Oh, what could have been.
I don’t know there’s been many video game releases as hyped up as Borderlands 3 was. After a near half-decade of fans clamoring for even the slightest hint of an announcement, the eventual reveal that, yes, Borderlands 3 would be coming soon was met with rapturous excitement. A seeming non-stop torrent of controversies, litigation, public exposés and headline drama couldn’t put a dent in the hype train. With a massive amount of pre-orders and nearly 5 million sales in the first week, fan desire was at an all-time high – and how is the game?
It’s just fine. Nothing special. Great highs, outstanding, soul-puckering lows. How did the opportunity to blow everybody’s socks off slip Gearbox by? Let’s find out.
First, an experiment.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the main menu opens. You start a new game. A poppy, indie-rock song plays as Raiders and Skags and cars and buses fly through the deserts of Pandora. A ghost speaks to you. You talk to Claptrap. You marvel at the cel-shaded browns and off-browns and whites and off-whites of the desert around you. You groan at a joke, then, another. Soon, you ignore them altogether. Which Borderlands am I describing to you?
Borderlands 3, the fourth Borderlands game sets you up immediately for what is to come with this intro. Despite new hardware, despite (modest) improvements to the visual fidelity and despite fundamentally better feeling movement, it’s hard to ignore just how same-y it sits with its predecessors right from the off. You are on the same planet, doing the same type of missions, with the same type of guns, driving the same type of cars, being yelled at by the same characters. It’s exhaustingly mundane.
What becomes clear readily is that Borderlands 3 is a game made for fans of Borderlands 2, and who had only one desire: more. In terms of mechanical, visual or gameplay innovation, very little exists. But if what you want is just more Borderlands, then you will be well served here.
There’s a tremendously long campaign to sink your teeth into, so you’ll get some nice bang for your buck. The industry leading drop-in, drop-out co-op remains a fun delight, with the enemies and encounters scaling nicely between both players. The game runs at a higher framerate than even the remasters on modern consoles, and there’s less textural pop-in or hazy ghosting of the backgrounds. It’s also an absolute blast to play. The gunplay is refined and feels powerful. The individual manufacturers feel more fleshed out and unique than ever before, so you’ll know immediately the difference between a Maliwan and a Jakobs rifle. The introduction of ledge-mounting means that the open environments are pock-marked with places to explore and do some light first-person platforming. Plus, the added mobility means running around in combat is a bit more fluid and dynamic.
But these are minor improvements. The inescapable truth is that ultimately, Borderlands 3 feels old, and under-done. Were this released in 2014, some two years after Borderlands 2, you could forgive its lack of innovation or change. Instead, this game was released a half decade beyond that point, and has done little to modernize, or take on the discoveries of other titles from the genre over the years. There’s no way to craft weapons, or mark multiple waypoints, or to skip dialogue. The fast travel system is woeful, and the bag limit is disastrously small, even after paying money to extend it. The time to level is too long, and you are forced to specialize into one third of your possible abilities to try and get anywhere.
Most damning of all though, is the quest design, and NPCs. This plays closer to World of Warcraft than The Division 2. Almost every quest in the game is the same: Talk to a character, and listen to them prattle on and on, and on for almost a full minute. Travel to a spot on a map. Kill some spawns. Kill an elite enemy. Pick something up, or push a button. Return to the quest giver, who will have their hand outstretched with a ghostly image of the item sitting in their palm. Give them the item. Rinse, repeat, ad-nauseum. It’s relentless. Never-ending. I was so sick and tired of seeing Tannis hold her hand out for a Vault Key by the time by game was through, and it’s inexcusably monotonous. You end up completing quests because they are there, not because they’re enjoyable in the slightest.
And then, there’s the characters. I hope you liked Tiny Tina, or Claptrap, because now everyone is Tiny Tina, or Claptrap. Talking to other characters is a brutal beat down into submission. Characters bombard you with an absolute burial of bad jokes and scatological, sartorial attempts from the minute you get within range of them. Perhaps most disappointing of all was that there was no range to the humour: if comedy operates on a colour spectrum of opportunities for different styles to emerge, this game was completely buried in the browns (pun intended). The few characters you engage with that don’t speak the same way end up being like fresh breaths of air in a sewer of monotony and boredom. If this is your type of humour, then congratulations: You’ll be doubled over with laughter for nearly 60 hours.
It’s frustrating, because underneath the mundanity and the oppressive lack of funnies, you can see the skeleton framework of a game that could be brilliant. But monotonous quests that give poor rewards, coupled with there being next to no good loot in the overworld (hope you like ammo crates) and dialogue that made me listen to podcasts instead… it doesn’t make for a good mix. The bones are there, though. The worlds are more fun than ever to explore, and I wrung every collectible out of it. The major bosses, a significant issue in previous titles, have been redesigned and are pretty interesting. Some are easy, some impossibly hard, but I’ll take it over the old fashioned “stand in one spot and shoot for 20s” that we got in Borderlands 1. Also, the world design really takes an uptick in the last 10-15 hours, with the best new area coming right at the end. Why on earth they hid this, and instead had you start in the bland deserts of Pandora once again is beyond my wildest comprehension, but there’s some neat stuff there if you can hold on for it.
As I said at the top. It’s fine. It’s a middle-of-the-road, nothing really special kind of game. The shooting is fun, and there’s some great guns to find, but there’s always been great guns to find. The quest design is kind of boring, but the quest design has always been kind of boring. The humour is intolerable, but… well, you get the idea. If what you want is more Borderlands, then Borderlands 3 is exactly that: no more, no less, just more. For me, after seven years, I needed much more. A disappointment, but one I was willing to pour 60 hours into nonetheless.