Image Credit: Gearbox Software
Borderlands 3 is the game I've sunk the past 50 hours of my life into and it absolutely ruined my sleeping pattern in that time. That said I'm not convinced now that it was worth the bother to be honest. Let's have a spoiler-minimal dive into the latest instalment of a very beloved series shall we?
I'll tackle the plot first since I have the least I can say about it without spoiling it for anyone. It's…not great. Taken as a single entity the story is fine; it's workable and it draws investment but I definitely would have a more favourable opinion of it if I wasn't so invested in the previous games of the series. This is a long game, longer than its predecessors by a mile. I would say, the campaign feels like playing Borderlands 2 and all of its DLC length-wise and yet they still didn't cover all of their bases and plot threads from previous games! Most of Borderlands 2's characters don't show up and those fan favourites that do are grossly underserved. Two characters from the spin-off game Tales from the Borderlands appear but are grotesque caricatures of their previous appearances and The Pre-Sequel may as well have not happened…in fact I'm pretty sure Gearbox were all hoping we'd forget it had. All of this in a campaign that, if you just played campaign content, still probably lasts 18-20 hours! There was room and time and possibility to address these threads and they go ignored for a generic good vs bad plot with half the charm of the previous games and none of the weight. This story felt like they didn't want to make this game Borderlands at all. Oh and, still without spoilers, this game added a character which made me want to murder them and had the gall to try and make them sympathetic. No, Borderlands…no.
Talking about the length of the game, however, leads me onto my primary concerns about the gameplay. Frankly, there's not enough of it. Gearbox have done an incredible job of creating huge open levels and it's a good thing too because it doesn't have as many areas as previous games had; less zones with much MUCH bigger maps. But the maps are empty. I can only think of two occasions off the top of my head when a map had more than one side mission available and these side missions are most of the fun. They're what gave the other games so much character when you could take a break from the main plot to shoot Face McShooty in the junk to disappoint him, or choose to help Marcus by retrieving his stash of risqué Moxxi photos and feel like a right creep afterwards. That character and world-building the previous games did so well just isn't here in this game and it badly suffers for it.
I hate to keep banging this drum but the previous games are the best frames of reference and in previous games there are entire areas of the game world that you'd never see if you only did the main quest. Lynchwood and Caustic Caverns in Borderlands 2 are areas with self-contained stories that are amongst the fans' most loved. There is, to my recollection, one area you don't have to go to for story reasons and it's my favourite bit of the game in Borderlands 3. It's on the second planet and is the only side-quest-only area in the game. Plus it features fun interactions with everyone's favourite buxom barwoman Moxxi. This area reminded me that Gearbox can do it, and serves as a stark comparison to the rest of the game. Where did this creativity go? Replacing these charming sidequests of yesteryear are "crew challenges" which are basically open world collectibles. Gearbox decided instead of having characters we like give us unique and interesting missions to sort out for them, they'd have Moxxi presiding over turning off literal radio towers; calling us up afterwards with the same dry and uninspired single line of dialogue. Every. Single. Time.
We established that Gearbox didn't forget how to make a good Borderlands game. In fact I think they actually focused a bit TOO much on the gameplay and not enough on the engaging storytelling and mission variety. The guns are excellent, bit of a redundant statement for a loot shooter I suppose because if they weren't there would be nothing to loot but it's clear an exceptional amount of work went into hand crafting every single tweak to the random generation of weapons for this instalment. Each weapon manufacturer retains their quirk from the previous game in some way: Jakob's guns are still single shot but fire as fast as you can pull the trigger; Hyperion guns increase in accuracy over time etc. But they also each have a new gimmick that takes shape in numerous ways. Tediore for example always became a grenade when you reloaded, but now you can also throw out a gun that sprouts legs and becomes a walking turret. It's a lot of fun experimenting and this element of the game is just excellent. Even if a gun is considered to have a lower "score" than your current one, it's worth giving it a go because its unique perk and gameplay quirk might be way more fun than the one you're using.
It's not all about guns though, your character and skill trees are equally important. I played the game solo and as Amara the "siren" class who has three subclasses and as such three core abilities to pick from. There's a new system in this game that allows you to customise your skill loadout. You pick 1 ability, 1 augmentation to that ability and then an elemental type for that ability. There is one core ability for each subclass and evolutions of that ability as you put more skill points into those subclasses. I tried out all three subclasses on Amara at the start but you can only really sink points into developing one in your first run through until about level 30. PhaseSlam was appealing for a while but eventually I decided to make this character like the one I had so much fun with in Borderlands 2 and chose PhaseGrasp. PhaseGrasp is an ability that locks one enemy in place with a glowing hand and a skill tree that has perks surrounding that. The skill system is so deep and complex I won't talk about it at greater length than I already have but suffice to say that by about level 30 I was using my PhaseGrasp ability to grab an enemy. Then a singularity would pull surrounding enemies towards the first while five angry fists of fiery energy slammed into the ground pulverising everyone who dared oppose me into a fine powder. Or maybe it was ash, I couldn't really tell over my own maniacal laughter. Yes, experimenting with the skill trees is very satisfying, and should I continue my jaunt with Borderlands 3 into its endgame there's a lot of depth to be found in maximising your character stats and skills-wise.
The stampeding and oversized elephant in the room where you and Borderlands 3 are trying to have your romantic dinner is unfortunately the fact that it feels unfinished. I mean by this, that it is buggier than spider's wedding reception and about as well optimised as a suit of paper armour. I bought the game on PC and used a controller for most of it. (Incidentally the Epic Games Store isn't something I'll be getting into here but it isn't the best digital distributor on PC I could mention…) I'm a PC gamer at heart and my machine is no slouch, I recently upgraded my RAM and processor so I was well within minimum specs. Overall on a mix of medium and low graphics the game ran smoothly but there are some glaring exceptions to this. First of all, level transitions. Whenever you fast travel or enter a level transition in Borderlands 3 you get a standard loading screen. It's nice, there's a vaguely witty bit of flavour text to read 10-20 times while you wait. So when the game loads you into the next zone you're ready to go. The game has loaded…none of the textures. I legitimately had to pause the game for two minutes every time I entered a new area to let it catch up and start running at 60fps again with actual textures instead of a world of smooth brown nothingness. If I wanted that I'd buy Battlefield. But I digress, I wasn't sure if this was a problem with my computer at first but I'm well within specs, everything is running fine and I changed the graphics settings to every preset and many custom settings to solve this issue and had no luck. Thus, I must conclude it's either a bug or an optimisation issue. Similarly, what I'm almost certain is a bug is that scoped weapons don't work. Don't even bother trying to snipe on PC because every time you aim down that sight you'll be dropping to less than 20fps and you just try precise aiming against moving targets with that discrepancy.
There's lots of other minor issues I have with the game. On several occasions I needed to quit the game and load back in to make a quest trigger activate properly because it bugged out and needed to be reset but overall the game functions. It's limping along and in dire need of a few patches which have, admittedly, been coming pretty quickly since launch and disrupting my game to make me return to title screen every time one is released.
Overall I did have fun with Borderlands 3. I feel like I've absolutely trashed it in this review but as a core gameplay loop it's still inherently fun to use increasingly stupid weapons and skills to melt increasingly stupid evolutions of bandits and local fauna. It just doesn't hold a candle to any of the previous Borderlands games, and for a long awaited sequel it kind of dropped the ball. I'm left with a string of nagging "what ifs" because it's fine to have less areas but larger, but what if they hadn't changed that formula. And what if they'd populated those bigger areas and worlds with popular characters that have charisma. What if the main plot hadn't completely ignored its own setup in previous instalments and the DLC they literally released two months ago. At the end of the day, I think I could've forgotten my own misgivings with the plot, if the gameplay had been perfect. Or I could've forgiven some post launch bugs and optimisation issues if the story was perfect but flaws in both just leave me deflated, disappointed and other alliterative words as well.