It’s been seven years since the release of Borderlands 2, and in the meantime, Gearbox Software’s gem inspired a handful of studios to put their own spin on what many now call the 'looter shooter' genre. To this day, the Borderlands franchise remains unique, thanks to its graphical style, humor, and a savory gameplay loop that keeps one hunting for the best guns in Pandora. Borderlands 3 is finally here, and instead of reinventing the wheel, Gearbox delivered a sequel that leans on the franchise's strengths and calls it a day, resulting in a mix of satisfaction, fun, and frustration all covered in an array of jokes that fail to ace the landing.
The game begins with the player back on Pandora, allied with a new batch of Vault Hunters eager to join the Crimson Raiders, who are now led by Lilith the Firehawk. Handsome Jack is gone, but players will now have to go against the Calypso Twins -- two Siren siblings that are apparently the most famous streamers in the galaxy. The main campaign revolves around a race to crack open Vaults found on different planets before Tyreen and Troy Calypso. This is how Gearbox Software opens up the world beyond Pandora… at least, to a certain extent.
Are we still on Pandora?
The concept of exploring new planets was enticing at first, but as you delve deeper into each planet, you'll start to realize a sense of familiarity. If you hadn't told me that my character was leaving Pandora and going to, let’s say, the planet Eden-6, I would easily assume that I was in a lush Pandoran swamp. The characteristics of the people you'll see, the enemies, and the visual presentation all made me feel like I was still on the same planet. This was true for all planets. While it was fun going through each new location, all of them failed to establish a unique persona to differentiate themselves from the planet we’ve explored many times over in the last two games. Borderlands 3 gives one the impression that the whole universe is filled with the same crazies who dwell on Pandora, making it not so unique, after all.
And the familiarity continues. While you soldier through the campaign, you'll meet characters from the previous titles, such as the charming (to me, at least) Eridian researcher Tannis, Ellie, the loving/annoying Claptrap, and other familiar faces. Borderlands 3 naturally has new characters, and they all fit perfectly within the Borderlands universe. But the same potty humor is left intact, and that's where I was left scratching my head.
Maybe I've just outgrown it, but the writing and jokes that pervade Borderlands 3 just weren't providing the same reaction that I felt years ago. It's poop joke after poop joke. The well-established bawdy humor just isn't as effective the third time around. It might work for the next generation of players, but for me, it turned out to be more of an annoyance halfway through, as each lame attempt at a joke failed to get even a smirk out of me. It was great to hear them during the first few hours, but the flavor dies out quicker than my character’s shield during frenzied gunfights.
In most cases. the banter between characters is also a miss. I've experienced multiple occasions where the character’s dialogue had no relation or bearing at the task at hand. They felt like attempts to make you laugh again, but came off as white noise that I became compelled to turn off. In one instance, one character was insulting another and torturing him by literally blowing up his favorite establishments with his deadly beam weapon. The other character screamed in anger and vowed that he will pay for doing so. This type of banter was happening while I was fighting waves of enemies. It just doesn’t make any sense. People are dying and you just so happen to catch the conversation where a dude is basically pissing off another dude simply because he can. When your humor doesn't gel with what the player is experiencing, and actually breaks the tension, you might be forcing it a bit much.
There are interesting conversations out there, but not deep enough to encourage hunting for them. Even the game’s audio logs, which are mostly used to add more depth to the world for the player, were used as another means to make irrelevant jokes, or to poke fun at how stupid raiders can be in this universe.
Then we get more of this type of behavior with the Calypso Twins, Borderlands 3’s antagonists. As villains, they're nothing compared to Borderlands 2’s Handsome Jack, whose sadistic nature was befitting the prime evildoer in a world run and defined by chaos. The Twins, by contrast, are just two siblings on a power trip. They constantly tease you through comms with insults that feel childish, as if they were borne out of our current meme-filled Internet.
The campaign's conclusion felt stale, but it didn’t ruin the boss fights, which are a challenge, and require awareness and proper aim to overcome. If you’ve heard the term 'Bullet Hell', you'll have an idea of what awaits you.
If it ain’t broke, improve it
There's another familiar element to this adventure, but this time it’s a welcome return to form, and the main reason why Borderlands has strong replay value. The gunplay feels tight, and thanks to the quality of life improvements (sliding, loot instancing, the mini-map showing elevation, etc), Borderlands 3 claims the distinction of being among the top looter shooters available today.
You'll still travel the open landscapes with vehicles, but this time around, they're customizable. Character progression is deeper, and still provides a sense of enjoyment in matching the right sets of guns and equipment to fit your character. Gearbox simply expanded the features that fans loved, and it all just works.
Borderlands 3 still has the crazy amount of guns that carry unique properties, like elemental damage, gun designs, and stats to make each one stand out. Like previous games, this is mostly done by having different gun manufacturers. One manufacturer’s roster of guns will always come with the trait requiring the player to charge it before firing, while another brand's firearms act like grenade launchers, even down to their pistols. Some guns now also have an alternate fire, giving players more options.
How a player will loot their guns and customizes their character is based upon the same tried-and-true concept, just with improvements for added depth. It’s the best version of Borderlands, and you can get lost in all the carnage you inflict upon your enemies in Borderlands 3.
Performance issues that can discourage you
What Gearbox Software has released is a great looter shooter that, thanks to its gameplay, I foresee being played just as much as Borderlands 2. But as it stands, performance issues plague different versions of the game. I played the game on the PS4 and experienced severe FPS drops while browsing my inventory or skills. It was relentless, too, and terrible to the point that I cringe whenever I have to press the menu button. This is also present in the game’s split-screen option (where you share your screen with another player). A player altering their inventory will severely lag the other player’s game. It’s discouraging to play in split-screen, and to top it all off, the text is ridiculously tiny in this mode. It’s a shame, but at least playing the game online works as intended, with the option to share loot like the previous games, or to have each player collect their own loot.
Audio can sometimes disappear, even in key moments where music should take over. I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the score thanks to the game’s sound effects being simply too loud, overwhelming any kind of music present even after adjusting the in-game audio. I experienced a couple of crashes, and while at first, I thought these issues were only present on a regular PS4 unit, I’ve noticed similar complaints from those running Borderlands 3 on a PS4 Pro, even on an Xbox One X. The PC version has its own set of issues, and some of them involve character saves. Yikes.
All in all, optimization is not where it should be at launch and these issues could be fixed in the future, but it is disappointing to see these problems hindering those who jumped in early, as I find this a great looter shooter overall.
I felt like Gearbox Software played it safe. Yes, the majority of the fanbase wanted to see more of the world of Borderlands, and you’ll get that, but just don’t expect the franchise to be moving in a new direction. Risks were not taken here, and with good reason - their formula works, as they've crafted an addicting looter shooter worthy of your time. There are countless issues that made me roll my eyes, but they did not outweigh the gameplay, which is something I plan to engage in every now and then, but probably on mute or while watching a movie.
+ Great gunplay from start to finish
+ Deep customization and character loadouts
+ Looting guns never gets old
- Horribly unoptimized (FPS drops, crashes)
- Story was a complete miss and the jokes are mostly not funny anymore\
- Other planets still makes you feel like you are still in Pandora
+ / - Handsome Jack > Calypso Twins
What I’ve Played
Reached level 40 with the Beastmaster Fl4k.
Finished the campaign in under 25 hours, with a few sidequests done.
Played the character Zane for up to level 10 through split-screen and online.
Played a few hours on True Vault Hunter Mode, which is pretty much New Game+.
Played around with Mayhem Mode up to Mayhem III, a feature unlocked after finishing the game, allowing you to alter the difficulty of your currently save for better loot.
[This review is based on a PS4 review code provided by 2K Games.]