Borderlands 3 review: third time’s a chore
When punk rock is played by dentists
Players who just want more Borderlands will likely be happy with Borderlands 3.
The game certainly delivers more Borderlands, though not much else. Borderlands 3 is often a shadow of Borderlands 2, and more of the same is a disappointment for a franchise that used to feel so refreshing and rebellious.
BORDERLANDS KNOWS WHAT IT IS, BUT NOT WHAT IT WANTS
In Borderlands 3, you once again have a nearly limitless array of guns to collect, sell, and use in combat, which makes every pickup potentially exciting. Finding a gun with a unique or enjoyable collection of modifiers and abilities is one of the series’ greatest joys.
You have a stylized, cartoonish world in which the rich and powerful are self-centered, malevolent jerks. And there’s a punk rock-like distrust of rules and authority from everyone else.
This world and its weapons are designed to be best enjoyed with friends. As with Borderlands 3’s predecessors, it’s easy to invite up to three friends along to shoot everyone and everything you see. The franchise’s loud, nihilistic backdrop has always been a playground in which you can kill everyone and watch the numbers go up.
Borderlands 3 introduces four new vault hunters — kind of like soldiers of fortune, questing for vaults that are said to contain untold riches — with new abilities and new, deeper skill trees to build up and explore as you play.
I’m personally a big fan of Moze, whose ultimate ability brings in a walking, two-legged mech that can be customized with a variety of weapons. Zane is a hitman with drones and a deployable hologram-like copy that can confuse and attack the enemy, while FL4K is a robot that can summon one of three pets to fight with them. Lastly, Amara is a siren with a variety of telekinetic techniques that let her grab enemies with a psychic fist or send them flying by pounding the ground.
Each vault hunter comes with three skill trees, allowing you to mix and match your upgrades as you level up to create custom loadouts and play styles, or just have fun messing with your abilities.
Oddly, I found the powers more pleasurable than the guns, which, this time, are … fine? The weapons that run around, homing in on enemies and blowing up, add a bit of freshness, but every Borderlands game has a massive variety in firearms. Gearbox didn’t kick it up a notch here; everything is just a new kind of slightly different, delivered in the expected way. The weapons are enjoyable, and varied in the same way they were in the previous games. Again: no more, no less.
But the character abilities feel more interesting because they offer some complexity. I’ve enjoyed strategizing with friends as I upgrade the vault hunters to complement each other. You can also respec your character for a small cost if you want to experiment with different builds, or set up a vault hunter one way when playing alone and another way when playing with others.
The new vault hunters are one of the best parts of Borderlands 3, both in terms of the game itself but also when it comes to how fans interact with the series. Gearbox has cosplay guides for each one on the official site. Fan enthusiasm for new characters has helped the franchise thrive for the past decade, even without regular new releases. The developers know what they’re doing.
But if Gearbox succeeded with the vault hunters themselves, it stumbled with the villains of the game: Troy and Tyreen, who are referred to as the Calypso Twins. They’re presented as YouTubers from the future, reminding viewers to “like, follow, and obey” during their broadcasts, and they’ll do whatever it takes to gain control of the vaults.
The problem is that they’re just so boring. Borderlands 2 had Handsome Jack, a villain who was written and acted as a loathsome, hateful piece of shit. It was great! He did so many horrible things purely out of arrogance or cruelty, and took so much pleasure in it, that I couldn’t wait to destroy him.
The Calypso Twins … don’t. They taunt you, but their words and actions seem strangely toothless. The fact that they’re manipulating the media for their own ends is quickly forgotten after the first few hours of play, and instead they become sneering, forgettable baddies who add little to the game.
Even returning characters, like Ellie and Lilith, feel bloodless and limp. I remember so many endearing people from Borderlands 2, but both the returning cast and new background characters struggle to make any kind of impression in Borderlands 3. Characterization in Borderlands 2 was often handled by a character’s actions or even in the mission structure itself, but in this game, people are much more likely to just tell you who they are instead of showing you. If someone is bad, they’ll let you know. If someone likes cars, that’s what they’re going to talk about. It’s all very blunt, leaving little room for the player’s imagination.
The sparks of joy and malevolence that helped past Borderlands games sing are hard to find. What’s left is a photocopy of the earlier entries that’s missing the attention to detail that made those games so special.
WHEN THE EXPECTED BECOMES TEDIOUS
A lack of creativity also hurts Borderlands 3’s mission design, which has been largely reduced to the act of going someplace, killing a few people, collecting a thing, and then returning. The missions feel stretched out in silly ways, as if to pad the game’s length; even simple tasks are rendered annoying by how many subtasks and collectibles get thrown in as busywork. There are few, if any, memorable set-pieces or surprises. Instead, I’m frustrated by all the hurdles placed in front of me as I keep trying to find one thing over there in order to hand it to someone over here.
In one mission given to me by a random character, my job is to kill the person who killed her family — only, she doesn’t know who did it, and two people claim responsibility. This is a great setup, right? Both enemy characters are in the same place, so I kill one of them; the quest giver basically tells me I can flip a coin. With the deed done, I’m told the mission is over. When I return, the character tells me she’s changed her mind, and I need to kill the other person too. So of course, I have to backtrack, kill the other bad guy, and then talk to the quest giver a third time. The complication isn’t based on characterization or a joke; there’s no reason for it to be there. It’s just annoying.
So many missions are just as bland, to a baffling degree. One early quest asks me to rescue someone from a virtual reality torture chamber, which makes me excited about seeing a virtual reality torture chamber. In a Borderlands game? That’s going to be creative and interesting, right? I’m about to see some wild shit, and I’m here for it.
It turns out that “virtual reality” just means that a green filter is placed over everything. I finish the mission in the same area I started it in, except that everything is now less vibrant and interesting than it was a minute ago.
CATCH A RIDE, OFF-PLANET
One of the promising changes to Borderlands 3 is the ability to leave the planet of Pandora for different worlds, but each one is seemingly held back by the game’s underlying technology. Force fields that act as loading screens break up what should be an open-world experience, as the series has worked in the past. And the new planets feel more like a change in visual theme than any actual expansion upon the previous games.
Maybe Pandora has a city, or a swamp. Does it matter, outside of how the areas look? Are they arranged differently, or do they lead to new options for play? The answer is always no. I rarely felt like I had actually left Pandora, which is disappointing.
When everything is so mechanically similar to everything else, why bother? This may be the biggest Borderlands game yet, but in 2019, any design that links a series of small areas through loading screens feels claustrophobic, not expansive. And holy hell can you expect a lot of backtracking in the second half of the story.
The new planets sound like they would be the biggest additions to Borderlands 3, but they don’t actually change anything but the scenery.
CRASHING INTO THINGS
Many of the updates in Borderlands 3 are focused on quality-of-life improvements, as opposed to being new thoughts about what Borderlands could be or what the series could do as a true open-world game. Being able to switch between missions with hot keys is nice, as is being able to fast travel from anywhere. There’s a sense that while the game isn’t more ambitious, it’s meant to cater to Borderlands’ most hardcore fans, to remove some accumulated friction from an older series.
But the game also suffers from technical troubles that threaten to stop that from happening.
2K Games and Gearbox didn’t send out review codes for Borderlands 3. Instead, they set reviewers up with new Epic Games Store accounts with the game unlocked, and gave us a few warnings about the game being a work in progress. They asked us to stay away from the DirectX 12 implementation, for example, and told us that our progress in these builds may or may not carry over to the final game.
So we were obviously not playing a finished version of Borderlands 3, which makes what I’m about to say a data point, and not a condemnation of the console version of the game, or even a look at how it will run once it’s released publicly.
I RARELY FELT LIKE I HAD ACTUALLY LEFT PANDORA
We experienced some serious issues. The game crashed frequently, and those crashes were experienced separately by three Polygon staffers playing on three different gaming PCs in different parts of the country. One of us lost a character after putting six hours into the game, and had to start from scratch. After a day or two of playing, random crashes became something I expected, not anything that surprised me — and they got worse as we went through the game.
Quests would glitch out; waypoints would refuse to show up until the game was restarted. A pop-up window randomly gave me instructions about what to do if a mission-critical vehicle was blown up or I got stuck in a level, even though nothing of the sort was happening. I guess someone on the team expected that to be an issue, but it wasn’t?
Gearbox may have fixed these problems by the time the game launches, and I hope it does. We’ve been told the game is receiving a substantial day-one patch, but if you’re worried about the game’s stability, you may want to proceed with caution until we (and other publications and players) are able to test the launch version on PC. Reviewing Borderlands 3 was frustrating — partly due to the often tedious nature of the game itself, and partly due to the fact that Gearbox was clearly still working on the game.
A NEW BORDERLANDS WITHOUT MUCH NEW
Borderlands 3, if it works well at launch, is a competent game that feels like a passable continuation of the franchise instead of an evolution. It’s the same general idea with new vault hunters, but with little of the joy and danger that I fell in love with in earlier entries.
The franchise used to feel adventurous. Now, without any fresh ideas or concepts, it’s little more than a holdover from a different time. Borderlands 3 feels safe, oddly careful (especially for a game about anarchy), and, worst of all, corporate.
Borderlands 3 will be released Sept. 13 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PC using an Epic Games Store account provided by 2K Games.
By Ben Kuchera