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Borderlands: The Handsome Collection

Score: 100%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
Media: Download/1
Players: 1 - 4 (Local and Online)
Genre: First Person Shooter/ RPG/ Online


Graphics & Sound:

At this rate, thereís going to be a backlash against the growing trend of games from previous generations being brought to the new generation of consoles. But look on the bright side: at least the games receiving this treatment are usually damn good. Borderlands: The Handsome Collection is perhaps the best re-release package to hit the gaming scene since The Orange Box. Itís absolutely stuffed with content, and just about all of it is excellent.

"Handsome," it says. "Handsome," it is. Borderlands: The Handsome Collection brings two of the most visually striking experiences of the last five years, polishes them up to gorgeous 1080p, and increases the frame rate to a buttery smooth 60 frames per second (well mostly, anway), and the results, while not much different from playing the games on a high-end PC, are nevertheless pleasing. Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! are two very attractive games; between the cel-shaded visuals, the over-the-top graphic violence, the hip, clean interface, and the diverse collection of varied alien landscapes, thereís a lot to appreciate. Despite the impression that Borderlands may have given you, the world of Pandora isnít entirely made of garbage. Itís got temperate zones, frigid tundras, and even tropical getaways. Pandoraís moon Elpis (on which nearly all of The Pre-Sequel! takes place) isn't quite as varied for obvious reasons, but still manages to squeeze in some creativity here and there.

The same can be said about the sound. Jesper Kydís work can go from slide guitar riffs to electronic ambience to even dubstep at the drop of a hat, and itís completely in keeping with the anarchy of the series as a whole. Voice work deserves special mention; I donít know if Iíve ever played a series of games that has so thoroughly convinced me that all of its voice talent had an absolute blast during production. Much has been said of Dameon Clarkeís performance as despotic Hyperion CEO Handsome Jack and Ashly Burchís turn as the adorably psychotic Tiny Tina, and all of the praise is richly deserved. There arenít as many memorable characters in The Pre-Sequel!, but the fact that nearly everyone in it has an Aussie accent is cleverly lampshaded at times. I suppose that moving the action to the Pandoran moon Elpis adds some narrative justification, as well.


Gameplay:

If you havenít played a Borderlands game yet, I have two things to say to you. First, shame on you. Second, itís essentially Diablo if it was a first person shooter Ė and had a wicked sense of humor. It features many similar elements, but comes across as entirely its own beast. Formula-wise, it bears much in common with other games of its type: travel the world killing monsters, earning experience, finding loot of increasing rarity and power, taking on side missions in a series of hub worlds. It might seem samey after a while, but this genre is viewed as something of a comfort food to many of its fans. Itís almost always enjoyable, and itís a great palate-cleanser to return to time and again, mainly because thereís just so much to do.

You donít need to have played Borderlands in order to enjoy Borderlands 2; when compared to the sequel, the original had only the slightest indication of any storytelling ambition. It really was just a means to an end; an excuse to get out there and participate in Mad Max-style bloody anarchy. But both of the games in Borderlands: The Handsome Collection feature stories that are easy to appreciate. On their own, theyíre not much more than standard science fiction action comedy fare, but the exceptional writing (spearheaded by Anthony Burch) elevates it above its more conventional narrative trappings. Itís the story of four Vault Hunters and their quest to rid the outlaw world of Pandora of the threat posed by the psychopathic and megalomaniacal Hyperion Corporation CEO Handsome Jack. On the way, youíll come across a cast of varied and interesting characters, all of which have something seriously, seriously wrong with them in some way.

Youíd be more readily forgiven for having missed out on Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! than for missing out on Borderlands 2, since that game not only came out more recently, but also on last-gen hardware. But now itís here on Xbox One, and we no longer have an excuse. This interquelís story is presented in a framing device; former Atlas assassin Athena is captured, brought to Sanctuary, and interrogated by Lilith, Mordecai, and Brick. Her tale chronicles the rise of a lowly Hyperion programmer named Jack, and the individuals who ultimately helped him become the genocidal maniac known as Handsome Jack. The story isnít quite as memorable, well-written, or funny as that in Borderlands 2, and the mission design isnít as solid. That being said, itís still absolutely worth playing, thanks to the environments, fresh gameplay dynamics, and vastly improved loot system.

Borderlands: The Handsome Collection is just that: a collection. Nobody could call two games a "collection" and get away with it, but this game can, thanks to its inclusion of all of the downloadable content from Borderlands 2. These sidestories vary in quality, but their mere presence here enriches the overall experience and further cements it as a release that is simply stuffed with quality content.


Difficulty:

Both of the games in Borderlands: The Handsome Collection have their share of difficulty spikes, though any inordinate amount of grinding and loot farming should mitigate them to the point of irrelevance. If this is your first time playing, however, youíll run into some spikes here and there. But punishment in these games never feels severe, and youíll never feel like youíve completely wasted your time. But, of course, having a good eye for each enemyís critical spots and elemental weaknesses will certainly give you an edge.

Borderlands: The Handsome Collection hearkens back to the days when cranking up the difficulty level carried more rewards than the simple nerd cred that comes with conquering the challenges. Once you finish a playthrough, you unlock True Vault Hunter Mode, which comes with it more challenging enemies and more substantial rewards. Finish that, and you unlock Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode. As you work your way through these modes, you must simultaneously diversify your arsenal and mix up your strategies. If you donít exploit your enemiesí weaknesses while minimizing your own, youíre going to sink a lot of your money into Hyperionís respawning service, which always costs 7% of your current bankroll. Itís not too punishing, however; money isnít as useful as it is in other action RPGs. The best gear is almost always found in the field.


Game Mechanics:

Nothing has changed about Borderlands 2 or Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! in transition, and Gearbox Software has graciously given us the option to import our characters from last-gen. Iíve written extensively about Borderlands 2, so if you want all of my opinions from those reviews, they still stand. But since Borderlands: The Handsome Collection served as my introduction to The Pre-Sequel!, I have much more to say about that game.

First, letís talk classes. Each character in both of the games comes equipped with an action skill and three distinct skill trees. As you earn experience and level up your character, you earn points which can be slotted into a number of abilities, both passive and active. Some of these characters have more entertaining and effective action skills than others, but each has their own distinct way to contribute to the effort. On top of the four primary characters in each game, there are two additions: in Borderlands 2 we have Gaige the Mechromancer and Krieg the Psycho, and The Pre-Sequel! includes the Baroness Aurelia Hammerlock and Jack. Yes, that Jack, only a doppelgšnger. These are great additions to the already diverse selection of customizable classes.

Weíll start with the not-so-great. Vehicles are one thing that Borderlands games have never really gotten right. Even the tiniest of obstacles can knock most of the vehicles off course, breaking up the otherwise decent sense of speed. Most of them arenít much fun to drive, with a dishonorable mention to The Pre-Sequel!ís Moon Buggy, whose hyper sensitive steering and zero tolerance policy for bumps in the road make it an option to be avoided whenever possible. But with that wrong comes a major right: the Stingray is perhaps the most enjoyable vehicle in the series. This one-seat hovercraft glides around with ease, and is capable of boosting into the air Ė and then slamming back onto the ground. At its best, it feels like a pogo stick for killers.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! introduces a number of new mechanics, and theyíre all wonderfully welcome additions that really shake up the core gameplay, which has stood the test of time. Elpisí reduced gravity and lack of atmosphere results in new maneuvers and possible combat tactics.

Jumping now sends you soaring gracefully through the air, though the animation work on airborne player characters is sadly non-existent. The increased verticality comes with more than just expanded mobility options, however; should you find yourself directly above an enemy, a button press will send you crashing down to the lunar surface for an area-of-effect attack.

Oxygen is a foreign element on the surface of Elpis, so youíll have to manage your supply while youíre blasting scavengers and the local wildlife. Youíll be given an O2 kit at the beginning of the game (here affectionately referred to as an "Oz" kit), which slowly drains while in the vacuum. You can sacrifice some of your oxygen to speed up your movement in mid-air, and youíll probably do that quite often, given that there are plenty of ways to replenish your reserves and, quite frankly, it drains so slowly that anyone who actually manages to asphyxiate their character deserves to pay the New-U fees. Rules may not be regarded very respectfully in this universe, but basic chemistry applies: fire elemental effects donít work unless youíre in an oxygen-rich environment.

My absolute favorite addition in The Pre-Sequel! is the Grinder, which takes the seriesí already superb loot system and somehow makes it even better. Put in three weapons, get one out. Itís that simple. You can improve your chances of getting something awesome by adding in some of your hard-earned Moonstones. Thereís a small risk involved with each grind, but itís far more interesting and rewarding than simply pawning off all your vendor trash. If this machine doesnít make an appearance in the next Borderlands game, I wonít be a happy camper.

Even though Iíve played Borderlands and Borderlands 2 to death, Iím still incredibly high on Borderlands: The Handsome Collection. Its release could not be timed more perfectly; at the beginning of the springtime software drought, itís nice to know that thereís something that is more than capable of filling our time until the likes of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Batman: Arkham Knight finally hit shelves. How could you say no to all of this? The answer: you canít.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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