E3 2014: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Preview: That deep shooter-RPG came from the moon

Ready or not, there’s more dubstep coming: Gearbox is back with a new installment in the Borderlands franchise, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. With this new entry returns a lot of the same fun features from the first two games and a few new mechanics that add to that fast-paced, loot-collecting co-op shooter experience that we all love. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel had a strong presence at E3, including a giant moon-dome and a ton of demo stations for trying out two of the new characters: Athena the Gladiator and Wilhelm the Enforcer. If my brief time with the game any indication, finding out how Borderlands 2’s villain, Handsome Jack, came to power in the Hyperion Corporation will absolutely be worth your time and money.

Let’s start off with the fact that you are on Pandora’s moon, which means low gravity. This enables a couple mechanics not seen in the first two games, the first being a double jump. Some places in the first two games were fun to get to through clever glitching. Now you have what is essentially a double jump, and it’s very much needed for navigating the game’s environments. I was initially lost when I started the demo–the terrain was unfamiliar and I was ignorant to the fact that I could even double jump. Eventually, I found my way to a ledge that overlooked the next area, and I soon figured out that a double jump was needed to progress. As the level went on I also noticed that chests and extra loot were often placed on ledges, encouraging players to use increased mobility for exploration. I like this interplay of instances where a double jump is needed balanced with creative, optional platforming. It’s less of a gimmick for the way it’s smoothly integrated into both direct story play and side excursions.

The second moon-centric mechanic was the ground pound ability. When you are in midair, you can hit the crouch button to perform a damaging ground pound, a neat feature that, in conjunction with a certain weapon type I’ll discuss later, can open devastating combos. The ground pound works as an area-of-effect attack, so any enemy within range of the impact suffers damage and slight knockback.

The character I played as was Athena, a shield-bearing maiden with, consistent to Borderlands design, three available skill trees. Her unique active skill involved using her shield to absorb gunfire directed at her, finishing with a shield throw that deals damage based on the damage absorbed. Fellow PSU writer Will Robinson also played as Athena, but chose the tree Xiphos, which has an ability that applies a damage-over-time bleed effect through melee attacks–except this bleed effect also heals you. I, on the other hand, picked the tree Phalanx, which focused on having your shield “Aspis” out as much as possible. Certain tiers in this tree allowed you to regenerate health, do extra damage with melee attacks, absorb elemental damage before throwing it back, taunt enemies into attacking you (increasing your gun damage per aggressor), and more. This breadth of character diversity and RPG customization is astonishing–and that’s only character, and only two of her three skill trees.

We also got to try a couple new weapon types; namely, Laser and Cryo weapons. Cryo did exactly as it sounds; it froze things solid, which worked very well with the ground pound attack. You can freeze an enemy and then ground pound or melee to shatter that enemy into floating pieces. I noted that the demo’s difficulty was pretty low, so I expect that some enemies will resist the freezing effect, merely being slowed by cryo shots. As for the laser weapons, I kept coming back to thinking of Ghostbusters–one gun I carried felt like firing a proton pack with a constant stream of laser. It was fun to use and certainly cool to look at, but it didn’t seem as useful as the cryo weapons from a tactical standpoint.

As self-professed Borderlands fans, it’s little surprise that Will and I enjoyed Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel so much, but I was surprised by the extent Gearbox Software has been able to deepen the already impressive RPG-inspired combat. With a slew of new features, weapon types, and skills, alongside four new characters and more of that awesome Handsome Jack, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel will be available October 14, 2014. After hands-on time at E3, it’s among my most-anticipated games of the year.