I’ll admit I played a lot of Borderlands and Borderlands 2 in my early twenties. At the time, the Diablo-in-first-person, looter-shooter idea was still relatively fresh, and the style and humour were exactly what you’d expect a male in their early twenties to enjoy. Fast forward a generation and the looter-shooter thing has since blown up, bringing massive titles like Destiny, Warframe and The Division as well as notable amateur experiments like Anthem. So when it was formally announced that the series would be make a return in the form of Borderlands 3, I wondered how Gearbox Software might leverage a generation’s worth of genre innovations to make a modern Borderlands game that could re-stake its claim to the throne.
Turns out, they didn’t.
Now, before you take that as a suggestion that Borderlands 3 is a bad game, it’s definitely not. Gearbox had a choice to make about whether they should shake up the series’ formula significantly for the sake of innovation, risking alienating loyal fans, or do what they already know – albeit bigger, better and louder. Opting for the safer, latter option was by no means the wrong choice, but it was a choice nonetheless, and it will no doubt split opinions. With that in mind, I come to you as both a big fan of the established Borderlands formula and as someone who was quietly hoping for a bit of a change. If public opinion is divided on whether Borderlands 3 is an objectively good game then I am at the centre of that debate, trying to calm both sides down as they fire flaming rockets and hurl teleporting grenades across the battlefield that is Metacritic.
Borderlands 3 is fun, and that’s good enough for me.
Do you remember characters like Lillith, Moxxi, Marcus and Ellie? Well good news – they’re back and they’re squaring up against a pair of evil twin Sirens, Tyreen and Troy Calypso. The Calypso Twins are a couple of young, brash, livestreaming psychopaths hellbent on finding more of the ancient Vaults that have been the cause of endless turmoil since the Borderlands series began. Of course, as is the norm now, those beloved returning characters aren’t the ones doing the bulk of the fighting against the twins; that’s left up to a group of four completely new Vault Hunters for some reason. It makes sense to want to give players a fresh set of heroes to play as, obviously, but with little in the way of backstories or any kind of stake in the game other than seemingly just doing anything anyone tells them to do, there’s a tiny bit of a disconnect there. I actually quite enjoy the Borderlands lore and, despite being disappointingly tired and trope-y villains, the Calypso Twins’ place in that lore is pretty neat. I won’t talk too much about Borderlands 3’s narrative, because there are actually some pretty cool (and very spoiler-y) moments in its 30-ish hour main campaign. I can say though that the more dramatic and emotional of those story beats are significantly less impactful when all the people that are supposed to matter spend the entire time hanging out at HQ while the newbies do the hard yards.
Amara, Zane, Moze and FL4K are those fresh faces of Borderlands 3, and despite any complaints I have about their place in the narrative, they’re possibly my favourite cast of main characters yet. By not adhering to more conventional and obvious class templates like melee tanks, supports, snipers and the likes, Gearbox have crafted an eclectic and versatile lineup of interesting heroes that are all equally as viable as the next. I restarted the game multiple times to try and figure out who I liked the most, and in the end still had to flip coins to make the final decision because I liked them all. From Moze’s giant, rideable mech suit to Amara’s devastating Siren powers, Zane’s digital clones and FL4K’s deadly pets, there isn’t a bad pick among them. Each character has three very distinct trees in which to unlock skills as well, and those all contain some really creative and unique abilities and benefits. There’s enough in there that even a full team of four all rocking the exact same character could still be playing the game in vastly different ways. In the end I went with Moze and, using the game’s official website and its handy skill tree planner, decided on the build I was going to work towards. At least, I thought it was the build that I wanted. That was before I found… The Gun™.
Now, in case you’re not familiar with Borderlands’ biggest ‘gimmick’, the game is essentially chock-full of billions of unique guns, randomly generated from a massive pool of variables. It’s what sets the series apart, and what keeps players coming back in search of more and better gear. Alongside the random weapons though are a smaller group of Legendary guns that have been crafted a little more intentionally by the game’s designers. These rare guns are the cream of the crop, often offering unique and powerful abilities you won’t find elsewhere. Not long into my Borderlands 3 journey I came to possess a legendary shotgun named ‘Influential The Butcher’, which is a silly name for a fucking good gun. Despite being a tad inaccurate, The Butcher could shoot ten super-powerful rounds in a flash, all with more than double damage, and even provided an extra forward-facing bullet shield while zoomed in. This thing literally just ate anything I pointed it at in mere seconds, and even though I picked it up at level 7 it continued to be my most effective and powerful gun well into the high 20s. The only downside was that it blew through ammo almost immediately. That’s when I realised that the one skill tree of Moze’s that I was ignoring was stocked full of abilities to do with increasing, conserving and even regenerating ammo. One quick use of the game’s handy ‘respec’ option and my uber-powerful, ammo-guzzling shotty suddenly had a near infinite supply. It was magical.
It’s moments like that, when gun and gunner come together in perfect harmony that make Borderlands 3 special. They’re not even rare, either. With the huge character variety, interesting and diverse enemies and battlefields and near-constant stream of loot that pours out of everything, there’s never a chance for anything to feel stale. The game takes place over a series of planets, and a space station that stands in as the new Sanctuary, and though the planet-hopping is technically an illusion – everything is still just separated by loading screens in the same way that previous games’ single-planet locations were – it does afford Gearbox the chance to add more personality to everything. The biggest winners here are the gun manufacturers; names like Maliwan, Tediore, Hyperion and Atlas will be familiar to series fans as quick and easy ways to assume a weapon’s general look and feel. Here, those distinctions are made all the more clear by all-new behaviours and benefits based on brand. Dahl weapons, for example, almost always possess a secondary fire mode that gives each gun multiple uses, while Maliwan guns often have multiple elemental properties to switch between. My favourite guns wound up being Tediore brand, not only because their common quirk is that they’re considered so poorly made that it’s better to throw them away (with various, often explosive effects) than reload them, but that their bad reputation is a running gag throughout the world. The bulk of Borderlands’ humour is stuck (gratingly) on dated memes and gross-out jokes, but the takes on brand loyalty and consumer behaviour that change as you make your way to different planets actually add a really refreshing depth to your arsenal that extends beyond just their stats.
God, I love seeing all those numbers
As cool as all the stuff with character builds and weapons is (those have clearly been Gearbox Software’s biggest focus in making a better Borderlands game), nearly everything else seems… pretty much the same. There are some very welcome new gameplay wrinkles, like the ability to slide, mantle on ledges and smack explosive barrels into enemies, which all add to the already much-improved combat, but those aren’t exactly breaking new ground. The expanded customisation options like gun and vehicle skins, colour options, trinkets and decorations are all pretty cool, especially when you consider the fact that they’re actually included in the game and unlocked through gameplay as opposed to being sold piecemeal on a digital storefront. It sucks to admit but, in 2019, Gearbox have kind of bucked a trend where every other developer seems to be putting less content into their games with the intention of charging for more later. Well done guys, you did the not-shit thing. Still, this is classic Borderlands all over, so you’ll be spending most of your time traipsing around big, empty areas following quest markers and picking through lootable containers like it was 2012. If you didn’t like it then, you probably won’t like it now. If you did, this is the best version of it yet.
If you didn’t like it then, you probably won’t like it now. If you did, this is the best version of it yet
Whether or not you enjoying dancing the series’ trademark dance, there’s one thing that I can say is universally disappointing about Borderlands 3, and that’s its worrying performance issues on console (and not the kind I usually talk about with my doctor). Visually, the whole thing is pretty impressive, taking the classic cel-shaded Borderlands art style and dressing it in modern lighting and effects that bring Pandora and beyond to life better than ever. Character animations are much improved, too, giving everything just that little bit more life, which is much appreciated. Everything is good then, aside from the fact that consoles seem to struggle to run it all reliably. On the PS4 Pro, whether in the 30fps-targeting high resolution mode or the 60fps-targeting high performance mode, the game struggled to hit either target consistently, which is tough to swallow after having poured dozens of hours into the PS4 remaster of Borderlands 2 recently, with its buttery-smooth 4K60 presentation. Worse still, trying to play in split-screen, which is probably my favourite way to play Borderlands, is an absolute nightmare. Frame drops occur frequently during gameplay, the whole thing jerks to a halt whenever someone opens a menu, and – worst of all – there is no vertical screen split option. I really wanted to play through Borderlands 3 on the couch with my partner, but since neither of us is physically comfortable playing in a horizontal split, we couldn’t. I also experienced a plethora of bugs during my time with the game, one which completely broke my save file by locking me into the story progress of someone whose game I’d dropped into, but still only offering me the objectives from my own game, which were on a planet I could no longer access.
Borderlands 3 is fun. It’s a lot of fun, in fact. Through meaningful additions and expansions to weapons, characters and skills, it succeeds in presenting the very best version of the established Borderlands formula to date. That formula is a decade old now though, and while it still works, there are parts (like the ‘humour’) that haven’t aged as well as others. I can see myself continuing to play this game for months at least, enjoying the end game with friends, but I don’t think I’ll ever shake the feeling that with just a little more ambition (and quality assurance), Borderlands 3 could’ve been the king of the looter-shooters again.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher