Borderlands 3 is one of those rare games where you most likely knew if you would be purchasing it or not the moment it was announced. Its unique brand of looting, shooting, and humour divides the room, with those who manage to get a good laugh out of its referential comedy on one side and those who can’t help but cringe on the other. What can’t be debated, however, is that there’s not another franchise out there quite like it. That’s probably why the series manages to get away with a third entry that feels wholly similar to its predecessors. This is an excellent experience, although you might begin to feel like you’re going through the motions once or twice.
In the seven years since Borderlands 2, the series’ formula hasn’t changed one bit. This continues to be an undertaking full of looting and shooting, and if previous iterations didn’t take your fancy, then the third entry won’t convert you either. Gearbox Software has remained true to what put its adventures across Pandora on the map, much to the delight of fans. The studio hasn’t been biding its time, however, because those same features and mechanics that it excels at have been tweaked, fine-tuned, and improved upon to such a degree that this latest iteration automatically becomes the definitive Borderlands experience.
The simple act of playing the game feels better than ever. A freeing amount of movement and mobility allows you to get about the battlefield with ease, whether it’s clambering up cliff edges to jump back down again with a ground pound or just dodging bullets in the heat of battle, the options available give way to creativity that wasn’t possible before.
Gunplay, simply put, is incredible. It’s almost as if the development team has taken a leaf out of Bungie’s book because the weightiness, feel, and act of shooting every weapon is a unique trip in itself. You’ll take the charge-up time of a corrosive gun into account as you line up your shots, consider the splash damage of a rocket launcher, and switch between sights on the same weapon as enemies come at you in close quarters and at length. It’s a delight to stack up buffs on tougher foes, bring your grenade into the mix with a well-timed volley, and finish a Psycho off with a melee attack. Even if a new weapon doesn’t improve your build, you’ll want to try it out for five minutes anyway just to get a feel for something new.
Advertised as having more than “one billion guns”, Borderlands 3 seems to absolutely live up to that promise. Every other weapon we equip comes with its own unique feature or mechanic, from an assault rifle that can overheat and needs to be tended to with water to a shotgun that is reloaded by throwing away the replica you were just using. And these sorts of modifiers can be found in even the lesser tiers of weapon rarity, we can’t wait to see what some of the legendary guns unlocked in the endgame are packing.
While Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel did take us to the moon, the franchise is very much known for the dusty wasteland of Pandora. The desert-like setting returns, but it almost feels like a cameo appearance compared to the three new planets you’ll be visiting throughout the 20-hour main campaign. Promethea is a futuristic metropolis bursting with high-rise buildings overrun by bandits on the streets below, meanwhile, Eden-6 embraces nature with greenery as far as the eye can see while a swamp provides firm footing in places. Athenas, on the other hand, rolls back the years with a setting themed around ancient Japanese temples residing among the mountains. All three new locations are infinitely more interesting than Pandora, making for environments that you’ll want to explore every nook and cranny of.
The four planets play host to a main narrative that isn’t quite as interesting as we hoped it would be. Following the discovery that numerous other vaults are hidden throughout the galaxy, a violent faction known as the Children of the Vault was formed from the rag-tag groups of previous cults. Led by characteristic twins Troy and Tyreen Calypso, it’s your job to team up with Lilith and the Crimson Raiders as one of four new Vault Hunters in order to stop them.
The twin antagonists very much carry the narrative on their shoulders, because if they were devoid of their personalities, this wouldn’t be a particularly fascinating trek across the universe. Some twists and turns provide exciting scenes along the way, but beat for beat, the plot just isn’t all that interesting. There’s enough here to see you through to the conclusion, but this is most definitely not the greatest story an RPG has ever told.
Contrasting that is the eccentric selection of characters you’ll meet along the way and the wacky, far-fetched side quests they have to offer. There are some truly bizarre optional missions to dig through on the outer reaches of each planet, containing homages to classic films and full to the brim with pop culture references. If the main plot isn’t particularly gripping at any point in time, you only have to wander for a couple of minutes before you encounter something weird.
You’ll do that with one of four brand new characters – all of which bring their own abilities and quirks to the table. Amara is a Siren who uses ethereal fists to deliver devastating body shots to those who cross her path, while Fl4K leaves the work to three different pets which obey their every command and sync up with abilities on occasion. Moze is built around incendiary damage and a gigantic mech she can call upon when her ult is ready, and Zane utilises gadgets to outsmart enemies and is the only character who can equip two action skills.
Every Vault Hunter feels and acts vastly different to one another, to the point where four varying playthroughs of the game is a more than viable option. Each can spec into three different skill trees, offering up a mammoth amount of passive abilities and upgrades for action skills. You and a friend can be playing as the same character but have wildly different builds, with one that focuses on offensive damage and the other pouring their upgrade points into defensive traits and boosts for teammates. It’s a seriously impressive line-up of Vault Hunters that opens the door for synergy between abilities, buff stacking, and true team play.
Holding off on those tactics might be a good idea, though, because online co-operative play on PlayStation 4 is a bit of a mess at the time of writing. Playing with a friend seriously impacts the frame rate to the point where it’s all but unplayable and leads to all manner of unwanted disconnects and frustration. We expect the issue will be fixed with post-launch patches, but we can’t ignore the effect it had when we attempted to join a buddy’s game.
There’s a bit of an elephant in the room right now, and it’s the humour. You already know if you vibe with the Borderlands style of comedy, but going into the third entry, we weren’t actually sure where we’d land. Various jokes and one-liners did get a chuckle out of us, but we also found ourselves laughing at the game just as much. We’ve heard the phrase “my dude” enough to last us a lifetime now. Borderlands 3 continues its streak of dumb banter with an ounce of wit and half a ton of on-the-nose gags. It’s one of those games where if you think you’ve come across a reference, you can most certainly be assured it actually is one.
Presentation-wise, the game’s a bit of a stunner. Its cell-shaded aesthetic returns to bring colour to the wasteland and embolden textures that wouldn’t usually stand out on their own. It’s once again a visually fantastic art style, but the experience can’t always back that up with a smooth frame rate even in single player. The PS4 Pro allows you to prioritize the resolution for a 4K experience or performance which unlocks the frame rate, but it never consistently hits its target of 60. Combat is the biggest offender with drops all too often in the midst of battle, but for the most part, it stays smooth enough while traversing the open world.
We can’t sign off without talking about the boss fights, though. A series of bad guys and robots will stand in your way at certain points in the campaign, and the unique mechanics and settings they introduce make for some of the best engagements we’ve come across in quite some time. We’re not about to spoil any, but there are some pretty amazing sequences to be found throughout the game that you’re going to want to experience first-hand for yourself. Katagawa Ball can do one, however.
In refusing to dramatically innovate, Borderlands 3 continues to occupy a unique position in the RPG genre. Its blend of looting, shooting, and comedy makes for varied gameplay sequences, deep and meaningful player progression, and a couple of laughs along the way. It’s not going to convert anyone who wasn’t a fan of previous iterations, but in doing so, Borderlands 3 sticks to what it does best.