned several neat tricks on the moon and has plenty of its own stories to share.

The Co-Optimus Review of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was supplied by the publisher.