Borderlands is an exuberant series. From the theatrical size of its characters and their gloriously ham-festooned delivery to the uncountable permutations of weaponry, there’s nothing modest about the world of Pandora. So the decision to call the third full-length game The Pre-Sequel is bewildering. ‘Pre’ is self-deprecating. It’s corollary. It’s less. Pre-Sequel, bluntly, screams stopgap. If the intention was subversion – something else at which Borderlands is normally quite brilliant – it doesn’t come across.
It’s unknown if Gearbox is working on a numbered sequel, but we do know it has handed over the Borderlands 2 development kit and given 2K Australia free rein to make its own game, which is set on Pandora’s moon, for old hardware. 2K Australia’s past work is harder to pin down, the product of its brief and confusing life. It was created in 2007 when 2K’s acquisition and character-sapping rebrand of Irrational generated two new studios: 2K Boston and 2K Australia. It became a subset of 2K Marin during BioShock 2, before re-emerging in 2011 to support Bioshock Infinite. If Irrational died, 2K Australia is a pretty perky fossil.
Studio head Tony Lawrence says his team intends to inject a little local flavour into the hillbilly tones of the series. An Australian-accented Borderlands is something that, for some reason, excites Randy Pitchford, who in recent interviews has even indicated that Borderlands’ future might lie away from Gearbox, and that the studio behind the likes of Duke Nukem Forever is “too creative” to stick to making millions of guns. That said, it’s hard to imagine it giving up creative control – and its pay cheque – until after it brings the series to Xbox One and PS4.
There is cause for fan excitement, though: The Pre-Sequel sounds like a most-wanted brainstorm. It’s the story of Handsome Jack, the pantomime villain who dominated the spotlight in Borderlands 2. He’s a character whose puerile psychosis spirits into existence creatures such as Butt Stallion, a diamond pony too intriguing to not be introduced as a DLC character. Playing as Jack’s four trusted lieutenants, The Pre-Sequel identifies his humanity – at the outset, he’s just a man who loves order – then eliminates it.
This isn’t just a straight-up tale of a morality flip, and all of the characters have their own dark trajectories. We’ve already met another character at the end of his life: Wilhelm, the mostly metal boss who summoned flying help in Borderlands 2. As we see him here, Wilhelm is augmented, but still mainly flesh. His active skill, as an Enforcer, is to summon defensive or offensive drone assistance. And as he progresses along the levelling path, you’ll notice him leaving his species behind. Athena, meanwhile, is a character from the first game’s General Knoxx DLC, a Crimson Lance Assassin who shares some DNA with Zero. But her active skill couldn’t be more different from Zero’s cloak, providing the series’ first shield-based class. Think Titanfall: she combines the catch-and-fire-back Vortex Shield of the Titan with the double-jumping of a Pilot.
Those double-jumps are tied to the moon’s mini-economy of oxygen. Lawrence is keen to distance the resource from a pervasive fear of suffocation, however. “That wouldn’t be fun,” he says. “Fans wouldn’t thank us for that.” Instead, lootable oxygen can be used to fuel glides and double-jumping. Combined with low-G zones, this makes for some old-fashioned Quake-style ballets. The presence of oxygen in an area will also boost the burning effect of the new laser weapons, from the pew-pew beams of Tediore to Malwan’s solid proton-pack blasts.
The second new weapon type, Cryo, adds a freeze-and-shatter process that’s best pictured in conjunction with the butt slam. Performed while floating in the air, it’s identical to a ground pound, with the difference that it has the word ‘butt’ in it.
At some points, what Lawrence feels he can tell us is at odds with what Pitchford feels entitled to say. Is Claptrap in the game? Yes. Is he the fourth playable character, as suggested in a pre-alpha movie clip? No, no, you’re thinking of Fragtrap – a militarised prototype. Then you hear Pitchford gush about the new playable Claptrap, and you realise we’re pretty early in the PR process here, and maybe some people within 2K feel more constrained than others.
So why the decision to confine The Pre-Sequel to older hardware? Lawrence seems beguilingly self-fulfilling when he says it’s a reward for the fans who have made the game such a success on those existing formats. Pitchford notes that Borderlands 2 sold more copies than there are Xbox Ones and PS4s in the wild. Ignoring those people, for now, would be ridiculous. So The Pre-Sequel is an attempt to keep the Borderlands juggernaut in motion without robbing the inevitable Borderlands 3 of its glittering novelty. It’s the stopgap the subtitle suggests, then. But with a proven shooter formula, solid fan service, unanchored vertical low-G chaos and the genesis of Handsome Jack, it seems like precisely the stopgap people want.