Stupid Computer Things

Sometimes even an old, bald wargamer gets the urge to just sit in front of a computer and blow up stuff for a little while without having to read 24 pages of rules.

I’ve been getting that urge more frequently lately, as my spare time has been compressed by the rigors of 10-year-old-Junior-back-to-school and my evening brainpower has been diminished by basically the same thing. Being the over-aged dad of an under-aged person has been more time and energy consuming that I would have ever imagined.

My mind is pretty much a one-track gadget, or at most a track-and-a-half, so I can typically handle only one computer game at a time. (It takes time to train this old brain on all of the buttons, twitches, and tactics.) For the past year or thereabouts, my go-to game for virtual mayhem has been Borderlands 2 — a combo shooter/RPG with eye-catching cell-shaded artwork, some excellent writing, and a lot of wry humor.

A few weeks back I bought the follow-up game, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, on a Steam sale for cheap. I cleared some disk space on my creaky old computer and installed it a week or so ago, and it’s diverting serious time away from my Borderlands 2 play. As a quick note, I’ve beaten BL2 twice with two different characters — but I still haven’t managed to explore anywhere near all of the game’s content.

Roaming around Elpis in a moon buggy.

Roaming around Elpis in a moon buggy.

As a stand-alone game, in the hands of somebody completely unfamiliar with the Borderlands franchise, The Pre-Sequel (TPS) would still be a worthwhile gaming experience. All of the systems BL2 players love — destruction, loot, humor, more loot — are included in TPS. But TPS has a special sort of ‘insider’ appeal for players of BL2. The playable characters in TPS are, for the most part, characters you encounter as villains in Borderlands 2. Since I haven’t finished the game yet, I can’t comment on the story arc that leads to their ‘conversion’, but it’s an interesting setup for the game.

My first character in TPS is an Enforcer named Wilhelm. He has some mad combat buffs, a few cybernetic implants, and his Action Skill lets him toss out a couple of drones: Saint, which regenerates his health, and Wolf, which attacks bad guys with blasts of shock-y, laser-y looking stuff. In Borderlands 2, players encounter Wilhelm as a completely robot-ified Hyperion ultra-badass who deploys multiple repair and attack drones.

The Gunslinger Nisha is another playable character in TPS. She’s encountered in Borderlands 2 as the boss-level Sheriff of Lynchwood and, purportedly, Handsome Jack’s girlfriend. A third playable is the iconic robot Claptrap, source of much weirdness in BL2. DLC add-ons let you play as a Handsome Jack doppelganger and as The Baroness, sister to BL2′s Sir Hammerlock — a character mash-up of Bear Grylls and Harry Flashman.

Yep. As in Borderlands 2, the scoundrel Handsome Jack sits at the center of the story in The Pre-Sequel. The game is set in a time just before Jack embarks on his dream journey to completely rule Pandora — he hasn’t yet become Hyperion’s president-by-murder — so he’s less of a villain in this one, and more of a… hmmm. Something unique, perhaps. An “anti-protaganist”? He’s the central patron in TPS, but he’s still too much of a self-centered, under-handed, scheming jackass to warrant any kind of positive description. You know at some point he’s going to stab everybody in the back, but still you go along for the ride because it’s fun.

And it’s funny. While the comedic dialog and satire aren’t as in-your-face as they are in BL2, The Pre-Sequel still has plenty of the franchise’s signature humor. After someday finishing the game as Wilhelm, I may try a second trip through as Claptrap just to see if his skill trees are as downright goofy as they appear on the surface.

After logging quite a few hours in BL2, gameplay in TPS seems very familiar. There’s a new class of weapons to keep up with — lasers — but that just means more stuff to shoot with. The biggest mechanical adjustment for me was coping with the new environment, a Pandoran moon named Elpis. It has lighter gravity and no atmosphere (although quite a few locations have artificial atmosphere). So I’m still working on figuring out all of the tricks associated with bigger jumps and the limitations imposed by the personal O2 systems used outside of locations where you can breathe.

At Level 8, through the game’s first few ‘chapters’, Wilhelm has yet to be killed by the badguys — although he has managed to die 4 times. The environment can be positively deadly. He died once when his Moon Buggy didn’t quite get far enough on a ramp jump and splashed into lava. Another death was a mis-timed jump for a mission item that ended in more lava. The third was me not paying attention in combat and backing up over a cliff into… lava. The fourth death was an experiment with the new ‘crash’ attack that landed on a corrosive barrel I didn’t see, which then exploded and reduced poor Wilhelm to a puddle of green goo.

Harsh moon.

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