Review co-written by Kosta Andreadis and Adrian Haas.
Taken at face value Borderlands 3
is fun and a welcome return to the co-op action-RPG shooting of the series' roots. Wonderful guns, explosive screen-filling action, and a colourful palette of locales and enemies that continues to push the cartoon-come-to-life aesthetic. Fun yes, but not that thing it aspires to be. Funny.
They say comedy is subjective, and this is true in the sense that what one person finds funny another may not. That said, Borderlands 3 is not funny. At least not in the same way the first two entries were. Almost offensively so. And not in the subject matter or scatological sources of its rapid-fire reference-filled stream of endless gags and regurgitated memes - but in how it treats the art-form we call the joke.
The world of Borderlands
has never been known for subtle humour, obscure pop-culture references or taciturn, reclusive characters. Far from it. The original Borderlands
began the trend in overtly comic and charmingly juvenile presentation the franchise aimed for, later improved upon in the all-round superior Borderlands 2
. The comedic side of Borderlands takes a weird turn and enters an immediate nosedive in Borderlands 3, where everything’s cranked up to 11.
Usually, and especially in the case of Borderlands, this would be an excellent first step towards ensuring the game's success among fans. Over-the-top, comic, cartoon violence and surface-level humour. Here though it only serves to highlight the paper-thin character development and cliched writing that frames a tedious and poorly constructed plethora of fetch quests masquerading as story. In that the main questline has you scouring the galaxy for one Vault Key Fragment
A tale that unimaginatively has most of its key story beats and big showdowns take place in the wastelands of Pandora
So even though you’ll eventually board the Sanctuary III
and visit distant planets and the homeworlds of Atlas
, and other manufacturers of firearms - it’s stuff like this that makes the larger Borderlands 3 universe feels small. This comes to the fore as the game brings back just about every face and robotic one-wheeled chunk of metal seen in the first two games. Lilith
, Sir Hammerlock
, and others.
“Paper-thin character development and cliched writing frames a tedious and poorly constructed plethora of fetch quests masquerading as story.”
The problem with this reunion is two fold. One, the characters feel different. Sometimes even sounding different due to other voice actors stepping into roles. Second, they behave in ways that betray the admittedly only very tiny bits of subtlety they had before.
Like a fan-written episode of your favourite sitcom, there are jokes and familiar names around every corner - but none of it works. Not that we were expecting the sort of depth found in a Willy Shakes play
, it’s almost as if the writers weren’t even trying. Tiny Tina
all grown up with the same vocabulary and phrase book from her childhood comes across as silly. Whilst having you reaching for the mute button. Borderlands 3, in essence, plays it so safe as to neuter its edge completely.
Certain side quests don’t fare better, with most of the ones that focus on a singular comedic premise coming off as lazy rather than clever. For example, there’s one where you’re tasked to beta test an early access release of a VR-meets-AR title. Janky animation, paywalls, characters that repeat phrases over and over - are all amusing at first. But then it’s minute 20 and you’re still in this quest seeing the same jokes and “on-purpose-man” boring linear design.
Level design follows suit, presenting the same stuff we’ve seen in the Borderlands of old. But, there are some notable attempts made to improve exploration. Although not technically side quests, there are numerous hidden recordings, Claptrap parts, world bosses, hidden caches and red chests scattered throughout the various planets. Hunting them all down is rewarding and amplifies the sense of discovery, allowing you to fully explore some of the more visually impressive planets and cityscapes. Especially with the new ability that lets you mantle and climb onto ledges. Which works, maybe 50% of the time.
In recapturing or remixing Borderlands 2, where the different planets are simply the different locations we’ve already seen on Pandora, some of the older problems linger. Sure, you expect a desert to be devoid of life, but a bustling metropolis that ends up being a few streets and buildings simply there to spawn enemies? Yeah, something’s off. Pandora is a backwater has-been, long deserted. This rule seemingly now applies to every planet you visit.
“Like a fan-written episode of your favourite sitcom, there are jokes and familiar names around every corner - but none of it works.”
Borderlands 3 is at its best when it’s not trying to be funny. And thankfully these parts of the long-awaited sequel are improved upon in meaningful and very welcome ways over the first two outings. Combat is uniformly excellent in a way that builds on what has come before - with the team at Gearbox
going to great lengths to ensure that even though you’ll try out and use hundreds of different guns, each one has its own distinct look and feel. From the visual construction and bits of metal that are tied to each gun manufacturer, to the secondary abilities and stats that can result in effects that put an immediate smile on your face as enemies melt. Sound-design is equally impressive.
Even after dozens of hours we can fondly remember using at least as many distinct and unique guns. This is a sentiment that applies to grenades, shields, artifacts, and other items you can equip - nothing overtly new or fresh but a noticeable improvement. Simple things like Maliwan
guns now alternating between two types of elemental damage or Torgue
weapons firing off explosive rounds with an alternate fire that turns each projectile into a sticky bomb. It all plays into what drew players to Borderlands in the first place, wild action-RPG progression and loot in the form of a first-person shooter. The loot identity is stronger than ever, which plays into the class and build variety on offer.
Although the newly minted playable Vault Hunters
, outside of FL4K
, are one dimensional pretenders to the throne of memorable folk you once loved - and loved to hate - their skills in Active and Passive form represent a major step up in the variety and RPG-like stakes. In the original Borderlands it took having to reach max level to create a proper build, an issue that is now long gone in Borderlands 3. Now you can mix and match between multiple skill-trees at a high enough level, and in the case of the new Beastmaster
class alternate between different pet helpers that range from damage dealers to area-of-effect crowd control masters. Items and weapons will inform builds and vice-versa, leading to a stat game full of depth for those so inclined.
Without a doubt a more-of-the-same Borderlands is a great time, especially when played in co-op - but the long wait for Borderlands 3 simply amplifies its place in time. And lack of design innovation. Borderlands 2 came out before Diablo III
’s excellent Reaper of Souls expansion
, prior to Destiny
, and of course prior to Ubisoft’s The Division
“Without a doubt a more-of-the-same Borderlands is a great time, especially when played in co-op.”
Once your first playthrough is complete, there's nothing like a Diablo-style Adventure Mode that encourages you to return for another session. Mayhem Mode
has the right idea, in offering increased challenge and modifiers, but replaying a handful of dungeons and horde arenas without the framework of repeatable quests or Rift-like randomised dungeons
quickly makes the inclusion half-baked. The Circles of Slaughter
and Proving Grounds
can be fun for a few hours, but the quantity of legendary loot also means you’ll quickly run out of storage space for it all. Not to mention having to constantly deal with the sluggish inventory system.
Borderlands 3, once you’ve completed its lengthy campaign, is essentially Borderlands 2 2.0. There's True Vault Hunter Mode
, allowing you to take your established character through the game a second time, with tougher enemies and better loot, and the stuff mentioned above. The drive to re-do the story again is, well, simply not there. It’s linear to a fault, and the plotting is forgettable. The cardinal sin of not being able to skip previously witnessed cutscenes drags it all out to the point of boredom.
The core feel of classic Borderlands action is enough to carry you through at least one play-through of Borderlands 3. One more round of a specific style of over-the-top shooter we loved playing years ago. But in 2019, it’s hard to feel as excited as we once were with the more-of-the-same approach taken here. Especially when it fails to capture the charm of the original two outings or innovate beyond the guns you wield.