If you think back to Borderlands 2, you’ll likely remember some vault hunters, crazy bosses, that one guy that insists you shoot him in the face, and a whole lot of guns. Sure, there’s some nuance underneath, but it really boils down to killing a whole lot of enemies, Handsome Jack being a complete pain in the ass, and a never-ending quest for the shiniest of loot. Well, after five years, it’s time to get our gun fetish on once again, but could Borderlands 3 deliver more than guns, gore, and some fresh new antagonists? Let me ask it a different way…even if it didn’t, would you care? Now you see the trouble with writing a review for Borderlands 3. Let’s pop this loot box and figure out what’s vendor trash and what’s legendary.
The storyline once again tells the story of a fresh crop of hunters hitting the mean brown dirt streets of Pandora, hoping to crack open a vault full of loot. With Handsome Jack in the rear view mirror, a new set of people to irritate you, incessantly was needed, and boy did Gearbox deliver on that end. Shortly after the game begins, two “murder-streamers” notice your arrival and decide that it’d be lots of hits for their channel if they continuously trolled you. It brings “the lulz” for them to drown you in enemies, screw up your plans, and otherwise just taunt you incessantly. Tyreen Calypso and her brother Troy are the leaders of a gang called “The Children of the Vault” and they intend to vlog their entire journey to find the “Great Vault”. Me? I’m hoping for an empty vault, Geraldo-style, or The Destroyer’s larger brother to eat both of them.
While Handsome Jack made an excellent antagonist, there’s no doubt that Borderlands 2 had fantastic sub-bosses and personalities to encounter. Borderlands 3 follows the same path, with memorable bosses throughout, though the Calypso twins are not as charismatic and compelling as the dearly-departed Jack. While Handsome Jack was gleefully sadistic and you loved to hate him, the Calypso twins are just kind of annoying, although they are definitely intentionally written and performed that way.
The Calypso are also a rather obvious allegory for stream and YouTube culture. However, while the writing does make strides in using this allegory to explore how streamer and the audience interact with a world that is becoming more and more corporatized, they never really take it further than just pointing out it exists. There also a lot of themes about family and heroism, which combine to tell the most adult story that gearbox have ever told even if it rather surface level.
Additionally, the story is rather fetch quest heavy. I lost count of the amount of times that any given character would tell me we need to go get a thing, and then almost every time we’d get about half way, the thing we need and the bad guys would do something and we’d have to go get another. My point is that so many of the quests in the 20sih hour story are either the equivalent of a fetch quest or feel a lot like padding.
Mechanically, there are a great many improvements that can easily slide under the radar, the first of which being sliding and mantling. Running, sliding, spinning around, and shooting enemies while you zip under their legs is now not only possible, but totally awesome. You can now also mantle up the side of ledges and objects to create better angles. Once you have that angle, you’ll be happy to know that you can destroy a lot of cover in the environment — just know that this mechanic works both ways. When that cover fails, you’ll also find that you can revive and be revived by NPCs, which is why you keep that cannon fodder alive and kicking anyway.
There are other new mechanics that can turn the tide of the battlefield. Barrels can now be meleed into enemies, discharging their toxic chemicals, oil, or other environmental awfulness under the feet of your foes. Similarly, there are pipe covers and other items that can be popped, spewing muck into the space such as flammable oil. Radiation makes an appearance as a new elemental damage type, but how do all of these interplay? Well, Borderlands 3 is fairly mum on the subject, so let me break it down for you. Enemies who have armor will take double damage from acid, and shields can be depleted with shock effects. Fire is useful against soft, unarmored targets, causing damage over time. Radiation is the great multiplier, causing enemies to take additional damage, and ultimately causing them to explode upon death. While this information is available via weapon inspection screen, Borderlands never quite spells out to you. These features play into weapon choice, so let’s dig into the delicious, fantastic, copious amounts of loot.
The first thing to note regarding loot is when playing multiplayer, you have two options — cooperative (instanced loot and level scaling) and “co-opetition” which makes for a loot free-for-all, and no level or weapon scaling. Once you decide how much you actually like your friends and have chosen a mode, you’ll almost immediately start getting a metric assload of loot.
Each gun in Borderlands 3 is composed procedurally of roughly 11 individual pieces. Some of these pieces are cosmetic, some are mechanical, and some enable multiple fire modes. In the Borderlands series each gun comes with a specific set of traits tied to which manufacturer made them. That is cranked up to 11 in Borderlands 3, with that manufacturer offering up individual traits that mix and match to what Gearbox has said is over a billion unique combinations. There are still gun archetypes that you might expect in any looter-shooter like pistols, shotguns, SMGs, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, etc., but given how many ways these can be combined with alt-fire modes, scopes, elemental effects, and more, it keeps the weapon payload feeling unique. There are even some new weapon manufacturers including the Children of the Vault — a weapon type that never reloads, but eventually overheats and breaks.
The difference on the quality of gunplay is one of the first things that I noticed versus Borderlands 2. Borderlands has historically had a very Diablo approach of combat, in that you just kind point a click in a general direction and things die. With Borderlands 3 however, the gunplay has been tightened and refined, to feel on pair with a truer FPS like Call of Duty.
One of the things I appreciate is some of the quality of life improvements in Borderlands 3, first and foremost being the ability to teleport at any time. It means that when your backpack is stuffed full of loot, you can warp back to a vending machine to sell off your goods, then warp back to your vehicle with nary a disruption. Similarly, if you left some loot behind, you’ll be happy to see the new “Lost Loot Machine” when you reach a certain point in the game. This lets you pick up those goodies you might have left on the battlefield without having to worry about hauling back and forth multiple times, slowing down the action.
It would be sad if we got all of this great loot if the vehicles didn’t get an overhaul as well. The Catch-A-Ride is alive and well, but this time around you’ll be doing a lot more customization. Any vehicle you see rolling around with a trait you don’t have can be hijacked and brought back to Ellie, where she’ll dismantle it and let you select those traits the next time you spawn a vehicle. Better, the garage has been expanded with a handful of new vehicles, including a massive truck that can support all four players. Armor, new wheels, paint jobs, weapon types, and tires can also be swapped out once you’ve uncovered them. There are even abandoned unique vehicles hidden in the environment, so keep your eyes peeled.
So with all this great loot and vehicles, you’ll need somebody to shoot at. The Borderlands 3 usual suspects of grunts, tanks, tinks, psychos and more are all back with their funny one-liners (which thankfully don’t repeat as often as you might expect), as re goofy sub-bosses. Bosses are even more frequent than before, most being multi-stage and requiring more than a little teamwork and the aforementioned elemental interplay.
Teamwork is obviously the big lure of Borderlands 3. To put it to the test, I set out with three of my friends, each of us selecting one of the four available Vault Hunters. As you can see in the let’s play below, once we got past a few hiccups (which have thankfully been patched since), we were able to sync up and tackle the world of Pandora together, as Gearbox intended. Playing solo doesn’t quite give you the same punch as playing with a friend, and playing with four complimentary players really does complete the picture. Moze has a Titanfall or D.Va-like mech that she can summon, and with a point in the right skill, a second player can mount a turret on the back and gun down foes with her. Zane has a clone that he can bring in to distract foes, which can turn the tide when things get overwhelming. His drones are also great for dealing damage or shielding friends, and he’s the only Vault Hunter that can equip two primary action skills simultaneously. [email protected], the beastmaster, has a variety of beasts that he can bring into the field that can augment wherever you are lacking, whether that’s damage, distraction, speed, or whatever else. Amara is your resident Siren of the group, unleashing massive attacks like a ground slam, locking people in place, or throwing hundreds of small projectiles into the enemy. Or at least…that’s how we played it.
One of the other big changes in Borderlands 3 is a near-insistence that you re-spec your character frequently. Without much trouble, you can refund your points and change up all of your skills to tackle whatever lies ahead. Better still, the Gearbox team has provided a webpage to let you play with the three skill trees that each character has, as you can see right here.
One of the things I appreciate most about this latest iteration from Gearbox is that we finally get to break free of Pandora. Once you get to a certain point in the story, you’ll escape the crap planet, visiting three additional biomes. It’s great to see some new colors, including some downright TRON-like neon. Using your ship as a hub (with a room you can decorate), you can visit the planets nearly at-will once you’ve had a reason to visit them. Once you get there, the same self-deprecating humor you’ve come to expect will guide you through a bunch of fun side quests. Sure, plenty of them amount to FedEx quests, but the dialogue and the occasional cameo from familiar friends keeps it all rolling forward.
Unfortunately it’s not all sunshine and roses for the PC port. There are issues with mysterious hitching, somewhat frequent crashing, and a self-described beta level of DirectX 12 support. Falling back to DX11 helped with stability problems, but seeing a 1080TI hitting over 100fps with maxed settings, and a 2080TI clearing nearly 200, seeing any visible framerate hitches is baffling. A patch dropping on 9/26/19 promises to resolve these issues, but we’ve not had enough time with the game to confirm any improvements.
There is one other area that can be a little confusing for new players — the UI. For instance, if you are a veteran of Borderlands you know that Shift codes give you golden keys to unlock the big loot boxes. The fact that, even when redeemed, are locked in your in-game mailbox under the social tab makes little sense — I’ve already redeemed them. Similarly, the trading system is a little clunky, and more often than not I find myself selecting a gun and then having to hit escape to unselect it as I can’t seem to do anything else with it. In fact, you’ll see in our Let’s Play that we just decided that it’s easier to drop a gun than it is to hand it to someone. The interface takes a little bit to get used to, but with 20+ hours of gameplay on your first playthrough of the story, you’ll eventually stop hating it, at least in theory.
My co-author, Sam Dirkis, has spent more time with endgame content than I have, so I leave you in his capable hands:
Gearbox has changed up the endgame grind this time around by adding guardian rank. Now don’t worry, finding God-roll guns and min maxing your character’s loadout is still very much part of the experience but now once you finish the story, you’ll have access to secondary leveling system called guardian rank. Guardian in very similar to badass rank from Borderlands 2 in that i allows you to give minor upgrades to things like gun damage, health and shields. However it has been split into three trees, enforcer which gives buffs to your damage output, survivor which improves your survivability, and hunter which improve things action skill cool down and drop rates, and the more points you put into each tree you’ll start to unlock skills that complement that tree. Also, like badass rank guardian rank is account based, so once one of your characters finished the story all of them will start earning guardian rank. The key difference to badass rank though is that Guardian rank is earned through xp. Guardian rank is a nice improvement to the endgame of Borderlands, giving those who want to log on everyday a way to continually get more powerful.
On top of guardian rank Borderlands 3 has host of endgame modes, the various tiers of mayhem mode, the proving grounds and of course the old favorites of circle of slaughter and true vault hunter mode.
Let’s start with Mayhem mode. Mayhem mode has three tiers each one making the enemies in open world tougher to kill but gives you more experience and better drop rates for loot. The difficulty spikes offered by each tier a pretty well rounded, with none of them feeling inherently unfair, however I wouldn’t recommend going in to tier 3 for the first time without a few friends and having put some time into guardian rank.
The next endgame mode you’ll come across are the proving grounds. There are three different 3 proving grounds they all operate kinda like a Diablo 3 rift, you load in, kill rooms full of bad guys ending with a boss, and the faster you go the better the rewards at the end. The proving grounds offer a really good way to add mob grinding to the endgame, as with previous games the only endgame activities worth your time where killing the same handful of bosses. Wait to run through the proving grounds at mayhem 3 to see what kind of challenge they offer.
The circle of slaughter is back. However, it’s pretty much the same as ever. The addition of the proving grounds make the circle of slaughter irrelevant as it’s pretty much the same experience, except Mister Torgue yells at you. It would have been nice to see Gearbox put some love into the mode in order to differentiate between it and the proving grounds.
And lastly to true vault hunter mode (TVHM). I can’t help but think that true vault hunter mode in the grand scheme of things is kind of pointless. You can’t turn on mayhem modifiers in TVHM and until you finish the story giving you both less loot and less xp than just running the proving grounds over and over in normal mode. I guess if you want to experience the story again then it’s there and there are some neat guns tied to story and side quests, but in terms of endgame grind it doesn’t offer much that you can’t get in normal mode. I also found kind of inconvenient that your open world progression (collectibles and stuff) carries over from normal mode, as I would have been nice to open some the typhon chests again.
Borderlands 3 is the modern looter shooter at its finest. The signature humor is alive and well, and with a cast of four fresh Vault Hunters and over a billion guns (and some with legs!), there’s a lot to be excited about. It builds on and evolves everything that makes Borderlands great without changing the core looting and shooting that makes Borderlands, Borderlands.