The original Borderlands made a promise of being a literal FPS gun-porn, set in a quirky futuristic/post-apocalyptic world and it very much delivered. From there on out, each game in the franchise came with its own set of improvements but the core formula remained the same. Shoot-loot-laugh-shoot-and loot some more.
Borderlands 3 pretty much follows that exact same formula but also makes some significant leaps when compared to often incremental improvements of the previous installments. While it might appear all too similar on the surface, the changes here run much deeper than skin deep.
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Previous mainline Borderlands games largely took place on Pandora with a brief detour to its moon Elpis in the Pre-sequel. I always felt this to be the most limiting factor of previous games from both the visual, gameplay and storytelling perspective. Borderlands 3, however, fully embraces its sci-fi and lets you roam across four different, very distinct planets. Not only does this add to the much-needed variety, but it also successfully creates a full-on space adventure vibe.
What makes Borderlands 3 great right off the bat is its approachability story-wise as you’ll have no problem being fully immersed in it if you didn’t play previous games. If you did, however – the payoff is immense, since it’s essentially Avengers: Endgame of the series. Many, if not all characters from previous games appear in one way or another – even ones from Tales from the Borderlands. Some are featured more prominently than others but each will bring a smile on the face of long-time fans.
Things start off innocently enough with a colorful new team of Vault Hunters arriving on Pandora. The large Hyperion corporation fell in a previous game and left a huge power vacuum that other factions are looking to fill. Chief among them is the fanatical cult called Children of the Vault led by the Calypso twins – Troy and Tyreen. While they are initially established as a badass duo by stealing Lilith’s siren powers, they quickly devolve into annoying space streamers that fail to hold a candle to the awesomeness that was Handsome Jack.
Luckily, they are out of sight for the majority of the game and are only heard taunting the player over the radio. The main story is spread across 23 chapters which are essentially multi-stage missions where you’re chasing after vault key fragments to gain access to vaults spread across the star system. They essentially drop you in very fun gameplay setpieces of increasing variety and epicness. There’s also a ton of side-quests that give further insight into the world and its quirky characters. While they might not be expertly written, they are peppered with the recognizable immature Borderlands humor that you’ll either love or hate.
The only issue I had with the story is the fact that you can’t skip cutscenes or the sometimes lengthy dialogue. While this didn’t bother me the first time around, it was annoying having to go through it all during my second playthrough with a different character.
For those who played previous mainline games in the franchise, Borderlands 3 is just that – only bigger and better. For the uninitiated, the game is the epitome of what it means to be a looter shooter as everything you do is in the pursuit of better gear.
Like its predecessors, Borderlands 3 has the procedurally generated weapons grouped into several categories depending on the type of weapon and its manufacturer. The variety of these weapons is further increased here and there is really an insane amount of truly unique gear, from both the visual and practical standpoint. Some even come with an alternate firing mode, making you into an even more versatile weapon of mass destruction.
Loot drops and stashes come at a break-neck frequency and feel insanely worthwhile. It creates an addictive loop where you gain increasingly imaginative means of dispatching enemies the more you play. What’s more, animations, movement and shooting itself feel faster and snappier than ever. The weapons have more weight to them and each shot fired is felt like never before. This results in moments of action spectacle where you jump, shoot, slide and use skills coming often and as naturally as breathing.
This would all be for naught if the enemies you face lacked variety and thankfully they don’t. Each location has a few distinct ones that require you to somewhat vary your approach in terms of weapon status effects and skills. Bosses, on the other hand, are a bit of a mixed bag. While there are some imaginative and very fun ones, other ones feel like they are made with a full 4-player co-op in mind and are incredibly bullet spongy.
When it comes to the characters, there are four very distinct ones on offer here – Moze the gunner, Zane the operative, FL4K the beastmaster and Amara the siren. Their designated class is much more customizable in terms of skills and all of them support multiple builds depending on your play style of choice. Using them in combination with your weapon arsenal can feel insanely empowering and fun. Zane can drop a clone that he can teleport-switch places with, FL4K can become invisible while use his beasts to support him in battle, and the list goes on.
The diverse and highly customizable characters mean that co-op is as fun as ever. You can even customize your loot experience by having it be instanced or more akin to the original Borderlands experience where it’s first come first served. The customization even extends to the visual appearance of the characters. While this is a spawning ground for microtransactions, there’s a substantial amount of cool looking cosmetics you can get in the game by simply playing it.
And there’s a lot to go through here, even after you finish up the meaty 30-hour story. First up, any unfinished side-quests will scale to your level in both difficulty and the quality of loot. You can also opt to go at it again in a new game plus mode or partake in a number of awesome endgame activities.
Mayhem mode ups the difficulty but also provides much better loot drops. Then there are the Proving ground trials which serve as a sort of mini-dungeon. These have many normal enemies to go through with difficult boss at the end. Each is also spiced up with optional timed objectives which, if completed, yield better rewards.
While there is some quality of life changes in that you can fast travel from anywhere, they don’t extend to the UI experience. First up, navigating the map can be extremely confusing. Both your spaceship Sanctuary and some open-world areas are needlessly convoluted and confusing to navigate. Mini-map is pretty much useless and in many co-op matches, I had one teammate having a map open during long rides to the objective instead of shooting and having fun. Additionally, the weapon and other menus are oversaturated with information and really clunky to go through.
VISUALS AND AUDIO
I previously thought that Borderlands, with its cell-shaded visuals, doesn’t have many avenues left to go to in terms of improvement. I was wrong and Unreal Engine 4 really did wonders here. While much of why Borderlands 3 looks better can be attributed to the imaginative design and visual personality of the new locations – the fidelity is also much-improved.
As soon as you start the game the first thing to notice is the texture work. They are now much more pronounced, sharper and with a ton of detail clearly visible. The geometry is clearly more complex and characters have more visual depth. Furthermore, the game’s lighting engine received a touch-up, showcasing the world in all of its saturated cell-shaded glory.
What further contributes to the overall package are the improved animations as well as a huge number of visual weapon effects. The latter in particular combine with punchy sounds for a pure audiovisual spectacle once the shooting starts.
All is not without issues, however. While every location is a visual treat and is more densely packed than ever, they don’t exactly feel alive. There are no interactive elements and everything feels static. Enemies don’t freely roam around the game world like in Destiny for example but have clearly visible spawn locations. This is probably the only aspect where Borderlands would have greatly benefited by copying other looter-shooters. Next game perhaps?
Furthermore, the jump to UE4 did bring a couple of performance issues. While the framerate was fairly stable on our test machine (I7-7700k, 1080Ti, 16GB RAM), hovering around 80 FPS most of the time at 1440p – dips did occur. This was most evident during some of the more intense firefights and colorful, effect heavy boss loot drops. These issues and framerate drops become more potent during multiplayer sessions where they can somewhat impact the enjoyment of the game.
What’s more, we experienced a couple of crashes, save sync issues and lost progress after returning from a multiplayer session. Ultimately, it was nothing that ruined the game for us and as far as we know, Gearbox is already on top of these problems and they’ll hopefully get patched in a future update.