The first 3 instalments in the Borderlands series came (relatively) thick and fast with there only being 3 and 2 years between the respective entries. Here we are now 5 years later and I, like many others I’m sure, have forgotten much about the Borderlands universe. So it was somewhat comforting that after the first hour or so I felt like I was right back where I was when I left the game last, the core game loop gets established early and you quickly figure out how to min/max your character. Considering that this core game play is what attracts and retains Borderlands fans I’m not surprised that Gearbox didn’t want to mess with it, but it does mean that for those looking for something new in the franchise are likely to be left wanting.
It’s 7 years after the events in Borderlands 2 (mirroring exactly the time that’s ticked over in real life since then) and the death of Handsome Jack has left a massive power vacuum on Pandora. In that time the Calypso Twins Troy and Tyreen have risen to power by unifying the various bandit factions under one banner: the Children of the Vault. They’ve done this by creating a massive personality cult, broadcasting their exploits across Pandora to their ravenous fans and inciting them to do their bidding. You play as a budding vault hunter who’s answered a recruiting call from the Crimson Raiders, led by the siren Lilith (one of the previously playable vault hunters). So begins your journey into the world of Pandora and beyond as you fight the Children of the Vault wherever they dare to tread.
There’s a substantial uplift in the graphics of Borderlands 3 compared to its most recent predecessor. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the previous one was still using the Unreal 3 engine and still retained support for previous generation consoles, severely limiting what Gearbox was able to achieve from a graphics perspective. 5 years and a new engine later show massive improvements across all areas although none more apparent than the lighting effects. This comes hand in hand with a completely revamped UI which is leaps and bounds better, both in terms of usability but also in its design. Indeed one of the first things I noticed was the subtle 3D effect applied to the minimap, something that makes a huge difference in navigating Borderlands 3’s large, complex levels. So whilst 5 years might have been a pretty long time between drinks for the series I’m glad to say, at least from a graphics perspective, it seems to have been well spent.
As I mentioned in my opening remarks in terms of how Borderlands 3 plays out you’re not going to see much change here. The same core game loop remains: head out on a quest or to a boss fight, kill everything you can, loot and hope that RNGesus blesses you on this day. There are 4 new character classes which, from what I can recall, are quite different to the previous offerings we got in other Borderlands titles. Probably the biggest difference now is that there’s quite a few different worlds for you to fight on, all of which have their own distinctive visual style. The real changes come in Borderlands’ end game as there’s been a few new mechanics introduced for those who want to up the challenge significantly in the hopes for some better loot.
Combat feels the same, maintaining the same fast paced action that the series has become famous for. It’s all highly dependent on the gun you’re using, of course, as some will absolutely trivialise everything whilst others will make your life a living nightmare to use. There’s still the old problem of the pacing being off slightly, starting off with you being woefully under levelled and needing a good helping of side quests to bring you up to speed. Past a certain point though you’re reliant on getting those guns that have some ludicrous combination of attributes that make them wrecking machines or just work well with your current build. You will get one in short order, no question about that, but then your play style gets centered around it and switching away from it is always a painful affair. It gets a lot easier when you can carry more weapons though as dropping one at least means you still have 3 that should hopefully still be useable.
I chose Moze, the gunner class, and for the first 5 hours or so it felt pretty…well dull. The action skill converts you into a mech which basically just gives you another life to throw away and possibly give you a chance to get some more ammo for your favourite gun. As the upgrades start to pile on though it becomes a much more powerful weapon, culminating in probably one of the most fun parts of the game when you get the nuke as one of its weapons. Whilst it wasn’t exactly great for boss fights it was stupidly good at clearing out rooms full of enemies, especially those that would hide behind cover or other equally annoying places. Other utility skills like having the robot go on autopilot for 15 seconds after you eject or the turret on the back (for co-op) just make it even more useful, ensuring that it’s not just a simple one and done ability. I’m sure the other character classes have a similar experience as the giant skill trees don’t exactly lend themselves to amazing gameplay right off the hop.
Indeed this is true for pretty much every aspect of the game as it’s clear that everything has been built up with a focus on the end game experience. Early game you’ll be struggling for everything: good guns, ammunition, backpack space, you name it. As you’re levelling up your quality of life will start ticking upwards and the game becomes immensely easier to play. Of course this all changes once you complete the campaign and you get the option to play through again on True Vault Hunter mode or go into Mayhem Mode which brings with it some Diablo 3-esque Rift action with randomised enemy and player benefits/challenges. If I’m honest though I’ve never really been into the end game of the Borderlands franchise and this one is no exception.
You see whilst I will admit that it’s always fun when you get an absurdly broken gun what I absolutely detest is the grind for them. You have to spend quite a bit of time grinding a boss and/or a specific area to get the loot you’re looking for and then it’s still at the behest of RNGesus if it comes with a good roll or not. I don’t mind this if there’s mechanics available to turn shitty loot into better loot or some way to fix a bad roll on a good gun. Borderlands 3, as far as I can tell, has none of this available so whatever drops is what you’re stuck with. That may make those god rolls more exhilarating for those who are chasing them but for this old gamer I’d rather not and so once the campaign was done I was pretty much out.
The story is good, leaning heavily on the large backlog of canon that the series has developed over the last decade that the series has been in production. Old characters make an appearance and whilst some are changed in appearance none of them have really changed in style. The light hearted, every line is a joke style writing continues in this instalment too and whilst there are times when you’ll groan at what the characters are saying there are numerous, genuinely funny moments scattered throughout. The writers also did a good job of building in several well developed sub plots that all tie off nicely. Of course they had to set up for yet another sequel, as if the mechanics for that hadn’t been established already, so I’ll have to take a point or two off for that. Still, an overall well constructed story that strikes that balance between the comedic and serious elements.
Borderlands 3 has been made with a specific demographic in mind: long time fans who relish the grind for the best guns. That means there really hasn’t been much innovation from a mechanics perspective but everything surrounding that has been given a solid amount of polish to make the experience just that little bit more enjoyable. Could they have done a little bit more to shake up the formula? Perhaps but I know several die hard Borderlands fans and they’re just fine with the game how it is and they’ll be grinding weapons until there isn’t a single pearlescent left that they don’t own. For those gamers it’s a perfect game. For me though it was a great blast through the campaign that I’m more than happy to put down now.
Borderlands 3 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 22 hours play time.