Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is absolute madness, even when you play it in the right language.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a little bit like how I imagine having synesthesia to be. The screen is full of rapidly shifting colours and a cacophony of noise assaults you non-stop. Your hands are shifting over the keys in familiar patterns and yet the chaos of stimulus does not cease; it just keeps on and on, communicating nothing.
Personally, I quite like that.
I’ve played the Pre-Sequel at two hands-on press events now and both times it was overwhelming; to be honest, I think it made somewhat more sense when I was playing it in Japanese. “Unless you can speak Japanese…” A PR manager said. “I can speak a little,” I replied. “But mainly I speak Borderlands.”
Borderlands isn’t supposed to make sense. I mean, it does make sense; it’s a shooter with a loot cycle and distinct class variations supporting quite diverse build customisation. There is a story line. The larger-than-life characters fit together in ways that, with the advent of the Pre-Sequel’s plot hole-filling, are narratively neat (the bits that aren’t neat, that continue to nag questions in the mind, are awaiting answers).
I’m pretty good at Borderlands, I guess. I played a lot of the second one, solo and co-op, and it ticks a lot of my buttons. One of the things I like about it is how colourful it is – both aesthetically and narratively. We’re long past the years when every shooter was a drab, grey WWII sim, but it’s still a blessed relief to play something that not only decks itself out like a peacock and refuses to take itself seriously, but positively glories in its weirdness.
That tone doesn’t appeal to everyone; I’ve heard complaints that the humour is forced or cynical. It’s a subjective thing. If you do like Borderlands, you will like The Pre-Sequel. It’s not more of the same – it’s more of the same, turned up to 11, passed through a filter that left it with a distinct Australian tang.
“It’s a blessed relief to play something that not only decks itself out like a peacock and refuses to take itself seriously, but positively glories in its weirdness.”
Sitting down to play The Pre-Sequel you have to make several adjustments. The first is to don a pair of sunglasses to help you process the incredible neon glare of the moon base. The second is to learn to cope with the double jumping and oxygen management systems – one of the few instances where a game bothers consistently to implement mechanics to match a science fiction setting, without imposing annoying strictures.
The third adjustment is to the two new weapon types – Cryo, which is an element, and Laser, which joins the ranks of assault rifle, handgun and so on. Gearbox kindly populates press previews with ridiculously high-powered weapons, which is like letting me loose in a candy store the day after science cures the common carbohydrate. One of the ones I’ve had my sticky paws on was a Cryo sniper; you shoot them and then they hold still and you headshot them. Ideally you’re supposed to freeze a guy and switch to another type of weapon, ala the chronologically as yet uninvented Slag of Borderlands 2, but – sniper rifle! That freezes guys! So you can headshot them! Never put it down. Laser weapons are – well. If you thought there wasn’t enough light and noise going on, and wanted to introduce a bit more while frying someone’s face off, hooray for you.
After that, it’s time to cope with the enemies, which have gotten smarter and fiercer. Not only do Dahl legionaries boast new tools like healing guns and vacuum generators, they have the same double jump abilities you do, and know how to use it. Shooting off their oxygen masks is some small compensation. Beyond the human enemies, there’s the new wildlife, including the one that turns into two more of itself every time you kill it (whyyyyyyyyy) and the huge big Cthulian monstrosities that spam you with little flappy things.
Just when you think you’ve got a handle on all that, along with the jumping moon bikes and laser-equipped moon buggies, someone joins your party as Claptrap.
So Claptrap is another of those divisive things that people either love or hate, although I guess loving to hate is also pretty acceptable. How you cope with having Claptrap in your party, or playing as Claptrap yourself, will be a point on which friendships turn.
The thing about Claptrap is, he’s like Borderlands boiled down to its essential essence: he’s hilarious in a way that grates on some people; he comes out with little quips which seem funny but sometimes have a tinge of pathos in them; and his main contribution to the battlefield is to make it as confusing and challenging as possible.
“How you cope with having Claptrap in your party, or playing as Claptrap yourself, will be a point on which friendships turn”
Claptrap’s special skill, VaultHunter.exe is a perfect example. It gets Claptrap out of trouble, but it also randomly selects a gameplay modifier which it applies to the whole party. Like, every bullet you fires uses up but does all the damage of the entire magazine. Or, your guns just won’t stop firing. Or, you can only use melee attacks. Sometimes this turns Claptrap into a pirate ship or a disco ball, for some reason.
One of Claptrap’s skill trees is the sort of thing you want to leave to quite advanced players who can keep their cool in the unrelenting sensual assault that is a typical Pre-Sequel play session. It grants ever-declining stacks of buffs to one particular bit of Claptrap’s arsenal – assault rifles, say, or elemental damage – and hugely nerfs everything else. While the stack is active (and there are ways to deplete or refill stacks), there’s little point using anything else.
Let’s paint a picture: you and three buddies are in the middle of a boss fight with some sort of grimly healthy soldier type. Waves of allies keep pouring in from all directions, and since they can double jump, I really mean every direction. You’re constantly being sucked over to one side of the arena, and you need to keep ducking back to the other to restore your oxygen so you can butt-slam grunts (and continue breathing), but one of your colleagues keeps spamming an electric attack, so the oxygen supply flickers on and off. The three of you are screaming. The game is screaming, and it’s screaming in an Australian accent and intermittently accusing you of homophobia. The whole screen is a churning morass of lasers, robot punches, grenades and rockets.
In the middle of all this, one of the guys on your team refuses to use anything but a sniper rifle, even though there are no decent sightlines on the map. He’s trundling around like a unicycle shooting from the hip (well, the Claptrap equivalent of hips) firing off these slow but powerful shots and missing all the time.
“For fuck’s sake Claptrap!” you might say. “Do something useful!”
So Claptrap sets off VaultHunter.exe.
A disco ball appears. Your gun begins firing wildly of its own volition.
The party wipes.
Disclosure: Brenna shares house with a 2K Games employee. He almost never answers her emails and she makes him do the dishes.