Borderlands 3 Review
A mostly purple tier follow-up
It has been five years since the last Borderlands game, and seven since the release of Borderlands 2, the last major entry in the series. During that time, the mixture of co-op shooter action and randomized loot popularized by the series has seen an explosion in the number of games. In a now-competitive market and after such a long wait, the much-anticipated full sequel Borderlands 3 has a lot to live up to. Even though the game ultimately sticks quite closely to the formula established in previous games, the third entry managed to fully satisfy my thirst for more Borderlands, though there are a few wrinkles of varying severity you will want to know about before jumping in.
After going back in time with The Pre-Sequel, Borderlands 3 once again moves things forward. You take control of one of four new vault hunters with the plot being the typical search for a great vault, racing against some evil villains in the process, and for the first time dealing directly with some of the corporations that manufacture weapons as part of the story. Though Borderlands has always been known for its over the top style and humour, the quality of the writing and storytelling, at least in the main story, feels like it has taken a step back from previous games. The main villains and some other central characters are just obnoxious and cringe-inducing rather than funny or clever, paling in comparison to the likes of Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2. Many returning characters are only given brief appearances that are mostly forgettable. The lengthy plot twists and turns, and seems like it is going to end several times before it actually does, but the generally groan-worthy dialogue you will need to listen to throughout the main storyline makes it very difficult to get invested in the quest.
Fortunately, some supporting characters – mostly those returning from previous games but also a couple of new ones – are more successful, and the bountiful side quests can be quite funny and feel more in line with what previous games in the series had to offer. One thing the plot of Borderlands 3 does do is move you around to an excellent variety of locations. Though you start out in the familiar wasteland of Pandora, you soon gain access to a spaceship that serves as the main hub and grants access to an increasing number of new planets and other interstellar locations, that provide some impressive variety both visually and in terms of environment layouts. Some planets contain just limited areas mostly used by story missions, while others have multiple large areas to explore and lots of reasons to do so with side quests and collectibles scattered all over. The level design in the story missions is generally very good with a mix of open areas and more linear ones with a good amount of verticality, though some missions are so long that they do drag a bit.
Location variety isn't the only thing that has been improved. The action in Borderlands 3 feels great and is a lot of fun for a few reasons. For one thing, a lot of weapons used by both yourself and enemies are projectile based, so you will be both moving out of the way of enemy fire to avoid damage while also anticipating where enemies will be relative to where your shots make impact, which will change drastically based on your weapon. Speaking of weapons, the randomized guns are back and are on average more satisfying here than in past Borderlands games, with the incredibly varied and ever-changing arsenal keeping the combat fresh for the lengthy duration of the campaign. The only downside is that you will need to inevitably drop a weapon you absolutely love because you will out-level it; however, this does force you to keep trying new weapons so you can never get too comfortable with your loadout – at least until you hit the level cap.
It also helps that there is a lot of enemy variety, from the classic rabid wasteland psychos to organized military forces and a wide variety of beasts and mutants, each with their own weak points and behaviors. Some enemies will work together in interesting ways and figuring out the best approach to these fights adds a touch of strategy to the proceedings – but only a touch. A few improvements to core mechanics also help; you can now mantle up high objects and grab onto ledges to pull yourself up after jumping. Powerful weapons like shotguns or explosives will knock enemies around with some ridiculous over-the-top ragdoll physics that feel like a perfect fit for the action. As a shooter, Borderlands 3 easily surpasses its predecessors.
The game also has a lot of boss fights in both story and side missions, many of which can be quite challenging especially if playing solo. A few of these fights cross the line into frustrating as certain attacks will end your life almost instantly, forcing you to rely on the Second Wind mechanic that lets you come back to life if you manage to get a kill; some fights don't spawn many enemies in addition to the boss so you might find yourself dying over and over until you memorize the attack patterns of the boss. Most of the fights are quite good though, with a few really memorable ones, and generally they require you to keep moving and make for exciting encounters that end in a shower of loot.
The loot in Borderlands 3 bears further description because it is probably the element that moves the experience forward the most. Weapons are again divided up among different manufacturers with each one having unique traits, such as Maliwan weapons needing to be charged for a moment before shooting, or Jacobs weapons dealing high base damage but with no elemental effect. This will sound familiar to series veterans, but what happens within these manufacturer parameters is anything but predictable. Though you will find weapons that are similar to each other, I was constantly surprised and delighted by the unique and interesting ways to use weapons throughout my thirty plus hours with the game. For instance, I completed one challenging boss fight by using a gun that when reloaded, turns into a turret on the ground that automatically fires the rest of the bullets in the magazine. Another weapon let me fire a tracker disc at an enemy, with subsequent shots homing in on the target without needing to aim. Many weapons have alternate firing modes that vary from switching from full to semi auto, to more exciting things like turning a sniper rifle into a RPG or shotgun.
The new vault hunter classes also allow for a bit more flexibility in terms of play style. Each vault hunter has three active skills to choose between, compared to just one in previous games. The character I spent the most time with, Zane, can choose to send out an attack drone, put up a shield, or deploy a clone of himself as a decoy. The Beastmaster Fl4k on the other hand has a pet following him around that will attack enemies, with the three active skills being three different types of pets. Though you can by default only have one active skill equipped (except for Zane who can switch his grenade for a second), you can swap between them at any time, and as you level up, you can add modifiers and upgrades to your active skills to make them even more powerful.
Between the varied classes with multiple skills and incredible variety of weaponry, there is solid replay value here. In addition to a new game+ 'True Vault Hunter' mode, there is new 'mayhem' mode that lets you return and complete side quests after the main story with much tougher enemies and improved loot. You can also matchmake with other players to play horde mode in a few arenas you can find hidden around the game world, or into 'proving grounds' missions, short dungeons with bosses at the end offering a good way to play a short session and get some good loot. Even after you hit the level cap of 50, you can continue improving your character with Guardian ranks which work much the same as Badass ranks in the last couple Borderlands games.
If you choose to play through Borderlands 3 with friends, which remains the most enjoyable way to experience the game, there is also a new option for how scaling between characters is handled. This new mode will scale enemies separately for each player, so a high level player can join a low-level friend and each will still face enemies of roughly their level without messing up the difficulty for the other player. This mode also instances loot so you and your comrades won't have to fight over the same weapons. If you prefer, you can still go back to classic rules where enemies' levels will be tied to the host, and loot will be shared.
Unfortunately, there are a few more problems to discuss outside of the weak plot, characters and writing. Borderlands 3 is definitely the buggiest release in the series, with glitches I encountered ranging from fairly benign to near game-breaking. Most annoying and pervasive were menu bugs that caused gun icons to get mixed up, making it easy to sell or equip the wrong weapon. At other times I was simply unable to switch weapons or experienced severe menu lag. Other bugs I encountered were enemies getting stuck outside the play-zone, forcing a reload at a checkpoint, or some that were more comical than harmful such as my character appearing to sit outside of a vehicle on the ground when driving around. The driving itself also feels rather clunky; there has been an improvement in vehicle variety, and you can now hijack enemy vehicles if yours gets blown up and even turn them in to gain access to new vehicle parts. However, the handling doesn't feel good, especially on a keyboard and mouse, and it is too easy to get caught up on objects littered around the map.
I also experienced some performance problems, especially when playing co-op. Though the game generally ran at a good frame rate, at times I experiences severe stuttering that made it near unplayable. I eventually got the game running smoothly most of the time after fiddling around with the settings, but there were times when the game would abruptly start stuttering and lagging until I restarted it. Ultimately, it is by no means unplayable, but when problems do rear their head it is frustrating because they take you out of the experience.
Even with some settings turned down to get things running smoothly, Borderlands 3 generally looks excellent. The cell-shaded visual art style from past games returns, but has been improved and refined to the point that everything looks extremely clear and detailed, bolstered by sharp textures and great lighting with strong art direction, with a day-night cycle making for some really breathtaking moments in the highly varied environments. My only complaint would be that when playing co-op during some of the more frantic firefights, the sheer amount of effects on screen from all the crazy weapons can be overwhelming and make it difficult to tell what is going on.
The same praise can also be applied to the audio design, which generally feels much beefier and more detailed than previous games. Mostly fantastic and highly varied weapon sounds play a part in making the combat very satisfying; I particularly love the sound of multiple explosions going off in quick succession. The original soundtrack is much more varied than in past games, going from the typical desert rock the series has used in the past to blood-pumping electronic music and even some with vocals. I found the result to be mixed, with some choices feeling a bit out of place while others work quite well.
If you enjoy loot-driven action games, and especially if you enjoyed previous games in the Borderlands series, I can't think of any real reason why you wouldn't have a blast with Borderlands 3. It is a shame that the main story and many central characters are more obnoxious than humorous or clever, and that the game suffers from a lack of polish manifested in some pretty annoying bugs and inconsistent performance. However, the latter issues can likely be fixed with patches, and the core of the game is as fun and addicting as ever, and will surely provide those who dive in with dozens of hours of entertainment.