Saturday, March 26, 2016

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

Making a sequel to a game as huge as Borderlands 2 can be difficult. It would need to have massive amounts of new stuff and innovation to justify its existence as an actual new game rather than a lazy recycle of old assets. Thus a third game in the series remains to be seen yet -- at least one with a 3 in its title.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel was born from the need to visit the untouched Helios moonbase. Since it would have been boring to go there after the conflict in BL2 had been resolved, the developers decided to try something different -- a game that would take place between the previous Borderlands games, ie. a "pre-sequel". It would also allow them to address plot elements that lead to the second game.

Gearbox Software, who made BL1 and 2, took part in the development, but most of the game was done by 2K Australia instead. Gearbox's CEO, Randy Pitchford, suggested making TPS could be a breakout role for the Australian studio. However, that was not to be the case -- they were shut down 8 months after the game's release. Though I think that was probably not because of TPS's reception, which was maybe a bit lukewarm but still positive.

2K Australia's work shows at least in the writing. Some of the attempted jokes and references are clearly Australian, and maybe some of the new characters speak with an Aussie accent. Unfortunately none of them are interesting, some downright annoying. I got really irritated at listening to Pickle's voice, for instance, and Tassiter mocks you constantly while your character remains mostly silent, barely saying anything back.

A large part of the dialogue is simply uninteresting and I would have liked to skip much of it. I do not think that to be the right way to make a player feel. Also bleeping out swearing is a stupid. I think in BL2 there was some but not always. In my opinion a better option would be to avoid profanities or use alternative expressions instead. Those fucking bleeps get on my nerves.

Not all is wrong in the writing, however. The only positive point in my notes (which I have started making again) is in fact about the writing, and, more specifically, the story-arc of the character known as Jack. Maybe the Gearbox's writers (like Anthony Burch), who took part in the writing, made that happen. (A tiny bonus were also the unique NPC lines you get for playing as different characters.)

Now at first Jack was not as great as in Borderlands 2. While his character was recognizable, he was not the amazingly evil Handsome Jack I knew. He was maybe slightly inconsiderate and rude, but still appeared to be on a legitimate hero's quest. Later on his callous side started showing more and I was again on the edge about his true nature. However, I am not sure BL2's truly evil Jack would have happened without the events of The Pre-Sequel.

The feeling of being betrayed is a terrible one. Jack first experiences it when the Meriff tries to shoot him in the back. He is truly shocked by it and how he later spaces the four Hyperion engineers, shows how great lengths he is willing to go to avoid experiencing it again. This brutal act of course makes Lilith and Co. to start opposing him but I think that with their actions they partly caused Jack to become what he did by making him feel betrayed again. Lilith even puts the icing on the cake at the end of the game by siren-punching him in the face. After that Jack is completely filled with hatred.

The player character cast is again a new one. I started as Nisha but switched to Athena as it seemed the flashback bits and commentaries were told from her perspective, and I thought I might get a better connection to the story. With hindsight, I would say it did not matter that much, although it is bit weird to have Athena comment your "party's" actions when she was/is not even there.

Playing as Nisha would have also granted a not as boring active skill. Athena's Kinetic Aspis -- a throwable shield that blocks and absorbs damage -- seemed dull based merely on its description and in practice turned out to be just that. Then I made the mistake of trying to progress down the melee tree, Xiphos, because the final talent, Blood Rush, seemed like a promisingly fun charge skill. Evidently Blood Rush is mandatory if you want to play as melee Athena and without it you will not have fun. At level 16 I finally gave up on trying to get there and respecced to the elemental tree, Ceraunic Storm.

The game got a lot more pleasant after that. I however question the design of the Storm Weaving talent you have to fully take on the first tier. Swapping your weapon every 9 seconds for a buff seems like very contrived game design. Playing optimally gets really hectic (which is not necessarily bad) when you also need to watch out for the 12-second cooldown of Smite, and 15-second cooldown of Hades' Shackles.

While dying in combat got more infrequent after the respec, there were still plenty of frustration received from falling into instant death. The surface of Elpis (Pandora's Moon), where most of the game takes place, is scattered with lava. And falling into it is quite easy if you cannot stop your vehicle in time or misjudge your jump and have already spent your air boost.

The Pre-Sequel's confusing map design does not help in that matter either. I even accidentally discovered a Super Mario easter egg area while desperately trying to find my way back to a claptrap quest giver I had talked to earlier in an endgame area. The maps do not vary as much in visuals as they did in BL2, either, though they are equally colorful.

For breathing purposes the new oxygen mechanic seemed like a very bad idea at first. How fun would a looter shooter be with such a survival mechanic. I guess the developers had considered that because it is not a real problem. Dying to suffocation in BL:TPS is very hard. Enemies in vacuum drop air canisters when dying and there are plenty of spots where air streams out of the ground. One time I did get pretty close but the health damage, you receive after oxygen has run out, seems to get very minor when the health bar is nearing its end.

Cryo element replaces slag in this game. I had wondered why it had not been a thing before. It seemed to work even better than slag had by being useful on its own. I guess it has no effect on bosses, though. Another one of the new new features are the laser guns that first seemed clumsy like launchers. I did find them useful in the elemental spec later on, though.

The SHiFT code feature, introduced in BL2, is in TPS, too. The box did not like to give me what I wanted as easily this time, though -- elemental SMGs seemed a lot harder to come by. Regardless, it is not a feature I would put in a game. Especially if it gives items in a game where getting items is so important.

Also, even though Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel runs on the very same engine as Borderlands 2, GFE did not suggest super-sampling for it. (On what does that software even base its suggestions?) But I upped the rendering resolution myself and got the same performance. After I had again turned down PhysX, of course. (Which went up to Ultra this time.)

Now that I am done with the main series, I am somewhat tempted by Tales from the Borderlands. But point-and-click is not really my thing, and I am not that hungry for more Borderlands. I wonder if Gearbox will ever decide to make the third game...

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