Borderlands 3 Review – More Borderlands, More Loot

It was 2012 when the last proper Borderlands game was launched, and during that time Gearbox Software seemed to think that they didn’t need to make another game in the franchise. And yet here we are some seven years later with Borderlands 3 having finally become a reality. There’s a lot of hype about this one and for good reason: like it did with so many other people Borderlands 2 sucked me into its looting and shooting and over the course of the seven years I’ve completed the game numerous times over. I’ve hunted down the rarest gear, shot the biggest enemies and consistently laughed at Handsome Jack’s antics.

It’s a true shame that the hard work of the developers and the game itself are somewhat tarnished by the antics of Randy Pitchford and the degrading reputation of Gearbox as a whole. It’s nearly impossible to separate them however, since supporting Borderlands 3 means supporting those two things directly. For the sake of the review, though, I’m going to stick to talking about the game and leave all the external stuff for another time.

Available On: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Gearbox
Publisher: Gearbox

Rather than changing the formula Gearbox have played it safe for the long-awaited sequel, sticking with what made Borderlands 2 work and barely adding anything new. The result is a sequel that feels a lot like Borderlands 2.5 with better graphics and improved gameplay. Whether or not that’s a good thing…well, that’s what this review is for. There’s a lot here to like, and a few things to criticise.

Things kick off with Lilith from the first two games who is still in command of the Crimson Raiders recruiting you to the cause. As a new Vault Hunter you arrive on Pandora in search of loot and glory but instead find yourself being greeted by Claptrap who proceeds to get himself in a bunch of trouble. It’s setup we’ve seen before, one that sets the stage for a game that will feel intimately familiar to anyone who has played the prior games.

The first Borderlands often brought a smile to my face but it was Borderlands 2 that really nailed the irreverent, immature humour and frequently made me bust out laughing. Borderlands 3 aims to deliver the same tone and yet somehow misses the mark by a few miles, a couple of football pitches and a back yard. There’s nothing specific that I can put at as an example, making it difficult to illustrate why about 80% of the jokes just didn’t land. The writing isn’t as sharp and the humour is more forced than it was before.

Take an early character by the name of Lorelei who gives you a couple of side-quests involving getting her some coffee. At first her insane need for caffeine is kind of funny and the idea of going to a laid-back barista bot is enough to elicit a smile, but then…man, Lorelei becomes annoying super fast. The game runs the joke into the ground, and its something it does with almost every other joke in the game; they get stretched out far beyond being funny. It’s beating a dead Skag with a stick.

Perhaps the problem is Gearbox tried to take the success of Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2 and apply it to everyone in Borderlands 3. Now, it feels like every character is wacky, loves to yell and is over the top. It’s too much all the time. If everything is crazy, then nothing is crazy. The few times the game takes a step back and just lets people be people are most welcome moments of respite and some of the best bits in the whole campaign.

Then there’s this game’s bad guys, the Calypso Twins who have gotten themselves a cult of bandits and a taste for power. Their names are Troy and Tyreen, and Tyreen is capable of sucking up the abilities of Sirens, which in the Borderlands universe are rare people with immense powers. Titling themselves as Gods the twins are seeking out the Vaults so that they can wield supreme power, so it’s up to you to get to the Vaults first and kill a lot of stuff in the process. So far, so Borderlands.

The running gag with the Calypso Twins is that they’re styled after streamers and modern day “influencers” right down to their use of, “Like, subscribe and obey” or how Tyreen starts off their many videos with a catchphrase. They live stream to their followers, put out videos full of stupid noises and effects, and constantly reference how their rabid fanbase will do whatever is asked of them. There’s a lot of potential comedy material to be mined from this and I can’t help but feel that Borderlands 2 could have done so much with it. Borderlands 3, though, turns it into a pure cringefest most of the time. It’s kind of funny at first to see the Twins running a galactic sized Youtube channel and pumping out videos packed with yelling and loud noises, but it grows old so quickly. Whenever they popped up on the screen I would let out a colossal groan.

Not everything is a failure, mind you. While the writing just isn’t as sharp as it was in Borderlands 2 there were some genuinely funny moments or cool little storylines. One side quest saw me helping out a Failure Bot by proving my worth to a giant ape king and a genetically modified dinosaur thing before everything culminated in a fight where it was me vs the ape vs the dinosaur thing. Fun times. There are even some big twists by Borderlands standards, including deaths. Hell, Borderlands 3 easily makes the most attempts at genuine emotion and storytelling of the entire franchise, not counting Telltale’s episodic games. One side quest involved a father dealing with the loss of his daughter. It was surprisingly heartfelt for a Borderlands game.

As for shooting stuff in the face it’s largely the same, albeit smoother and quicker paced. Little things like a new slide you can do while sprinting and the ability to clamber up the scenery give fights more energy. I jumped back to Borderlands 2 for comparison and found it to be much slower, the gun handling to be floatier and the overall experience to be clunky by comparison. The action here is most certainly a big improvement.

Meanwhile, the guns almost all feel terrific to use, packing plenty of oomph thanks to some great audio work and a much better recoil system. I particularly liked how the enemies are more reactive when being shot. Unleashing a close-range blast from a shotgun or grenade on someone would often throw them into the air, giving you an extra second or two of breathing room and just making weapons more powerful. Many of the guns now feature a secondary fire mode too, such as a sniper rifle with an underslung grenade launcher or an SMG that can swap between elemental effects. Again, it just adds a little something extra to the fights.

One thing that I did note is that the amount of ammo it takes to kill even basic minions feels like its been tweaked and not in the right direction. Obviously Borderland’s enemies have always been bullet sponges, but the series has consistently kept the balance feeling right. Here, though, it just feels like it’s take a bit more to nail a kill. It doesn’t unbalance the game or anything, but it’s something I’d like to see adjusted.

Overall, then, combat feels like a significant step up from Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-sequel. It’s faster, smoother and has more going on, both mechanically and visually thanks to the game’s obvious graphical boost.

But let’s get back to those guns because as well know Borderlands is about the sweet, shiny loot. A lot of emphasis seems to have been placed on giving guns more personality, not only between the varying in-game brands such as Jakobs, Tediore and Maliwan but also between weapons in the same class. What I mean is that one SMG can feel radically different from another SMG, and that helped me fall in love and form attachments to weapons much easier. In Borderlands 2 I usually didn’t have a problem ditching a gun for one with better stats, but in Borderlands 3 I often came across weapons that felt made just for me and I’d try to hold on to them for as long as possible.

The allure of new things always took the edge off retiring a beloved gun, though. There’s so many damn variations of weapons, it’s honestly insane. Around every corner, in every chest and spewing out of every corpse there are wonderful, beautiful guns to play around with. On top of all the returning elemental effects there’s also now radiation, which does pretty much exactly what you’d think. Then there are a host of other variables, including guns turn into walking turrets when thrown away, weapons that launch literal shit and so much more.

And somehow the game is even more generous with how much loot it throws at you, with guns and shields and grenades being rained down upon you like God dropping Skittles out of the sky. I can’t help but think back to Anthem and it’s miserly handing out of guns. This is how you’re supposed to do a looter shooter.

Y’know what, I’m going to say it’s almost too much loot. I know, I know, how can I say such a horrid and despicable thing about a Borderlands game? I think it’s true however, because the game bestows so many goodies that you end up spending more time in the menus than you do actually playing the game. In the end I had to forcibly shut down a portion of my loot-hunting brain in order to avoid lower tier loot, even though it was occasionally better than my equipped gear. I just couldn’t keep wasting the time on comparing stats when I could be shooting stuff in the face. It’s really a compliment to Borderlands 3: I want to be playing it more than I want to be examining all my pretty guns.

It really doesn’t help matters that with so much time spent in the menus the UI is a bit naff. It’s slow, constantly feeling as though its trying to run through treacle, and chunks of it don’t even make sense. Why do I keep getting notifications for challenges I’ve completed even though I can’t access them until I’ve completed a play through? There’s no way to sort quests by region so figuring out what you can complete while in an area is nigh on impossible. Meanwhile, the map is a cumbersome beast that doesn’t have any way to separate the different layers of the level, instead it’s all plopped down atop each other which makes it bloody difficult to navigate without having to stare longer at the map than you should have to.

The raw performance isn’t up to snuff, either. With a GTX 1080ti at 1440p maintaining even 60FPS at the highest settings was a challenge. It’s certainly a good-looking game, but it’s far from brilliant. I wound up having to tone some of the settings down in order to maintain a stable framerate. The fact that the game uses the infamous Denuvo DRM system might have something to do with the performance issues.

Let’s get back to the action, though, and talk about the four new Vault Hunters that join the fight in Borderlands 3, starting with my chosen main, FL4K. Now you see, FL4K doesn’t really understand a lot of human emotions being a robot and all, but he does appreciate the hunt and violence. His special skills revolve around his three different pets that you can swap between, so even when you’re playing solo you’re not alone. My chosen build focuses on my lovable Skag called Mr. Chew and being able to translocate him to any location via a handy radiation-spewing portal of death which also handily makes Mr. Chew bigger, angrier and imbues him with radiation for extra damage.

There’s also Zane which on the surface seems like one of the simplest characters, sporting the ability to create a clone of himself that can act as a distraction or go on a rampage. He can also do cool stuff like summon up a barrier. I’ve spent the least time with Zane so I’m not going to even hazard a guess at where some of the seasoned players will rank him, but he seems fun.

As for Moze, she used to fight for Vladof before a suicide mission wiped out her squad, so she took her Iron Bear mech suit and set out on her own. As that implies Moze is all about her mech and customizing it, so abilities including adding new weaponry like a flamethrower or a massive fist. In other words, Moze is bloody awesome.

Finally, Amara is Borderlands 3’s resident Siren and therefore has the most connection with the main storyline. Her powers revolve around summoning giant hands to hold enemies in place or just smash them into the ground. But she can also do stuff like shoot into the air and then smash into the ground.

The levelling mechanics have gotten a bit of a revamp, too, in order to make things more interesting and provide more room for builds. There are still three trees per character to sink points into but now there are three active skills to choose from plus augments to those to be found within the trees themselves which are unlocked automatically once you invest enough points. These augments can drastically change how a skill works, like how one of Zane’s changes his barrier into a dome, but you only get to choose two augments.

These changes bring extra depth to leveling up your character. Between your weapons, grenades, class mods and skills there’s plenty of room to tweak your play style. Like Borderlands 2 there should be loads of online debates about the best builds, the best skills and the best guns. I can’t wait to get some proper time in with the other characters, but for now FL4K is the Vault Hunter for me.

Even back in 2012 when Borderlands 2 first launched its basic mission structure was bland and repetitive, but it managed to get away with it due to the loot, the shooting and the humour. In 2019 though, I find the lack of improvement on the game’s structure to be far less forgivable. This is Borderlands, Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel repeated, making players take on the same rote quests from static NPCs. You go to a place and shoot the stuff or grab the thing and then repeat. Indeed, Borderlands 3 seems to even more frequently chain fetch quests together, making missions drag on and on.

I’m not saying Borderlands 3 needs to be filled with set pieces or anything like that, but a little mechanical or visual variety would go a long way. Borderlands 3 just doesn’t bother, though, the closest it ever gets being a brief sequence with low gravity that apes The Pre-Sequel. That one small glimmer of actual variety stands out among the rest of the drab quest design.

You do, however, get to hope from planet to planet this time around. Pandora is no longer the only place for loot to be found, and while it doesn’t actually make a huge difference traveling from planet to planet does make the whole experience feel…bigger. The sense of scale is more impressive, even if the different planets are really just more of the standard Borderlands hubs.

Once you get through the 30-hour or so campaign there’s a good chunk of end game content to tackle as well. Mayhem Mode, for example, lets you mop any remaining quests while also massively increasing the quality of loot and the amount of XP you get, though enemies get tougher, too. Then there’s True Vault Hunter which acts as a New Game+ where you play through the whole story again while retaining all your previous gear and skills. Again, loot quality is much higher.

There’s also the Proving Grounds which are a series of time-based missions meant to be taken on in co-op but can be done solo, too. You face off against three waves of foes plus a boss, and the rarity of loot awarded is based on how fast you beat the mission and how many times you died.

Finally, there’s already an upcoming Halloween themed event announced, plus DLC has already been confirmed. In short, Borderlands 3 looks like it’s aiming to be around a while.

From a mechanical standpoint Borderlands 3 is easily the best game in the series, far surpassing the previous two games in combat and loot, even if it hasn’t improved on the core structure at all. There’s so much cool gear to be found, and the shooting feels fantastic But in terms of its humour and writing it doesn’t even come close to laughs that Borderlands 2 got out of me, which is a real shame.

It feels cheap to say this both because it’s a cliche and because most other reviews have already said it, but Borderlands 3 is mostly just more Borderlands, for better or for worse. Your feelings about it will pretty much boil down to how you felt about Borderlands 2 and the Pre-Sequel; If the idea of more looting and shooting appeals to you then Borderlands 3 is probably already on your shelf or in your library. If the thought of going through what often feels like the same game again makes you physically wince, then this really isn’t going to be for you.

4 out of 5

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