It’s been seven years since the last proper Borderlands game was released, though a prequel and an adventure game spinoff helped fill the gap. In Borderlands 3, Gearbox returns to the helm and has delivered a (mostly) successful sequel that improves the gameplay in meaningful ways while staying close to the formula that made the series a favorite among co-op enthusiasts.
In Borderlands 3, you'll be fighting against the Calypso Twins, a pair of jerks that have taken the bandit world by storm through livestreams of their jackassery. Their actions have caused a cult to form, the Children of the Vault, and this new faction helps their de-facto leaders search for Vaults to open. Thus, a new set of four Vault Hunters are called into action by our old friend Lilith to try and stop them. As in previous games, the quality of the story varies wildly, and though I don't want to spoil too much about it, they lack the charm and motivation of Handsome Jack.
The usual cavalcade of nutty characters are all present, and in a nice touch, the game even ties into the Tales From the Borderlands games to let us check in on what happened to those characters, although I can't help but feel that Gearbox didn't exactly follow their character development that well. There are also a few surprisingly emotional reunions along the way, and of course, some absolutely unearned drama.
Planets, Kind Of…
Ever since the original game, there were hopes and rumors that the next game would give players the option to explore more planets in the wider Borderlands universe. Though both the sequel and "pre-sequel" gave a much wider variety of environments, neither truly delivered on this hope. In turning Sanctuary into a spaceship, you're finally given the option to explore new worlds. However, this is a bit of a disappointment in the end - rather than make each planet a diverse and interesting place, Gearbox has chosen to relegate one type of environment to each of the worlds; Pandora is the desert world, there's a city world, a mountainous world, and a swamp world. While the variety of settings is still quite nice, it serves to make each world feel less… alive. I can't help but feel they missed the mark here.
Gunplay and Movement Improvements
One of the concerns I had when returning to the Borderlands series was whether or not it would feel more like a modern shooter. The recent free DLC that was added to Borderlands 2 gave us some perspective here - that game is seven years old and definitely feels a lot looser and floaty than modern shooters like Destiny. The good news is that Borderlands 3 has taken a few lessons from its peers. Sliding into cover, mantling, and even the way your jumps feel is a lot smoother. Chaining skillful movement together flows very well, and makes combat feel more like an intricate dance.
The skill trees for each character will feel comfortable to veteran players, but perhaps the biggest change is that each tree has its own version of your Action Skill. Investing enough points into a particular tree will unlock slottable modifications to the Action Skill, and you can even unlock new skills altogether. The Augments allow you to slightly alter the behavior of a move (e.g. causing an elemental blast in addition to the basic effect), and Elements change the base elemental type of each Action Skill. Not only does this increase the number of possible builds you can roll with, it lets you change the playstyle of each character in more meaningful ways.
I chose Amara as my character since I've played as the Siren class in each game so far, and while you can tailor her to be the usual elemental monster that the other Sirens have been, you also have the option to make her a straight up melee class. I'm up in enemies' faces using a shotgun and almost everything I do spews acid, or buffs my defenses, health regeneration, or stacks movement speed so I can close gaps easier. It's been quite fun.
I do wish your equipment slots were granted more quickly, however. You're hours and hours into the game before you can equip a class mod, relic, or even carry more than two weapons. For a game that has such strong customization, it's a pity that you have to grind away at the story each time you make a character just to get to the more interesting stuff.
While this series has always had extremely strong cooperative elements, Borderlands 3 does an excellent job at giving you even more options for playing with friends. When you start up a new campaign, you're given the option to set how loot and level scaling will be handled. Cooperative mode is the most group-friendly, as it instances everyone's loot and the enemy levels scale against the individual players. A level 5 player can join up with a level 50 player, which makes it much easier to group with friends with lower (or higher) level characters.
There's also the "Coopetitive" mode, where none of the above features exist. The world scales to the host player, and all loot is shared. This is a bit more like the previous games, so it's nice to have the option if that's what you're used to.
In addition to the campaign, there is also the option to matchmake into Proving Grounds, which is a quick "dungeon" jaunt for four players just looking for a quick session, or the Slaughterhouse, which is your usual wave-based survival mode.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that the game launched with significant performance issues, especially since they have plagued me throughout my entire playthrough. Every platform has had some stuttering and frame rate drops, and I’ve had other friends lose their entire inventory randomly. Gearbox has been working on patching these issues up, but it hasn’t been the smoothest launch.
To sum it up, I feel like Borderlands 3 will make the people who just want a smoother playing Borderlands game very happy. If all you're looking for is another loot & shoot game to hang out with your friends, Borderlands 3 is perfect. If you're looking for some very meaningful changes to the established formula, things get a lot blurrier. Personally, while I had a lot of fun with it, I feel like this was more of a half-step forward than something that really pushed the envelope.
My colleague, our own Jason "OrigamiPanther" Love has been playing past the end of the campaign and has some thoughts to share on the game, and how it meaningfully changes when you play in Mayhem mode.
Jason's Take & Mayhem Mode
The best part of Borderlands 3 happens about 24 to 30 hours into the game, depending on how particular you are about finishing up every single side-quest. It is at this point that the largely forgettable story campaign has ended and everything is unlocked, including the Guardian Rank system and the Mayhem Mode. You can, of course, go back through the entire game again in “True Vault Hunter Mode,” including the non-skippable cutscenes and tedious "follow this NPC around" missions, but the real joy of Borderlands 3 is all in its endgame and the Mayhem Mode.
Similar to how Diablo 3 has its "Torment" levels, Borderlands 3's Mayhem Mode is intended to challenge you by increasing enemy health and lethality, but in return it offers you better rewards. You'll start at Mayhem level 1 and then work your way up to Mayhem level 3 as you earn better gear for your particular character build, and also unlock more Guardian Ranks (these are similar to the Badass Ranks from Borderlands 2 where you'll get passive bonuses to things like shield capacity, max health, gun damage, and more). The one twist to all this that really makes the Mayhem Mode shine is the random modifiers that are introduced. These modifiers vary widely from increased enemy accuracy, to enemies taking decreased non-elemental damage but increased elemental damage. At Mayhem level 1 you'll only encounter a few, but at Mayhem level 3 you'll have to really look at what penalties there are and plan accordingly before going into a fight.
If we're all honest with ourselves, we're drawn to the Borderlands series not because of the characters or stories (which could be so much better, as Tales from the Borderlands showed us), but because of the shower of shiny guns that come raining down when we beat a boss. What weird/unique firing pattern does this Legendary have, or what perks will that shield give me? We want to loot and shoot as much as possible, and it's never been better than it is now. It's just too bad that it requires an awful long slog to get there.
The Co-Op Experience: Four player drop-in/drop-out online or LAN co-op is supported for the PC version of Borderlands 3. Players can join another friend's game regardless of level or story progression, and all loot is instanced.
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