‘Just follow the soothing sounds of my voice’
I have a complicated history with Borderlands, and I suspect that’s a fairly common experience. Okay, so it’s not all that complicated but bear with me.
I wasn’t super into the first game. Sue me! “Better with friends” is an idiom/crutch that often rings true, but even with a full group, Xbox 360 communicator in-hand, I just couldn’t get into the trash-filled landscapes and the roster as-is. Borderlands 2 was a completely different story, littered with colorful locales, more interesting classes and abilities, and a general sense of ramped-up lore that helped differentiate it from the pack.
Borderlands 3 is the natural next step of that formula, but don’t count on too many alterations.
Borderlands 3 (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Released: September 13, 2019
Yes, Borderlands 3 feels firmly rooted in the later days of looter shooter history, which is a compliment. Most of your favorite friends return, and together they face a new foe: evil streamers.
The idea of uniting all of the evil bandits under one banner and giving us two hotshot gamer archetypes to hate as the big bads isn’t particularly novel — they even go “what’sssssss up, guys?!” — but it works in the Borderlands universe. Much of the humor is still obnoxious (sorry, Claptrap), and although they do quit it with the overabundance of memes, there’s still plenty of “fams” and “succs” thrown around for good measure. Joking about pre-order bonuses also doesn’t work so well when there’s a ton of different versions of Borderlands 3 (including a $250 edition).
On the other side of the coin, at this point Borderlands has a history that’s a decade strong. Its roots go deep. The cameos are tasteful and serve the story well, almost more so than the newcomers. Claptrap aside (I’m so sorry) it was nice seeing old characters return — some of which haven’t for quite some time — and Borderlands 3 does them justice. There’s a world here and I actually like revisiting it. The planet-hopping hook also slowly builds higher stakes than the series has toyed with before, while still fitting the western space opera theme.
On a design level don’t expect anything genre-breaking: the map layout is still very much “there’s a wheel that you can explore freely with a vehicle, with non-vehicle access spokes.” You’ll explore big hubs with critical path missions and sidequests to tackle, and leveling is still king in this RPG-propelled shooter. (You better get used to doing sidequests, lest you kick off some boss fights underleveled). While four characters at launch might seem slim to some, it’s definitely more than enough for now. Amara (Siren, magic brawler), Moze (vehicle-based gunner), FL4K (pet-based class), and Zane (sneaky/jack of all trades style) are all unique in their own wacky way.
I spent my first playthrough as FL4K, and as a summoner main (Necromancers and pet-based classes are my thing), it blows any previous series summon archetype out of the water. As you progress, your creatures evolve (like Pokémon!) and are persistently out, shooting or clawing up enemies the entire time (until they die, then they respawn on a timer). I dare say FL4K is one of the most fun solo classes in any looter shooter to date. I also dabbled in the stylings of every other character, and there wasn’t one I actively disliked this time (sorry, Brick and Salvador).
Moze’s thing is that she can gain access to a limited-time mech for burst fire, giving her a very different feel than some of the other sustain-based styles of play (it helps that you can build the mech the way you want to). I dig Zane’s whole vibe and ended up spending the most time with him outside of FL4K, since he can eschew the ability to use grenades to use two skills. His penchant for using a clone to take a breather and get right back in the fight is a rush. Amara is a high-key powerhouse, and the closest thing to a mage in the Threequel. As a siren, she has a more vested interest in the narrative.
The customization options also kick ass this time around. You can rename your character and alter various facets of them (head, skin, color, emotes, UI theme) to make them your own in a way that wasn’t possible in previous games: I’m getting flashbacks to equipping “chatroom garb” in Diablo 2, trying to make my character look as cool as possible. To sum it up, full color options are available at the start. (Why doesn’t every game do this?) All the other details are dialed-up to 11.
There are scores of little secrets to find and chests (or fridges or washing machines) to open up. Countless guns have alt-fire modes to spice up even the smallest of acquisitions, so the “billions of guns” marketing tagline actually means something now. Everything is just more…fun? Vehicles aren’t withheld, but willingly doled out near the start, and you can teleport back to it at any time. Fast travel is expanded, which makes roaming around less tedious. Sidequests are sparing but meaty, and even the really small ones are good too, like the tricky jumping puzzles.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. While the 30-ish hour campaign is an admirable length (with more post-game to come, more on that in a bit), it does suffer from moments of fatigue. The typical “re-used character models” method is in full swing, sometimes with a tired joke or two. When bosses are being used for regular enemies, it’s a drag. Some of the aforementioned side missions, also require quite a bit of retreading and pointless walking, which can be a pain when the map system is so wonky and unwieldy in some of the bigger hubs.
These annoyances came to light roughly every few hours, but were fleeting in nature. The thing is Gearbox knows how to make a beefy shooter at this point, so the moment-to-moment “close calls” and big loot scores washed away a lot of those bad feelings. The only thing that irked me consistently (and this is a very Borderlands thing, dating back to the original) is the aforementioned finicky map.
Gearbox also planned to support Borderlands 3 for the long haul, and it shows (right now, before we get hundreds of DLC packs). There are tons of accessibility options, an “easier” difficulty setting so everyone can get on board, and two co-op modes: a less stressful instanced loot version (with merged levels), and an old school “Coopetition” gametype where everyone shares the same loot pool and levels are not normalized. In other words, newcomers and veterans alike have something to grind for.
Even longer term, the idea is to max out each character as much as possible with the shared “Guardian Rank” system, which lets you further boost past max level (think Diablo 3‘s Paragon levels). Borderlands 3 also has two systems that are basically akin to “New Game Plus/extra modes.” After you’re finished with the campaign you can either start it over, or toggle Mayhem difficulties (ramping from stages one to three) that warp the world in weird and more challenging ways for better loot. There are lots of reasons to come back to old areas after getting new upgrades.
As for post-game, the main thing is the Proving Ground challenges, which task you with beating a ton of enemies (and a boss) to a pulp in less than 30 minutes. Having played through several runs, it’s not nearly as expansive as say, a live-service-oriented game like Division 2. And that’s okay! Borderlands has a very old school “just keep repeating the game” feel to it that’s fun solo, much less with other people involved. Getting new loot, more skills, and enhancing my Guardian Rank progress for my alts is fun: and that counts for a hell of a lot. As an aside, I did not encounter any major glitches outside of one crash on PC literally in the final area of the game.
Borderlands 3 takes most of the good bits of Borderlands 2 and either rolls with them or improves upon them. It didn’t need to reinvent the wheel either, as Gearbox pretty much had the formula figured out the second time around.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. Destructoid was given access to an Epic Games Store account to play the game on PC.]