Borderlands 3 Review
It turns out video games used to be fun.
Borderlands was the first loot shooter to break into main stream gaming all the way back in 2009. At the time, it felt like “Diablo with Guns,” at least that’s what I remember thinking to myself. Gearbox further refined the series with the release of Borderlands 2 in 2012 and the series hasn’t had a mainline entry since. Despite fans calling for Borderlands 3 ever since then, it was never a certainty that it would arrive. In that time, the genre loot shooter has exploded since then. It seems like every major publisher has had their own Borderlands style game. Activision had Destiny. Ubisoft, The Division. EA had Anthem. When we saw Destiny for the first time at E3, I remember calling it Bungie’s version of Borderlands because that’s what it sounded like. These games are all like Borderlands, except for one major difference. They are service games, live worlds that require an online connection to play them. Borderlands wasn’t, and it still isn’t.
Everything about the lead-up to release has been horrible for Borderlands 3
Despite absolutely loving Borderlands 2 I wasn’t incredibly excited about the announcement of Borderlands 3. The press surrounding Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford seemed disgusting. The game didn’t look much different than its predecessor. It really felt like Gearbox and 2K were just trying to exploit the popularity of this franchise to make their own service-based loot shooter without much by way of overhaul that you would expect from such a long wait. After putting some serious time into Borderlands 3, all of that misguided confusion was resolved. Borderlands 3 is an incredible sequel that was worth the wait. It evokes the nostalgia of a era that came before games as a service. It does all of the things that made the previous games great. It has all the shortcomings of those games as well. It doesn’t feel riddled with microtransactions and it’s just a fun ride with plenty to do and see. It’s hard to imagine any fan of the previous games not enjoying Borderlands 3.
As has been the case in the previous two Borderlands games, Borderlands 3 puts you into the shoes of a new Vault Hunter. The story takes place some time after the fall of Handsome Jack, where Tyreen and Troy Calypso have formed a cult called the Children of the Vault. These two mirror social media influencers who lead what is described as a murder cult. Your job is to help Lilith and a cast of previous Borderlands characters as they try to stop the Calypso twins from getting the powers held in these vaults. The story is still very much the Borderlands that you remember and a cast of characters from previous games will definitely stir up old memories. As a member of the Crimson Raiders, you’ll travel across the galaxy in your ship called the Sanctuary-3 to fight through these worlds to secure the powers of the vaults. Story has never been the game’s strong suit, and it still isn’t, but it’s serviceable, light-hearted, and attempts to be humorous at every turn. Mileage may vary depending on your sense of humor, but most of Borderlands 3 is handled in good taste. The 30-ish hour main campaign is the meat and potatoes of the game, but there’s also plenty to do in terms of side content, Easter eggs to find, and weapons to track down.
Borderlands 3 sticks to what it’s always done best, shooting and looting
Borderlands’ strong suit has been its cooperative focused gameplay, the ability to customize your character the way you want, and the sheer amount of weapons and loot to uncover. Borderlands 3 doesn’t stray from this. In fact it doubles down on what made the series such a hit a decade ago in a way that is refreshing. And this is where I was incredibly wrong about what Borderlands 3 would be. I just assumed that it would be more like the games as a service games that were mentioned above. Borderlands 3 feels unabashedly retro. Moreover, it feels like a complete experience where you get some type of resolution at the end of it and the sense of accomplishment that comes along with that. At the same time, once the credits roll, you have a sense of attachment to your character and the betterment of them so you want to keep playing the game by participating in the end game content. I really can’t say enough about how refreshing Borderlands feels when you stack it up against “Old Destiny”, Anthem, or other games that have roughly comparable gameplay experiences.
And that moment to moment gameplay is shooting things. If there’s one complaint that I would levy against Borderlands 3 is in the shooting and movement. From Borderlands to Borderlands 2 there was a huge improvement in the feel of the game. With Borderlands 3 there isn’t as much of an improvement to this aspect. Gearbox certainly isn’t giving Bungie a run for their money when it comes to the general feel of the game. Yet, it’s still very much an enjoyable time to mow through enemies and tweak your loadouts as you progress to higher and higher ranks. And that’s the core gameplay loop of Borderlands 3. Shoot stuff, watch the numbers fly out of enemies as their health bar drains, collect the loot they drop, and then equip it to your character to see the results. What makes Borderlands standout is just how many of those weapons there are. At times, Borderlands 3 can feel overwhelming in its customization options as there are so many different weapons, shields, class modifiers and other items to equip to your character to tailor them to your specific play style. While all this loot and customization is welcomed in a game of this nature, better UI to compare items on the fly would’ve been nice. For those always looking to optimize their character as they find new loot will constantly be shuffling back and forth between menus to check their optimal builds.
The bad part is there are TOO MANY guns
Borderlands 3 does often times feel like there’s a chance to miss something cool. Whether that’s a unique weapon or powerful shield or grenade, there’s so much loot that you’re going to need to do a lot of experimentation. The good side of this is that the gameplay never feels stale. You won’t be using the same guns in hour 3 as you will be using in hour 4 with the game. You are constantly switching and swapping for new, cool combinations of weapons. That said, there is no upgrade path to weapons, so the ones that you find early on in the game won’t feel as powerful as you progress. With so many weapons in the game there’s also a chance that some of them are broken. We found this to be the case with one specific weapon called the Porcelain Pipe Bomb. This grenade felt overpowered in a way that seemed like it was breaking the game. (We’re talking one or two grenades to kill a boss). We didn’t find others that completely changed the feel of the game like this one did, but it’s possible that they are out there.
Each planet of Borderlands 3 is chocked-full of baddies to fight your way through, but the crown jewels are most certainly the boss battles. These big set-piece battles feel better than they’ve ever been in the series with the bosses of Borderlands 3. While you’ll encounter bosses in the story missions, these are tiered further with the addition of Vault Guardians. Which are really impressive boss battles that play gatekeeper to powerful progression items. Just take a look at the video below of one of the first vault guardian battles to see what we mean.
This particular boss was guarding an item that allows you to farm a currency called Eridium which allows you to purchase weapons and upgrades for your character. This massive boss fight was both exceptional from a design standpoint and from a presentation perspective. And there’s a ton more just like this in the game.
From main missions to side missions and Easter Eggs and nods to other popular entertainment franchises
We mentioned above that the story can be hit or miss when it comes to the general narrative, but Borderlands 3 is definitely a game with a ton of fan service. Just about every noteworthy character from the series makes an appearance in this game. The original cast from Borderlands, characters from Borderlands 2, and a ton of the peripheral characters from both games and DLC are here. These characters will all participate in the story as either companions or teammates along the way, which again is another throwback that doesn’t let you forget the franchise’s roots. There’s so much to do outside of the main story missions (of which there are 23 in total) to keep you busy. There are a ton of side missions to tackle and Easter Eggs to find, sometimes it’s a combination of both. Gearbox hasn’t been afraid to throw pop culture references into the Borderlands franchise over the last couple of games and BL3 is no different. Look hard enough and you’ll find references to pop culture television shows, movies, and other video games strewn throughout the world of Borderlands 3. From nods to Destiny, Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, and others to be found and discovered on your own.
The party keeps going once you’ve seen the credits roll
When said story is over and you’ve checked off your list of side missions and activities, there’s still more to play in Borderlands 3 and that’s probably the best part about it. The main story is the focal point, but if utilizing all the weapons and gear that you’ve found to tackle tougher enemies is your thing, Borderlands 3 will give you all the challenge you can handle with multiplayer game modes like Proving Grounds or additional difficulty options with Mayhem Modes. The game still focuses on loot and progression at this stage of the game, but you move on to a completely different ranking system at that point. The impressive part of Borderlands 3, which we mentioned above, is how natural the transition from credits to more game actually is. Nothing feels sacrificed in Borderlands 3 the way that it might in something like Destiny or The Division. It’s not a service game so the question isn’t how do we keep people playing, but seems to be how do we keep the fun going. The modes that are there provide challenge and further progression. You basically just keep doing what you were doing. Enemies scale up, you earn more powerful loot. The core gameplay loop stays in tact and it’s as engaging at hour 2 as it is at hour 20 and beyond into the 30’s and 40’s during the end game.
Borderlands 3 across the board is an impressive game, and subjectively it’s one of the best loot shooters you can spend your money on if you want a complete day one experience. Objectively, it’s hard to overlook some of its shortcomings. This is especially true in the performance department. While not unplayable, Borderlands 3 does have some problems. Even on the console version that we played we found things like console freezing (Xbox One X), slow down, and frame rate issues. These seemed sporadic and not tied to one specific thing to trigger the performance problems. While hectic boss fights would perform seamlessly in one encounter, they would perform poorly in others. As we also mentioned above, our specific playthrough was tainted by getting a weapon that is clearly broken that made all of our other weapons feel weak in comparison. When a single grenade can cut a late game boss’s health in half, it’s clearly a problem. While this didn’t pop up for us until late game, and other players might not have this same experience.. they could. And if you do, it’s going to be up to you to restrain yourself in using these super powerful items that break the pace and challenge of the game.
For someone that didn’t have too high of hopes for Borderlands 3 this game felt so good. Perhaps it was a case of media coverage painting the game in a bad light. Or, maybe it was the fact that Borderlands 3 looks and plays very similarly to previous games in the series. Whatever the case, the gameplay and presentation of it overcame any of that after settling in and seeing what was here. And what that is is a big open world shooter that you can sink a ton of time into and that time will be rewarded. Never once did it feel like a grind to get the weapons you want. Pacing of upgrades never felt like it was unnaturally grindy to make you spend more time or push you to microtransactions. In a two words, Borderlands 3 was refreshing and nostalgic.
Removing Borderlands 3 from the mess of bad press heading up to launch, this is a game for Borderlands fans first and everyone else be damned. The near perfect gameplay loop of shooting and looting stick to what made this franchise great. In an industry where developers struggle to capture the magic of what brought fans to them in the first place, Borderlands 3 delivers the game fans have been waiting for.
- Available On: Xbox One, PS4, PC
- Published By: 2K Games
- Developed By: Gearbox Software
- Genre: Loot Shooter
- US Release Date: September 13th, 2019
- Reviewed On: Xbox One
- Quote: "Borderlands 3 delivers the game fans have been waiting for."