I'm walking around E3 looking for boxes with little green lights on them. This fever dream is what I get for daring to take on both of the new Borderlands games back-to-back during E3. Both 2K's Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and Telltale Game's story-centric Tales from the Borderlands are on display at the show, and both launch by the end of this year.
How did I feel after eating a double helping of Borderlands? A bit empty, to be honest.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
When it comes to canon, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel takes place between the original Borderlands and Borderlands 2. After fans fell in love with the villain of Borderlands 2, the egomaniacal Handsome Jack, Gearbox and 2K sought a way to incorporate him into another game. The result: This prequel, which chronicles some of Jack's earlier activities.
"More Borderlands" is the most succinct way to describe the Pre-Sequel. There's no "polite" way to put it: The Pre-Sequel is a stopgap game before we receive the inevitable Borderlands 3. It's the Batman: Arkham Origins to Rocksteady's Arkham Knight. It's Borderland's Assassin's Creed: Revelations. It's, in other words, the game you make because you know it'll bring in money while your A-team works on the real sequel.
And it will make money, because people love Borderlands, and as I said, this is simply more Borderlands. Except with lasers. On the moon.
Yes, on the moon. When you jump, your character floats through the air like a rhinoceros tossed into low gravity. It's probably the stand-out feature of the new game, allowing for more verticality than previous titles.
Once again the developers have wiped the playable cast, bringing in four new vault hunters. During my demo I briefly played as both Athena, who uses a shield to block damage, and Wilhelm, who uses a pair of drones to deal damage and heal himself. I fell in love with Wilhelm immediately, as his drones most resembled the best Borderlands character of all time, fan-favorite Mordecai, who used his bird Bloodwing to attack enemies.
The similarities don't end with Wilhelm. The Pre-Sequel as I saw it in the demo was nothing but Borderlands in a new location--same UI, same feel to the guns, same (though reskinned) enemies, same look to much of the environment. It feels more like an enormous expansion pack.
That's not a bad thing, if you're a Borderlands fan. You're there for the loot, and Borderlands ups the available arsenal with a whole new class of laser weapons. You're there for the quirky characters, and those are certainly here in spades. You're there to open a lot of tiny, green-lit boxes, and in that case you'll probably die and go to heaven--I reached box overload only two minutes into my demo.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is not a bad-looking game by any means. It's merely uninspiring. I walked away from my demo feeling a bit empty--there was no feature I wanted to rush home and talk about, no character I cared about, no amazing story I wanted to tell. It's another Borderlands game, and as someone who'd tired of the franchise's schtick by the mid-point of Borderlands 2, I'm not terribly excited to get on that merry-go-round again, especially for a game that's filler instead of a proper next-gen Borderlands.
On that note, I do want to raise some concerns about platforms. The game is coming only to PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. I don't know how the final product will turn out, but I'm going to assume the PC version is the one to get. There's still some time for optimization, but I think the demo I saw was running on an Xbox, and boy did it stutter. During especially chaotic firefights the framerate plummeted consistently. A bit of stutter isn't uncommon in pre-release demos, but it would be enough to give me pause before preordering--there's a reason we've left those old machines behind.
Hit the next page for my impressions of Tales from the Borderlands. Does the Borderlands universe mesh well with Telltale Games' vaunted story-telling chops?
Tales from the Borderlands
Away from the bustle of the E3 show floor I saw a demo for a much different Borderlands game: Telltale's upcoming adventure game Tales from the Borderlands. Yes, an story-first adventure game a la The Walking Dead or Wolf Among Us--this is Telltale doing what it does best, and "what Telltale does best" does not include first-person shooters.
Tales from the Borderlands attempts to take the franchise's silly-but-consistent lore and transform it into a meaningful, character-driven story. There are two protagonists driving the action: arrogant Hyperion company man Rhys and sardonic grifter Fiona.
The demo we watched (no hands-on yet) followed Rhys primarily, as he attempted to purchase a Vault Key on the surface of Pandora. Only at the end did we get a brief glimpse of Fiona's story.
It...doesn't really matter. Telltale seems convinced that underneath all the meme humor, the silly voices, and the midgets, there's a legitimately poignant story to explore in the Borderlands universe. Hell, Gearbox believes this too.
I don't buy it, and maybe that's my own failing. I've never found anything that resonated in the Borderlands universe, though--it's too obsessed with keeping the pace moving, with hitting that next joke before you've stopped paying attention. It's loud and flashy and (luckily) tied to a fairly addictive loot system.
While Telltale's game cribs elements of Borderlands--you'll have loot, a wallet, and for some baffling reason still have to walk around opening green-lit boxes--it lives and dies on its story. What I saw was occasionally funny, but not what I've come to expect from the studio so known for its writing. Rhys is a bland and vain character, at least in this first act and in the dialogue options we were shown. He could've died at the end of the first section and I wouldn't have cared. I felt like I barely knew him. Like most Borderlands characters, he's more caricature than character.
Contrast that with the opening act of Wolf Among Us, when a simple conversation between Bigby and Toad gave you a full idea of who these characters were and got you invested in your Bigby. Five minutes into The Walking Dead we already knew Lee Everett was a complicated man with a murky background.
And so, again, Tales from the Borderlands just feels like more Borderlands. It's not a shooter, and not even made by the same studio, but it's plagued by the same base problems as the core series. Borderlands is a solid loot system tied to serviceably humorous writing to draw you through the content, but I'm still not convinced the universe has enough legs to support a story-based Telltale adventure game. Or any story-based game, for that matter.