My relationship with Borderlands might be different from that of other people, I don’t know. What I do know is that, contrary to a lot of other games I tend to like, I don’t come to Borderlands for the story or the characters or the world. I show up because Gearbox Software makes an idiot sandwich with a world-class ARPG as its filling.
Borderlands 3 is a funny one. It’s not funny in the way that makes you laugh, god knows it isn’t going to make you laugh. What’s funny is the way that it delivers on almost everything long-time fans have wanted — numerous modern touches like mantling and sliding, revitalised visuals and a wealth of post-campaign content — but retains numerous vestiges of early 2010’s design that indicate how long it’s been in development.
The story of Borderlands 3, like the games before it, is a solid 15 hours of utter nonsense. There is a throughline to it, one that takes players from the familiar ruined planet of Pandora to other new planets in the outer reaches of the solar system. It remains a tonal pinball machine, bouncing between bonerfart jokes and devastating character drama with little in-between. It has an obsession with family and betrayal that pervades much of the campaign, which it then parlays into taking a shot at influencers and their fawning communities. The main villains of Borderlands 3 are Tyreen and Troy Calypso, charismatic but morally bankrupt live streamers that have united the seething bandit masses of Pandora under their banner, the Children of the Vault. They are cruel and callous even to each other and, despite constantly referring to their followers as family, the Calypsos don’t truly care for their doting audience beyond what they can gain from them. They’re an odd target for ire considering how core streamers and influencers have been to the game’s own marketing since it was announced. It’s strange to see Borderlands 3 tar-and-feather streamers the way that it does while still using them to help sell it to a wider audience.
I think it might be trying to position itself as a bastion of What Games Used To Be warring against the current face of the industry. Like it’s trying to hold up a mirror to say “And they tell us WE’RE the crazy ones?” It’s hard to tell exactly what Borderlands 3 is trying to say because much of it is drowned out by toilet jokes delivered at a throat-tearing scream. I actually breathed a sigh of relief upon finishing the campaign for this review because it meant I could finally, permanently, turn the Voice volume down to zero.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t some good performances in the mix — Elisa Melendez takes a paper-thin villain in Tyreen and turns in a legitimately magnetic performance, while much of the dramatic heavy lifting falls to Colleen Clinkenbeard, who plays both leads Lilith and Tannis. Ashly Burch’s brief return performance as Tiny Tina is worthy of her own special mention, a raw conduit for Burch’s own manic energy and the game’s one truly funny character.
There are also quite a few performance issues to chew through — my review was conducted on my fairly beefy home PC and I was seeing frame drops into the 20’s when the action heated up. There was also some hitching while going in and out of the inventory screen, and on more than one occasion the game either crashed or froze at crucial moments or during boss fights. There was also an issue where, if I had my inventory menu open when a cutscene began, the cutscene would play out with the 3D turnaround of my character hovering in the middle of the screen like a weird Snapchat filter. It’s still early days but there’s obviously some wrinkles that still need smoothing out.
If you were put off by me dunking on the game, the good news is I’m done now because I quite liked everything else about it.
For me, the real game in Borderlands has always started after the conclusion of the campaign. It seems there’s an appetite for this from the community because Gearbox has made a strong effort to create meaningful post-game options. Mayhem Mode is similar to Diablo 3‘s Torment difficulty levels — tougher enemies and greater percentage chances on loot drops — but goes the extra step of incorporating random difficulty modifiers of its own, like enemies with pinpoint accuracy or action skills not having as much of an effect as outright gun damage. It reminds me of the Skulls players used to equip in Halo co-op, and I quite like how much more dangerous it makes the world feel.
For those who want to chase the biggest possible numbers, True Vault Hunter mode, the Borderlands equivalent of New Game+, returns allowing to start the campaign over with your character at their current level and with all their gear. Despite a few issues that make it harder to run the campaign again than it should be (unskippable cutscenes, waiting for glacially slow NPC’s to open locked doors for you, etc), this is the kind of replayability you want from a game like Borderlands. When the shooting is this satisfying, the gameplay loop this tight and the power accretion this constant, you instinctively want more of it. Head out, find the biggest, hardest mobs and bosses you can. Take em down and watch the lolly-coloured loot rain.
Borderlands 3 (mercifully) gets the loot 100% right. There’s no sense of the game’s being contorted to fit a monetization model that wants you to spend real money for the highest grade loot. Instead, the drop rate for just about every tier of weapon feels pretty fair. I felt like I found a reasonable amount of legendary tier weapons during my first campaign playthrough — maybe four or five of them. They’re not raining from the sky but neither are they impossible to find. Feels good.
This is the meat of the experience for me, unearthing ever more powerful weapons and combining the most viable ones with the right character build and action skills. Borderlands 3 lets players select two action skills from any of their character’s three skill trees, greatly expanding the number of viable build opportunities. Sadly, while alternate fire modes seemed to promise another new stat vertical to mine for damage bonuses, in practice they don’t really have that kind of depth. That said, the new Atlas weapons have a secondary fire mode that shoots tracking darts allowing you to auto-fire on any enemy you tag. Extremely powerful, especially if you can tag their crit spot.
Borderlands 3 also features a full suite of multiplayer features, supporting everything from four-player online to classic LAN. The game can be played in a co-operative or competitive mode, which essentially decides how loot is distributed — co-operative play makes all loot drops instanced, which means each player gets their own loot and no-one else can touch it. Competitive removes the instancing to let players squabble over a single loot pool ala Borderlands 2.
So what’s the takeaway from Borderlands 3? It is, for better or worse, more Borderlands. That will be either exactly what you want to hear or will ensure you never play it at all. The bulk of its flaws have to do with its narrative, characters and sense of humour. It excels where it has always excelled, in the shooting and the crunch, and if you can muscle past the former to get to the latter you will be greatly rewarded.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Updated visuals are amazing; Shooting and looting as great as ever
Lowlights: Bad story; Paper-thin characters; Shit jokes; Why is everyone always screaming
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Review conducted on Windows PC using a retail code provided by the publisher.