Some level of self-awareness has always pervaded Borderland's sense of humor, but the title of the newest game, developed in collaboration between 2K Australia and Gearbox, is the strongest instance of it yet. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! – exclamation and all – is a laughing deflection of whatever criticisms you might have in the quiver. It's not quite as big as Borderlands 2, no. It's not rethinking the franchise. It's the same engine on the same ol' Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC. It's filling in the backstory between games. But, y'know, it's not like Randy Pitchford's been calling it Borderlands 3! (He hasn't, honest.)
I get the sense that fans are still getting more than the game's pre-emptive modesty implies, and that even a basic plan of "more Borderlands" grew into something slightly more ambitious. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel takes players to the low-gravity environment of the moon and the Hyperion space base that's watched over them on Pandora, and it finally lets them see things (and shoot things) as a short, eccentric robot – Claptrap. Claptrap (the Claptrap, Gearbox stresses) is part of a team working for Handsome Jack, the man who eventually becomes the villainous CEO of the Hyperion corporation. He's joined by Athena, an assassin and former member of the Crimson Lance introduced in Borderlands 1, and Wilhelm, one of the first bosses in Borderlands 2. In this game he hasn't yet become a robotic monstrosity, though you'll speed him on his way as you add cybernetic attachments for upgrades throughout the game. Finally, you'll play as Nisha, who appeared as the Sheriff of Lynchwood in Borderlands 2.
Back to Athena, the subject of 2K's first press demonstration of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Her "Gladiator" class positions her as the team's tank and its time-bomb, with a shield that can absorb damage and return it when tossed, Captain America style. The shield can absorb elemental damage from enemies like a sponge and then return that same effect once it's saturated. Its rate of recharge and attack can also be influenced if you taunt the moon's various bandits, robots and gangly creatures as Athena, drawing their attacks to her and counting on the health regeneration abilities in her skill tree.
Each playable character – Athena, Claptrap, Wilhelm and Nisha – will have the expected level of growth and customization (see: more Borderlands), but a couple of game-wide additions change the combat in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. There are new types of energy to harness in the game's bajillion guns, which are now capable of firing different laser bolts and cutting beams, and there's an important substance necessary for survival on the moon's surface: oxygen.
Yes, you now expend a store of oxygen as you wander areas devoid of atmosphere. It works out to about one point of oxygen spent per second, with replenishing "ozkits" and visible bubbles of atmosphere offering relief between long stretches of lunar galavanting. It's like the calming deep reds and blues of Pandora's moon are offset by the stress of imminent asphyxiation – though the new resource isn't just used to threaten you. Your oxygen reserve also powers your double-jump jetpack and a thudding butt-stomp that rains cheeky hell on enemies. If anything, at least Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel can claim to innovate in the first-person stomping space.
You take big, slow strides out on the moon's surface, which introduces physical grace and Blue Danube comedy to shootouts, not to mention the many minion deaths that follow. Aussie-accent midgets hurtle and spin into space when a fatal blow hits, and they panic when you destroy their helmets with a headshot. Oxygen influences them too, and it's important to position yourself within atmospheric enclosures if you rely on elemental weapons that need air to function. These are interesting new decisions for an old hand in Borderlands.
Wrinkles like zero-gravity combat and oxygen management are minor in the grand scheme of things – the grand scheme of things being another co-op adventure in the Borderlands universe – but it's hard to rail against the game when it does just what it says on the tin.
Terrible title in stride, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel seems designed for an audience that can sense the arrival of new shoot-and-loot content before sites like Joystiq have even told them whether it's any good or not. And while I haven't laid my hands on it for a significant amount of time, this fall's game seems like a safe bet for all parties involved. If you want more Borderlands, this is more Borderlands.