Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Review (PlayStation 3)
The third entry in a video game series often acts as a turning point; for some series, it marks the beginning of innovation and refinement, taking what worked about the previous two games and bringing them together in an exciting new way. For other series, however, entry number three is where things all start to feel the same, where the weaknesses feel a bit more grating, and the fun parts aren't quite so fun.
Set after the events of Borderlands, but before the events of Borderlands 2, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel has players in the boots of one of four previously established characters as they team up with a pre-handsome Handsome Jack to stop a seemingly psychotic woman from blowing up Pandora's highly-populated moon, Elpis. As is par for the series, BL: PS's story has just enough meat on it to satisfy, but mostly contends itself with meandering around to introduce you to the wild characters populating the planetoid. BL:PS's writing is one of the few things about this sequel that still feels fresh, with wild characters like Janey Springs and Pickle adding a nice bit of color to quests which, at this point, feel as stale as skag meat.
The biggest problem here is that Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel brings very few innovations to the series' formula. You'll get quests, drive vehicles, shoot bad guys, get shiny loot, and repeat. The things which worked about the previous games still work marvelously, and the things which were somewhat annoying have only gotten worse with age, because, like its predecessors, BL: PS seems all too eager to waste your time. Many quests give you dull, unskilled tasks like bringing item A to person B or throwing switch C, especially during the first several hours of the game. Once you get further into the story and start getting quests which have you doing more actual adventuring, transportation becomes the issue. Elpis' zones tend to be huge, and require vehicles to traverse. While roaming lunar wastelands in a buggy packed full of your heavily-armed friends is fun for a little while, by the third or fourth time you careen into hidden lava and have to respawn because of the poor level layouts and driving mechanics, or spend a full minute locked in combat with obnoxious space bats, you'll find yourself wishing you could just teleport to your quest area instead of having to roam around so much. Vehicular combat just isn't that fun, and since you don't get to use the special guns or abilities you earn over the course of the game while in a vehicle, it's all pretty much the same no matter how far into the game you are. While other open-world games let players teleport to waypoints to get them into the good stuff more quickly, BL: PS pads its playtime by making you hoof it far too often.
Despite these flaws, however, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel does have glorious moments of shining, insane fun. Standard ground combat is a great time, with enemies coming at you with a variety of angles thanks to Elpis' special gravity. Since it is a moon, naturally the gravity's a bit lower, so players and enemies alike can make huge, bounding leaps to traverse the lunar landscape, giving you the kind of aerial maneuverability you'd normally need a jetpack for. When you combine these massive double-jumps with the destructive new "butt slam" ability each character has, suddenly what was traditionally a two-dimensional fighting style moves into the third dimension, giving battles a fresh feeling the previous games were lacking.
Getting loot is, as always, awesome, and Borderlands' 867 bazillion guns have only gotten more refined and fun to use over time; expect far fewer stinkers in your inventory than previous games. Plus, there's the addition of The Grinder, a machine which grinds three items of similar type and rarity together to create something stronger, so even if the local shops aren't selling anything you want, your scavenged junk could end up yielding something quite nice, keeping that drive to hunt for treasure going strong.
The new playable characters all bring some great flavor with them. Athena does her best Captain America impression with her shield defense/attacks, often giving her the feeling of being an unstoppable bastion of destruction. Nisha's rapid-firing Showdown ability is great for players who like to clear an entire room before the enemies even know what's happening. Wilhelm's mechanical companions act as typical RPG combat pets and are perhaps the least interesting of all the player abilities. Claptrap, on the other hand, is a wild bundle of chaos wrapped in a robotic square yellow package. Claptrap's ability is actually a randomly-chosen mishmash of other abilities, so you never quite know what you're going to get. The first time you use it you may summon a tiny flaming Claptrap to rain death on your foes, another may transform you into a rubberized bouncing 'bot. Claptrap's chaotic nature goes a long way towards keeping things varied and fun, making him stand out as, at the very least, the most unusual character you can play as.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel's problem isn't that it's not fun— it is. If you pick it up you'll probably have a blast, and will overall look back on it fondly. Its problem is that it's too content to repeat what previous games have done, for better or for worse. Great loot, three-dimensional combat, and fun player abilities all add up to making Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel really shine when it's at its best. Its bland quest objectives, transportation issues, and the now-outdated skill tree system, however, drag what could have been a stellar sequel down into feeling more like an earthly expansion pack.
This review was based on a purchased digital copy of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel for PlayStation 3.