Review: Borderlands: The Handsome Collection

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In this time of re-releases, Borderlands: The Handsome Collection is extra-special: it contains the oldest last- on current-gen game, 2012’s Borderlands 2, alongside the newest — Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, released just five months ago.

Five months ago.

The games were both released in recent history, so they easily transition to current-gen years (or months) later. If you’re thinking of buying the bundle, it’s most likely because you’ve yet to play Borderlands; rather, that should be the only reason. With that in mind, let’s break the games down.

Back in 2009, Gearbox Software’s original Borderlands was a surprise hit. Branded as a ‘role-playing shooter,’ it blended traditional shooter gameplay with RPG elements, in the form of quests, item inventory… and loot. Oh, so much loot. After four DLC packs for the original title and much waiting, we finally have the game’s sequel, Borderlands 2 in hand. Let me just say, the wait was worth every second.

Here’s the story so far – with SPOILERS, if you are coming into the franchise fresh. In Borderlands, you played as one of four Vault Hunters on the planet Pandora, heading off into the wilds of the planet in search of the fabled Vault, said to be filled to the brim with treasure. You fight your way through bandits, monsters, armies and whatever else Pandora can throw at you, only to find the Vault wasn’t so much full of treasure as tentacle death-monster. Coming into Borderlands 2 five years later, it turns out the opening of the Vault triggered the introduction of a priceless and rare mineral called Eridium to the planet, which everyone wants to get their hands on. The enigmatic Handsome Jack of the Hyperion Corporation has come to town to claim as much of it as he can, and hunt down ANOTHER Vault, said to be hidden deep within the planet. And to make it clear, Handsome Jack’s not a great guy. The original four Vault Hunters have been engaged in a bitter war against him, trying to protect Pandora from complete takeover.

The storyline of Borderlands 2 is definitely deeper and more well-rounded than its predecessor, with some twists and turns you honestly won’t see coming. The world of Pandora has been expanded on and given more backstory and variety, without sacrificing any of the delicious low-brow humour that made the first game great. This is thanks in large part to the game’s story being written by new Gearbox addition Anthony Burch, who some may know as the Anthony of web series “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?”, which maintains a similar oddball style of humour to the games (Fun fact: His sister Ash also voices the character of Tiny Tina, one of my favourite NPCs).

Not only has the story been deepened, it’s also received a makeover as far as delivery goes. Instead of almost all story being told in mission text boxes or radio messages, the game makes a concerted effort to have both cutscenes and in-game dialogues to help flesh each mission and event out. One of the best mechanics here is that if you wander off from an in-game cutscene it will seamlessly transition to radio chat so you don’t miss anything. This is a blessing, as every dialogue is jam-packed with truly funny lines that you’d be losing a big part of the game experience if you missed them. And the pop culture references, they’re everywhere! From themed weapons and character skins, to jokes and dialogue references, environmental stuff.. So much to see. Yes, there’s even an ‘arrow in the knee’ joke in there, so keep an eye out.

Gameplay-wise, Borderlands 2 is a case of ‘the same, but more’. Your four choices of new player characters are each a sort of evolution of the first game’s four options. Axton the Commando is Roland 2.0 with his 360-degree deployable turret, Maya the Siren’s new Phaselock ability lets you isolate an enemy to cause massive damage not unlike Lillith’s Phasewalk did, Zer0 the Assassin is a step up from Mordecai as the sniper-styled character, and Salvador the Gunzerker is a new heavy-hitter to fill the shoes of Brick, who was more melee-oriented.Each of these characters feel different in a way that they’re familiar but still fresh, and you won’t feel that you’re playing as one of the first game’s characters with a different coat of paint.

You’ll still be running around in first-person mode shooting at things, upgrading your way through your character’s skill trees and racking up experience points, but these mechanics have all been expanded on. You’ll have to budget out your skill points as only one of the three proffered final-tier abilities can be obtained, but you can ‘re-roll’ at any time and reassign all your points – this seems to be more affordable than it was in the first game, too. The importance of elemental weapons has really taken centre-stage this time around too – in the first game it was more useful for a bit of flavour, but here in Borderlands 2 you will be seriously disadvantaging yourself if you don’t play to their strengths.

Fire weapons will melt fleshy characters, corrosive weapons make short work of armoured or robotic enemies, shocking weapons make a meal of shields, and explosive weapons are good for bypassing some enemies’ resistances. A new addition is the Slag element, which will weaken an enemy to all kinds of damage besides Slag – very handy for taking down bosses and ‘Badass’ enemies. Each of these elements can be found both in weapon and scattered-barrels form, meaning the stock standard exploding barrels play a much more useful role here.

In addition to your skill trees, your characters can earn ‘Badass Tokens’ for completing various challenges in-game. These can range from killing x number of a particular enemy, to racking up headshots, to letting an enemy power up to its strongest form before taking it down. Once earned, Badass Tokens can be redeemed for a large selection of stat boosts – maximum health, gun damage, shield recharge, elemental effect chance… the list goes on. These boosts are cumulative and each rank taken out improves the stat by a small increment, but here’s the kicker: they’re shared across all your characters. Say you manage to rack up a +20% reload speed in your play-through as Axton? Well, when you start a brand-new game playing through as Zer0, he’ll have that same boost from the beginning. If he improves that boost to +35% in his game, it translates back to Axton too. These Badass Tokens are said to be infinite, meaning you could potentially increase your stats forever.

This isn’t the only element of cross-playthrough gameplay either. Early in the game you’ll be given access to a storage locker that can share items between characters, allowing you to transfer weapons and class mods to your other characters. This is handy as I’d often find in Borderlands 1 that I’d find a powerful mod for another character type and have no choice but to sell it.

On the topic of multiple characters, multiplayer in Borderlands 2 is as good as ever. Allowing both local splitscreen and online co-op, you can drop in and out of your friends’ games as you like to help them out or power-level them if you’re ahead of them (or to hoard all the loot they find). I played online co-op with our very own Dave and it was a pretty smooth ride, despite the level gap between us. One new addition that many gamers will be happy to see is the ability to have your 2-player splitscreen game ALSO do online co-op, up to the maximum four players. This kind of functionality seems like a no-brainer, but is often conspicuously absent in modern games.

Gunwise, Borderlands 2 has taken a step in the direction of variety. Where weapons in the first title tended to look samey, each of the weapon brands now have a distinct look and feel to set them apart. Jakobs guns have an old-timey flavour and can often shoot as fast as you can pull the trigger, whilst Tediore weapons are often very flashy and futuristic, and when reloaded are thrown and explode like a grenade. The variety of the weapons beyond this is impressive, with the range of possible combinations seemingly endless. I’ve had pistols that shoot flame-grenade bullets, sniper rifles that shoot three bullets at once, the ever-present shotgun-with-a-sniper-scope, a bouncing Slag-grenade mod, and many more. You’ll once again find yourself hunting down every weapons chest for something new and exciting, then holding on to that one cool gun way beyond its point of usefulness anyway.

Graphically, the game has retained its trademark cel-shaded style, but the quality has been dialled up. Environments are much more detailed and varied, compared to the brown-a-palooza of the original. You’ll go from icy wastelands to the tundra, massive freighters and border towns, all working together to expand the world of Pandora. PC players get the good treatment here too, as we’ve been told that any computer that could run Borderlands 1 should still be able to run Borderlands 2, thanks to the scaleable graphics. Even then there’s nifty PC-exclusive NVIDIA PhysX effects which do nothing but make the game even MORE attractive. I’m left a little jealous as I stuck to my PS3 for this title. Likewise, the sound design is strong without interfering with gameplay, and is uniquely built for each area.

This leads us to Borderlands: The Pre-sequel. Taking place between the events of Borderlands 1 and 2, The Pre-Sequel tells the story of the Borderlands 2 main antagonist Handsome Jack and his rise to power. Once again a range of new vault hunters are available to play as with each of them having their own unique skill tree of abilities. Where the original games have been set on the planet of Pandora, this one takes you to its Moon known as Elpis and the Hyperion space station called Helios. This is where you’ll spent all your time adventuring, either running it solo or jumping into co-op with some of your friends.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel plays relatively the same as Borderlands 2; there aren’t really a huge amount of changes, so most of it will be very familiar for those who have played before. You’ll go from mission to mission completing tasks and earning rewards, and along the way you’ll get bucketloads of loot to deck out your character with, alongside crazy weapons that each have unique properties. One of the biggest changes that you’ll find is the way you’ll maneuverer around the environment; gravity plays a bigger role now that you’re jumping around a moon, so it’s a lot floatier than the past games in the series.

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Because of this there is a bit more verticality when you’re shooting enemies, and the added functionality of the butt-slam mechanic, which allows you to jump high into the air and stomp down causing some devastation to the area.This also factors into their oxygen mechanic which means you need O2 — or Oz kits as they call them — to replenish your air levels.

You can also find special pockets of air, activate oxygen generators, go inside buildings or similar to achieve the same recharge. While it does introduce some cool new mechanics into the series, I still have a few problems that I’m conflicted with. Borderlands has always been about having stupid amounts of fun in stupid ways, but managing an air meter the entire game is not fun. The O2 meter depletes as you use gravity abilities or just walk outside of the atmosphere, once it has run out you start losing health until you die. At a certain point though several hours into the game this penalty starts to negate itself because I found that I was generating more health than I was losing from the lack of oxygen; there’s even an achievement for surviving 5 minutes without air. It just doesn’t seem to be sure of itself. There were even instances where I would be in low gravity and find myself opening up a box of loot or killing an enemy, only to have all the loot quickly fly off into space because… well, because its funny? Maybe the first time, but not 30 hours in.

The environments in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel are a little disappointing. They suffer from the same problem the original Borderlands game had where everything was very brown. Because, in this case, you’re dealing with being mainly isolated on a moon or space station, you’re left with this pallet of soft whites and blues — a lot of lighter colours. It would have been nice to have a lot more variety as you feel like you’re looking at the same textures hour after hour. Over on the old generation of consoles like the PlayStation 3, the game engine might be starting to show its age a little but because it is so heavily stylised, it definitely isn’t too distracting. It’s not until you fire it up Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel on the PC that you really see some significant differences. With being able to make a lot of changes to the graphical options in the game to your liking; including additional settings like Nvidia’s exclusive PhysX effects – it ends up looking very nice running on a decent PC rig.

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One of the aspects I’ve always liked about the Borderlands series was its writing; each game really seemed to find its footing and begin to shine in the original Borderlands DLC “The Secret Armory of General Knoxx”. The writing quality is still great this time around and Gearbox and 2K have injected a whole bunch of Aussie into what is definitely the most Australian video game I’ve ever played. The majority of characters on this moon are Australian, with their accents ranging from the extremes you would find in a terrible American film to the subtle accent that many of us in this country are used to. Along with a lot of the characters the missions are also sprinkled with cultural references, some of which may fly over the top of heads in other countries.

Over in the weapons department there have been some minor changes to the bazillion guns on offer with freakin’ lasers being added into the mix. Much like the other weapons in the game there are variations on the laser depending on what type of manufacture the gun is made from. Also being dropped in is a cryo elemental effect which can freeze enemies solid in their tracks. This elemental effect in combination with a butt-stomp can clear away foes quite quickly allowing you mix up your combat strategy a little.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a great addition to the series but it does feels more like a very big DLC game because it doesn’t bring in anything substantially new. Where it does pay off however is the humour in the writing and the story arc for the main antagonist – it is amazingly fleshed out to where you see this interesting character transition throughout the course of the game. But in the end there’s loads of content packed in and you’ll have a lot of fun smashing your way through the missions while we all wait for the next act in the Borderlands series to make an appearance.

You may have noticed our review of The Handsome Collection was mostly just our reviews of Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel copied and pasted together. If 2K and Gearbox can do it, why can’t we?

Borderlands: The Handsome Collection was reviewed using a retail Xbox One copy of the game provided by 2K Games.

 

Review: Borderlands: The Handsome Collection
7 out of 10

The good

  • Great value if you’ve never played the Borderlands games before.
  • DLC’s included too.

The bad

  • The same games you played in 2012 and FIVE MONTHS AGO.

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