Borderlands 3 is finally here, but does the Borderlands formula still work? Here is our review…
Release Date: September 13, 2019
Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Stadia
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Genre: Action RPG
Being able to look back on who you were five years ago and feeling a little embarrassed is often a sign of growth. It’s good that you’re able to change over time and maybe even laugh a little bit at your past self. In terms of growth, Borderlands 3 isn’t quite the townie who sticks around to buy beer for high school kids and force them to listen to stories from “when they were cool,” but it definitely sneaks up to the attic to gaze longingly at its varsity jacket from time to time.
The Borderlands franchise hasn’t changed much since the release of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel five years ago. It’s still a rude, crude, cel-shaded action RPG where you shoot a bunch of enemies and search every nook and cranny for better weapons and loot.
Vocal hardcore fans of the Borderlands franchise have made it clear that they want Borderlands to stay the same. The belief is that by staying the same, Borderlands can actually distinguish itself from some of its popular competition. Unlike Destiny, for instance, Borderlands can be played as a fairly traditional single-player experience with a strictly optional online multiplayer component. Unlike a legion of loot-based titles out there, Borderlands hasn’t offered many microtransactions outside of substantial story DLC releases.
Yet, as the gaming industry and gamers everywhere continue to evolve, it’s clear that there are certain elements of the Borderlands franchise that do need to change. Somewhere at the top of that list is the game’s writing.
Borderlands 3 is often vulgar and arguably tries to be offensive at times, but that’s not really the issue here. The issue is that Borderlands 3’s writing is often just bad. Too many of the game’s characters are written to be annoying and hyperactive. Jokes are delivered in a scattershot method which suggests the writers hoped that by delivering enough of them, one of them would hit.
The real victim of these shortcomings is Borderlands 3’s story. You might say that Borderlands games have never really been about the story, but Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands proved that there’s actually quite a lot you can accomplish with this Mad Max-style world where everyone is competing for fame, guns, and glory.
Whereas Tales spent its time developing and exploring new characters, Borderlands 3 is largely content with bringing back old faces or creating new ones that are basically rehashes of fan favorites. It reminds me of what happens when a show like Futurama comes back after being off the air for a significant amount of time. Everyone feels like a caricature of themselves and the constant callbacks just remind you that you’re no longer in the glory days.
What story developments we do get largely focuse on the game’s main villains, who are essentially just parodies of video game streamers. At a time when Twitter offers an infinite supply of hot takes and quick jokes, the potential impact of such timely observations just doesn’t land. Other characters are given moments to shine throughout the game, but the odds are good that you’ll be tired of hearing them talk by the time the game tries to use them as emotional bait.
Borderlands 3’s familiar gameplay loop (shoot enemies, get new guns, gain experience, level up, repeat) fares a little better, but again, time has revealed some issues with the formula. Namely, the Borderlands franchise is clearly struggling to disguise the gameplay machinations that drive this genre.
Let’s say you have an enemy named Skullcrusher Steve who appears in Borderlands 3, Destiny 2, and Path of Exile (three popular loot-based games). In Destiny, your motivation to kill Steve may be bolstered by your desire to level up and take on raids, strikes, or acquire rare loot drops with your friends. There’s a social element at play and significant loot acquisition is typically tied to certain milestones. In Path of Exile, the Steve battle requires you to tweak your character build, loadout, and tactics in order to take him down and earn an incredible loot upgrade.
In Borderlands 3, Steve is basically a joke-spewing bullet sponge who exists so that you can feel good about the gun you just picked up. That’s not the rule with every enemy (some boss fights and special encounters are interesting), but I struggle to think of another notable loot-based game that makes it so obvious that the driving force is to acquire swag. Most of them do a better job of making the distance between you and the carrot feel like more of a journey worth undertaking.
To be fair, Borderlands 3’s loot is generally pretty fantastic. Legendary-tier weapons in the game perform unique effects that range from reloading your magazine on successful critical strikes to a gun that shoots out other guns. So much of this game’s personality can be found in its weapons, and you do feel a twinge of excitement every time that you find a new one. It’s just a shame that the thrill of using these guns is so dependent on how much you want to live out a power trip fantasy that demands very little from you in terms of actual skill.
You can add some fun to Borderlands 3’s loop by playing with friends, but I’ve always been wary of praising a game for being fun with friends since being with friends is often the source of the fun and the game is often just a vehicle. It’s nice that you’re able to easily hop in and out of games with friends or random online players, but the simplified nature of Borderlands 3’s gameplay means that there’s very little incentive for randomly matched allies to truly work together unless a particular part of the game is giving them a lot of trouble.
I’d be lying, though, if I told you I wasn’t hypnotized by Borderlands 3’s gameplay loop for stretches of time. In fact, osne of the game’s greatest gameplay hooks is its surprisingly robust character system.
There are four characters to choose from in Borderlands 3 (Amara, FL4K, Moze, and Zane) and each of them brings something unique to the table that goes beyond the usual tank, mage, healer arrangement. FL4K can command pets, Amara can utilize ethereal powers, Moze can summon a mech, and Zane is an operative who uses misdirection to confound his enemies. Each character offers a different gameplay style, and they even seemed to have been designed in such a way that accounts for various player skill levels.
Picking your character is one thing, but it’s in the process of building them that the game truly shines. Like many other action RPGs, each Borderlands 3 character comes with a skill tree with multiple paths that allow you to customize their “build.” Where Borderlands 3 sets itself apart in that respect is in how it encourages you to mix and match a bit from each tree in order to create builds that don’t simply adhere to a predetermined play style.
For instance, it’s actually possible to turn Amara into a more aggressive character than she was perhaps “intended” to be. Such a build is quite powerful but forces you to work around the inherent weaknesses of the character in order to successfully run it. Borderlands 3 is at its best when you’re able to utilize the benefits of such builds on top of the natural thrills that come with firing some bizarre rare weapon you just uncovered. Given that Borderlands 3 is about 20-25 hours long even if you just follow the main quests, there are quite a few opportunities to experience such moments.
Unfortunately, even Borderlands 3’s best moments are hindered by some serious technical issues. I played this game though the Epic Store on a fairly powerful gaming PC and encountered constant frame rate drops and some worrisome GPU temperature rises. You can minimize some of the game’s technical problems by tweaking your settings, but I couldn’t find the right formula that made them go away entirely. Reports indicate that the console versions of the game suffer from similar problems, which is pretty amazing when you consider that Borderlands 3 doesn’t look that much better than Borderlands 2. The scope of its universe is larger, but that doesn’t explain the raw technical problems that plague the game.
These issues may eventually be fixed, but the fact they exist in the first place highlights the lowlights of Borderlands 3. Here’s a game that for all intents and purposes could have, and perhaps should have, existed in 2014, and it’s technically worse off than some of the most ambitious games of 2019. That just shouldn’t happen, and it makes you question the overall logic of the game’s design.
It’s not necessarily fair to fault Borderlands 3 for being more Borderlands when that’s what so many people said they wanted. It’s also hard to deny that the basic Borderlands formula has remained fairly fun over the years. If you’re happy with who you were five years ago, then maybe there’s no reason to change.
Yet, there are times in Borderlands 3 when you get the feeling that the game was designed this way because its creators lack the desire or ability to make those changes and not because they don’t feel the series could benefit from a new approach. Sales will dictate whether fans think Borderlands is good enough as it is, but from a non-hardcore fan’s perspective, maybe Borderlands shouldn’t feel quite so proud of what it was five years ago.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.