Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
It was a stroke of genius when Borderlands merged Diablo-esque loot mechanics with the first person shooter genre. Borderlands 2 then raised our expectations for the new looter shooter genre by pairing these mechanics with some amazing plot and character writing. Now we have Borderlands 3, the triumphant return of the “original looter shooter.” The thing is, expectations are high when you create a new genre and that very same genre has evolved quite a bit since the original Borderlands hit the scene. Judging by how Borderlands 3 has turned out, one could even say the genre has evolved past its originator.
If you want to know how Borderlands 3 plays, the first thing you need to do is picture Borderlands 2. It’s impossible to avoid the comparison, both because it’s a direct sequel and because it plays nearly identically. Granted, this is because the Borderlands formula is fairly well established, but it’s worth noting that this doesn’t exactly feel like we are just copying the formula.
Borderlands 2 copied the formula of Borderlands 1 but felt like a new game in its own right. Despite it being seven years since the release of Borderlands 2 (and five years since Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel), Borderlands 3 doesn’t feel like a new game. It feels like an expansion pack, and this is especially notable since we got new Borderlands 2 DLC right before Borderlands 3’s release.
Handsome Jack they ain’t
So what is different? Well to start we have a new plot. The bandits of Pandora have been united by a pair of charismatic cult leaders known as the Calypso Twins. These two new villains are parodies of streaming culture, as they live stream their kills and sacrifices and frequently tell their cult members to “like, follow, and obey.” They are after the “Great Vault”, a treasure greater than any before seen on Pandora, and it’s up to you to stop them.
The new plot is… OK. Frankly the Calypso Twins are kind of weak villains. Borderlands villains are most well known for being charismatic and making things personal. Heck, the overwhelming Charisma of Handsome Jack made him the primary antagonist of two games and the protagonist of a third!
But the twins never make things personal. You just kind of stumble upon them in the early game and then they just hang out in the background. Granted Handsome Jack did the same, but his presence was always felt. No matter what you were doing, Jack was there. His influence shaped the world around him, the enemies you fought, and the places you went. The best the twins do is teleport in some bandits every so often.
There are a lot of plotlines that the game tries to set up with the twins, but it gets too scared to follow them to completion. There’s a point in which it seems like the twins will betray each other and (spoiler) that never happens. There’s a backstory for the twins that is only explored briefly in the very last moments of the game. The twins keep saying that they are going to become gods and their influence has given them a horde of followers that obey their every command but in general these followers just appear in instanced encounters. They don’t feel like part of the world.
In fact, it’s not just the twins that Borderlands 3 fails to capitalize on. The whole game is kind of toothless. Borderlands 2 and its DLC had a TON to say about gaming culture, toxic masculinity, progressive character writing, corporate culture, and just about everything in between.
Not only that, but it somehow managed its biting satire without ever being heavy handed. Borderlands 3 feels like it has something to say, but it never actually says it. It stays shy from ever having a moral or thesis to its plot, and as a result, it kind of feels like it’s trying too hard to be edgy. It’s the younger brother following in the footsteps of its cool, woke, older brother, imitating a formula that worked in the past, but not understanding why it worked.
Everything looks the same
Another new aspect of Borderlands 3 is interplanetary travel. Instead of taking place solely on Pandora, you’ll travel around the galaxy to different planets with different cultures in search of different vaults with tons of loot inside.
Unfortunately, these new planets don’t do as much to shake things up as you’d think. Pandora is well known for being a half-destroyed sci-fi wasteland and every other planet you go to is also a half-destroyed sci-fi wasteland. One is a city-scape which feels almost identical to the Hyperion sections of the Pre-Sequel. Another is a jungle planet which feels identical to Borderlands 2’s Hammerlock DLC, and the last is an Eridian planet that looks identical to every final level of every other Borderlands title. Even though these places were supposed to feel like a departure from Pandora, you can find carbon copies of them on Pandora in older Borderlands titles.
The pacing of the adventure doesn’t help either. You get off Pandora relatively quickly and do a lot of hopping between a few planets, until you spend almost the entire back half of the game on the jungle planet of Eden-6. It is a heavy slog from start to finish, and while you’ll meet a variety of friendly faces along the way, you never spend a lot of time with them. Hell, not-so Tiny Tiny has only a few lines of dialogue and Brick and Mordecai have maybe two or three scenes each.
Instead, Borderlands 3 wants you to get well acquainted with its new characters, especially in the latter half of the game. Some, like the heir to the Jakobs family fortune and gun company, are pretty entertaining, while others, like BALEX, a navigation A.I. stuck in a stuffed animal whose primary personality trait seems to be calling his ex-girlfriend a bitch, just get on your nerves.
Still, it’s worth noting that the basic framework did keep me playing till the end. I did want to see what was next and there were moments that tugged at my heart strings, especially after major boss encounters. It’s just that I walked away from the experience with few notable moments to speak of. They all just kind of blurred together in a mish mash of looting and shooting.
There are more guns. That’s cool…
So how is the looting and shooting? To be honest, it’s pretty good. There are way more guns and gun varieties this time around, and they start doing wacky things early on. The epic and legendary drop rate has also increased which means you’ll find weirder guns faster. Many guns have multiple firing modes which increase their utility, and guns can be anointed which gives them special abilities that interact with certain classes. It never felt like I came across the same gun twice and for a game based around loot that’s a good thing.
The classes themselves are also interesting. There’s a combination sniper/pet character, the heavy gunner character that can call in a mech, the jack of all trades character that can operate shields and deploy decoys, and the Siren which is a melee class this time around. Instead of getting one action skill, characters will have a choice of three and they can further customize these skills with augments that they earn as they progress through skill trees.
While each class plays in an incredibly unique way, there is something about the design that irks me. No class seems to be designed with a playstyle in mind. By that I mean each class has great abilities and multiple builds, but none of them synergize with particular gun types in any way. This actually makes gun selection a little less interesting. You just kind of take the best gun by its stats and that’s it for the whole game. You never quite feel like you are creating a shotgun specialist or a sniper. Some people will probably like this freedom but personally I felt that it made each skill purchase feel less impactful than before.
Still, I had a blast summoning spider-ants, climbing in giant robots, and digitizing clones of myself to sic on the enemy. I wouldn’t say any of these classes are as fun as the best classes from Borderlands 2, but they were amusing enough to make me play through the game multiple times.
Would you like to go to a place and shoot some guys?
The quest design is by far the weakest part of Borderlands 3’s gameplay. There’s just no variety. Almost every mission in the game is some variety of “go to location, shoot a bunch of guys.” Sometimes you’ll have to defend a location, but you never have to actually prevent its HP from falling or anything like that, you just have to shoot a bunch of guys. Sometimes you’ll have to secure a location, but that doesn’t mean gathering intel or anything. It just means shooting a bunch of guys.
There’s also a TON of waiting in Borderlands 3’s quests, and it’s AGONIZING. They love to make you “follow a character.” No matter who the character is, they move at a snail’s pace and always put you immediately in the line of fire. This, of course, makes you shoot a bunch of guys. It’s not an escort mission, as these characters can’t die. It’s just a normal mission with a lot of waiting in the middle.
Enemy design also plays into the weak quest design. For a good majority of the game you will be fighting bandits and soldiers and they all fight the same way. They run to you and shoot. That’s about it. Sometimes you’ll encounter a random beast on the ground or in the air, but mostly it’s just guys with guns. The enemy design really doesn’t become varied and interesting until the final stretches of the game, which at that point is too late. Just another example of how Borderlands 3 really botches its pacing.
A universe of glitches
The repetitive quest design becomes more frustrating when you consider that the game isn’t the most stable in the world. Early review copies notoriously had quite a few bugs, but this is the full release version and there is still a ton of bugs to work out. Keyboard and mouse controls don’t work correctly if you have a controller plugged in. The game can crash when loading new areas. NPCs will freeze dead in their tracks, doing nothing and preventing you from continuing the game without restarting the program. It feels sloppy to be honest.
In fact, it’s this sloppy feeling that is Borderlands 3’s biggest flaw. I have a laundry list of weird experiences that all point toward the game needing another QA pass including:
- Tannis giving me a side-quest before I even met her for the first time
- The wrong character’s voice playing the wrong audio line when spoken to
- Voice lines playing over each other
- Voice lines getting stuck on repeat
- The sound of gun fire becoming muted in the middle of a battle
- Doors randomly refusing to open unless I ran backwards through areas where I already killed enemies
- NPCs teleporting out of sight as soon as I accept a quest from them
- Broken waypoints that attempt to show me where to go, but won’t adjust if I, say, run back to heal myself or buy a new gun
- A map that frequently chooses to just not display my current quest goal for some reason
And much more.
A nice presentation
At least I can say that Borderlands 3 is a pretty game. Running on a 2080 GPU, I cranked all the settings up to ultra and my computer ran in 60FPS just fine throughout the entire game. That being said, there’s only so much that graphic fidelity will get you when dealing with Borderlands’ stylized cartoony models.
The sound design is also great. The voice actors do a phenomenal job. It was also great to see that everyone from internet celeb voice actors like ProZD to Penn & Teller (well…. I guess just Penn) get a shot at voicing a character. In fact, the only thing I can complain about in reference to the sound is the aforementioned audio bugs.
The original looter shooter, but not the best looter shooter
I’ve done a lot of complaining about Borderlands 3, but you have to realize something. This whole shebang was built off the Borderlands 2 engine and Borderlands 2 was amazing. If you are OK with running to locations, shooting a bunch of guys, getting a bunch of new guns, and repeating, then you’ll love this game. It’s basically just Borderlands 2 with a few quality of life improvements like automatically picking up ammo and fast traveling from anywhere on the map.
But as I said earlier, looter shooters have evolved and if you are looking for something more in line with games like Destiny 2, then you are going to be out of luck. Borderlands 3 just doesn’t have the variety that modern day looter shooters have.
I think the Borderlands 3 experience can best be summed up by its final boss. They build it up to be a threat the size of a planet, but in the end it’s smaller than the final bosses of Borderlands 1 and 2. That’s what the whole game is like. They build up each new feature to be a humongous stride forward in looter shooters but it’s really just more of the same, maybe even less so.
There was a lot of content that Borderlands 3 offered me after I completed my first playthrough. There’s True Vault Hunter mode which makes the game more difficult. There’s Mayhem mode which adds a bunch of modifiers to enemies and player characters alike. There are proving grounds, which are basically instances that you can take on post-game.
But honestly, I’m probably not going to come back for them. I’ll poke at Borderlands 3 here and there and I’ll certainly join up in multiplayer parties of close friends, but for the most part I have a feeling that Borderlands 3 is going to end up collecting dust on the proverbial shelf, rather than inspiring me to play it for hundreds of hours like Borderlands 2 did.