Playing Borderlands 3 feels a bit like running into an old friend you don’t really hang out with anymore. Talking to them isn’t the same as it once was, but after so many years, you don’t expect it to be. Everyone grows apart over time. And at some point in the interaction, you’re grateful for that. Just because you liked someone once doesn’t mean you still have to be friends. Interests change, so do tastes. Sometimes you can’t rekindle a friendship, only appreciate what you once had.
And so it is with Borderlands 3.
I had been looking forward to reminiscing with Borderlands 3. For all the Borderlands series’ childish faults, there was still a lot to love. It was the series that taught me how to play first-person shooters. It was among the first I ever played in online co-op. Its Diablo-like approach to weapons, with the ever-elusive promise of that one perfect piece of loot, was addicting to me. Between that and its sense of humor, the game always seemed to be having as much fun as I was.
But a lot has happened in the years since Borderlands 2 was released, and my idea of what makes a game enjoyable has changed, too. For a new Borderlands to maintain my interest after all these years, it would have to improve upon its formula while retaining just enough of what made me love it in the first place. Sure, that could be said of most game sequels, but it goes double for one that I’ve poured hundreds of hours into. Is this relationship salvageable? Or have we just drifted too far apart?
From the opening moments of Borderlands 3, the game wastes no time picking up right where the last game left off. Immediately we are thrust into the action, a mission to slaughter an entire bandit camp greeting us on the bus ride to Covenant Pass, and it’s business as usual from there on out. This effort to usher players into the game quickly leads to a lot of glossing-over in terms of key information; in the first opening hours, there’s not a sufficient amount of lead-in to the backstory or proper introduction to its new characters. If you participated in the hype campaign leading up to the release, you likely have a far better grip on the whos and whats of Borderlands 3, given how much the supplementary material was expected to carry the game’s writing.
It’s hard to invest in the new characters, in part because we aren’t given much time to “sit” with them. Despite a few scattered holotapes, I feel I hardly know my character, which is a shame in a game where the classes are among the strongest features. Part of the appeal of past Borderlands classes was how closely they resembled those from traditional RPGs: Gaige the Mechromancer (Necromancer), Salvador the dual-wielding Gunzerker (Berserker), Mordecai the Sniper (Archer). These light, contemporary spins on the RPG classics used to reinforce the character-building aspect of the game while providing a familiar starting point to jump from. By comparison, I don’t feel as though FL4K, who I chose for my playthrough, follows a specific trope, and what few lines he has do little to form a personality.
As the game moves on, it becomes clear that a more subdued Borderlands is here to stay. And that’s a shame, in that Borderlands always benefited from not taking itself too seriously. It’s a fast game that requires multiple playthroughs, and by establishing a light mood and catering to their inattentiveness, players felt comfortable moving through as quickly as possible. Consensus dictates that Borderlands is juvenile, and honestly, I agree, but I also liked it that way. I don’t think all games have to take themselves too seriously, and that was what was fun about the series in the first place. At least I knew where the game stood.
The side effect is that the now trademark Borderlands’ middle school sense of humor, delivered mostly in flavor text and weak asides, sticks out like a sore thumb. In previous games, the lines were so numerous and delivered so quickly, they flew right over you. Nothing stood out in particular, and you got the sense that the writers were in on the joke. With slower pacing, all of the asides don’t fly by as fast, increasing their impact and leaving them open to greater scrutiny. But more than that, the games once had an omnipresent sense of reclined sarcasm that was succinctly delivered by every character. The biggest joke at any given moment in Borderlands was whoever happened to be speaking—most lines were wildly self-deprecating and lacking in basic self-awareness (except for those of primary characters in the main story, which acted as a plumbline for the player’s attention span). Whether it was dialogue during a sidequest or a scripted cut scene, it felt like every line counted. Now though the dilution makes it seem as though snark is only the writers’ second language.
Borderlands has always failed to adequately engage with its most promising themes. It is set in a violent capitalist playground—dystopian and rife with potential, where a handful of arms companies control the universe—and yet the implications of the concept are rarely explored fully. We bear witness or participate in numerous little spats between manufacturers, including an Atlas vs. Maliwan subplot in Borderlands 3, but never does it reflect the all-out competitive chaos the scenario would undoubtedly bring. Setting aside the race for the Vault Key, and what it means for the various villains and pseudo-good guys of the galaxy, the infrequent stand-offs between them all just feel a little flimsy. Borderlands seems to get away with never fully exploring these topics, simply by ignoring them. The violence is a fact of the universe, so accepted it’s not worthy of comment. It’s cynical and political as hell.
On the technical side, Borderlands 3 looks great but has made a number of changes that strip away the game’s emphasis on exploration. Visually, the upgraded graphics and lighting have a superb effect on the game’s better environments. Eden-6 is a particular highlight, with dense vegetation casting purple shadows in the deep recesses of giant tree roots, a fitting paradise for its accompanying Sir Hammerlock subplot. The rest of the planets and their accompanying environments mostly stick to sci-fi urban centers, with tightly packed buildings splayed around open plazas. This is handy for the many battles that break out on the routine, but each area has a vertical density that’s disruptive to the game’s pacing. With how many playthroughs the game demands, the process of getting through the main quests needs to be as fluid and smooth as possible. The layouts trip that up. It used to be a lot of fun to drive all over the dunes and fields and tundra on the map, and the motivation to explore every nook and cranny was rewarded with small puzzles and novelties awarding Badass Rank points. Not only did you get to see more of the map, but you also got to know it in a deeply intimate way that stuck with you for years. If you dropped me in any Borderlands 2 level right now, I’d immediately remember all its secrets and the best places to hide. But now, I feel I hardly know the game’s landscape.
It does not help that the level design itself is chaotic and lacks instinct, doubling back on itself in hard-to-navigate ways that the map (despite its new layering trick) does little to clarify. Sanctuary III, in particular, is a disaster. It’s surprising that a central hub, where a player is meant to be able to quickly access the tools and resources they need the most, could be so complicated. I miss the feeling of returning to a community whenever I needed to drop off some guns or stock up on supplies.
The UI, through which the player can now sift through galaxy and planet maps for fast travel, is similarly a mess. Compared to the first two Borderlands, I barely recognize it; amid the font, color scheme, clinical text windows and other elements it picked up from Battleborn, it looks nothing like itself. The disparity really highlights just how much these “little” flourishes communicate or support so much of a game’s identity. The look is almost sterile. Borderlands used to have the charm of a swearin’ space cowboy, and these days it’s more space than cowboy.
Combined with the new map features, Borderlands 3 is a perfect illustration of the adage, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. The small improvements made to the map actually make things more confusing; its multi-tied layered approach to levels with multiple floors doesn’t actually tell you how or where they transition, rendering the point moot. The drag on the map is also very slow (though immediately remedied by using WASD, if you’re on PC). The new approach to revealing segments of the map (and establishing checkpoints leading between objectives), however, is a welcome change. It’s a small gesture but I do appreciate being able to see what the general shape of the upcoming area is like. It makes it much easier to know I’ve explored every section of the map. That said, I don’t feel as though the world maps are large and varied enough to justify the planet-hopping system.
With a game like this an area of obvious interest is the guns. The game’s saving grace is the design of the Legendary weapons, and the best among them are wild and inventive, like Ultraball grenade mod, which shoots dozens of exploding bouncy balls. As a boss fight reward, the guns and gear often make the battle worth it. But as for the “billions” of guns boasted in the game’s marketing materials, the high-quality, well-balanced weapons are still few and far between. I have found very few vanilla guns whose motley, randomized assortment of prefixes and modifiers actually spit out a decent weapon. The alternate firing modes are a bit of a novelty. While the thrill of the hunt is still there, and I do revel in getting a hidden gem deposited into my inventory, quantity is not the same as quality.
Boss fights are a sticky area, one not helped by the story mode’s numerous fake-outs. Some are wildly imbalanced, like Billy the Anointed (who glitches into walls and teleports outside of his battle arena, making him extremely difficult on solo runs). I can’t tell if the “Anointed” designation is Gearbox’s attempt to make the enemies more diverse or try to demarcate the regular loot runs by flagging the particularly challenging bosses. But they shouldn’t try to establish that for us. It will take some time before the tweaks, updates and general consensus of the players figure out which are the best in terms of accessibility, difficulty, and quality of the drops.
As for the game’s new little nips and tucks, Borderlands 3 wears its maintenance well. Some additions are a bit of a catch-up game: sliding feels unnecessary but adds to the thrill of a firefight. The ability for NPCs to revive you in battle and the lost loot system, which collects any weapons you might have missed and deposits them for pick up in a bank at Sanctuary, are both deeply welcome changes that more games, especially loot shooters, should make. While the new aerial slam attacks are not well integrated enough to be essential, they can still be helpful (when you remember to actually use them). And I enjoy the new level verticality afforded by the ability to climb. The additional maneuvering options offer an easier way to find cover and pull yourself out of a tight situation, not to mention gain a strategic vantage point.
But when it comes to the Guardian system, Borderland 3’s replacement for Badass Rank, I am supremely disappointed. Walling the individual character achievements that add to each new character’s stats and abilities behind the story quest was a terrible idea. It all but encourages the player to completely ignore everything but main missions and tear through the game as fast as possible, in turn causing them to resent the length of the game and anything that takes up extra time. The Guardian rank is also horrifically boring. Whereas Badass Rank encouraged the player to explore each map and get to know it thoroughly, finding Vault symbols or easter eggs or other amusements, Guardian rankings only incentivize completion of the game. These little achievements are now delivered spontaneously as they are collected in-level, but there’s no place where they can be referenced for progress. It’s such a loss for those who actually had fun doing all the “little things” in the game.
Additionally, the Guardian system seems to be inspired by Destiny, which frankly seems so unnecessary: Destiny, after all, was heavily inspired by Borderlands. Why try to be like Destiny when Destiny is trying to be like you? Use the formula that already works. If I had to guess, I’d say that in their attempt to be more like Destiny, Borderlands 3 is where a lot of Battleborn ideas went to die. The planet-hopping and clinical sci-fi aspects may fit within the story they’ve written, but they still feel better suited to a different game.
To cap it all off, I’m experiencing a disruptive level of slog and bugginess: elements of the HUD glitching out, audio errors, freezes, unclear or broken objectives, and odd gaps between dialogue and quest triggers. The latter might not actually be a bug—the same problem showed up a lot in the Pre-Sequel and was similarly disruptive to the pacing. I guess some things don’t change with age.
It’s a shame that Borderlands and I are no longer a good fit. What I miss most of all is its personality. The aesthetic and surface changes to the series don’t make it a stranger; the change in temperament does. We just don’t have as many laughs as we used to. Better to cut things off now, and remember the relationship for what it once was, because it doesn’t get any better from here.
Borderlands 3 was developed by Gearbox Games and published by 2K Games. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.