It’s been seven years since Borderlands 2, but you wouldn’t know that if you picked up Borderlands 3. They start very similarly: your character, a Vault Hunter chosen from one of four options, steps off Marcus’s bus and runs into Claptrap, who immediately identifies your party as his new recruits and sets you off on a mission. Because this is Claptrap, he quickly gets himself in over his head and your crew has to go save him. Soon after, you’re reunited with Lilith, the Siren from the original game, and join up with the Crimson Raiders, the group she and Roland started up in Borderlands 2, and are tasked with tracking own a map that shows the locations of Vaults across not just Pandora, but the galaxy. From there, it gets bigger, more ludicrous, and filled with an enormous amount of guns. This is Borderlands, all right.
This time, you’ll take control of either Moze the Gunner, Amara the Siren, Zane the Operative, or FL4K the Beastmaster. They’re an eclectic bunch. Amara is a fitness freak, who, when asked how big the army she brought with her is, answers, “Depends. Are we counting both of my biceps separately?” Moze makes constant pop culture references, quoting John Wick and Ariana Grande’s “Thank u, next,” while FL4k is a robot who has gained sentience and “thirsts for murder.” Their skills are equally varied, offering three different skill trees, all built around different powers. One of Amara’s, for instance, sends a projection she creates as a projectile, and her skills are largely built around beefing it up and lowering its cooldown. Another stuns enemies in place, making them easy targets. Zane and FL4K have similar abilities built around their drone and pets, respectively, while Moze upgrades her mech, Iron Bear, and helps determine its loadout. They’re a fun group to pal around with, and the variation in their skill trees makes it easy to customize your playstyle.
"While the quests are memorable for their content, the way you go about completing them is often the same: go here, shoot guys, get thing, bring thing back. It can be a little tiring – and require a lot of backtracking – but I only noticed it a few times, and only when it was particularly egregious. "
The supporting cast is equally good. Series veterans like Lilith, Marcus, Catch A Ride’s Ellie, and Claptrap make a comeback as major characters, too. In fact, most of the previous cast returns in some way, even if it’s just for a quick cameo. The big bads this time are the Calypso Twins. They’re not the most memorable of villains, but you dislike them enough that beating them to the Vaults and then shooting them in the face makes for a pretty good goal.
Getting to that point means completing a lot of quests, and it’s to the game’s credit that the numerous side quests have gotten the same amount of love as the main quest. One particularly memorable quest required me to turn the local robot-operated coffee shop back on, and then steal a mug to get some coffee in, because it was an eco-friendly shop and they wouldn’t give me something disposable. The issue was that the mug I stole belonged to a guy called the Coffee Commander, and he chased me down to get it back. It’s all absurd, but it’s Borderlands. Borderlands 3 won’t convert you to the series’ sense of humor if you’re not a fan, but I found it to be just the right amount of stupid.
While the quests are memorable for their content, the way you go about completing them is often the same: go here, shoot guys, get thing, bring thing back. It can be a little tiring – and require a lot of backtracking – but I only noticed it a few times, and only when it was particularly egregious. Most of the time, the game does a good job of making each mission feel unique, or making fun of it if it’s not. I expected to start feeling a bit tired of the formula after a while, but I never did, which is impressive considering the game’s 30-hour length.
" Once you’ve partied up, you can choose between Cooperation Mode, which offers instanced loot and level scaling, or Coopetition Mode, which nixes level scaling entirely and makes loot first come, first served."
The best way to play is with friends, and I’m happy to report that Borderlands 3 supports local co-op in addition to an online offering. Once you’ve partied up, you can choose between Cooperation Mode, which offers instanced loot and level scaling, or Coopetition Mode, which nixes level scaling entirely and makes loot first come, first served. I opted for the former in my local play sessions, which largely ran really well. There were a few issues, however. The subtitles would sometimes display in the wrong places during cutscenes, and the game demonstrated notable slowdowns when one of us entered a menu and the other one didn’t, even on the Xbox One X. Still, these were minor issues and the co-op largely worked very, very well, and I was happy to see Gearbox continue the series’ tradition of local play at a time when so many series are abandoning it.
The series focus on loot also remains, though it is nice to play a looter shooter that isn’t all about a persistent online world and isn’t stingy with its drops. Borderlands 3 absolutely showers you with loot, giving you gun after gun after gun, all of which feel like they were designed by hand rather than procedurally generated. It’s the little things that sell it: the way that each gun has its own little intricacies, from how certain revolvers are reloaded to the multitude of scopes on the sniper rifles. The different weapon manufacturers all add unique spins on their guns, with Hyperion offering a shield when you aim down the sight and Vladof offering an alternate fire mode, like an underslung grenade launcher, on each weapon. Almost every gun I found was fun to use, and if it wasn’t, another was right around the corner. Borderlands 3 just gives you things, rather than make you jump through hoops for them, which is a rarity in this day and age, and I appreciated it. Better still, the guns are not bound to the player who loots them, allowing you to trade weapons whenever you like. Pair the sheer number of guns with strong sound design (seriously, every gun sounds great) and recoil that makes each one feel different, and Borderlands 3 is a blast to play.
There’s also a lot of different things to shoot at. Borderlands’ bandits return but going to planets beyond Pandora mean new enemies come into play, too. Maliwan forces are better equipped and more strategic than your typical bandit, who is likely to just run right at you. Ratches may look and play like skags, but the sheer amount of visual variety here, plus the increasingly diverse make up of the enemies you fight, means that you probably won’t get bored. The different planets help this out, too. Pandora may be a dusty wasteland, but Promethea, home of the Atlas corporation, is a neon-soaked megacity that gives off Blade Runner vibes. The planets of Borderlands 3 feel very diverse, providing both visual and gameplay variety for a series that has often been stuck in the desert.
If there’s a single area that Borderlands 3 doesn’t out and out excel at in terms of gameplay, it’s the game’s bosses. The majority are very good, mixing unique gameplay mechanics and arenas together in ways that feel fresh, but some can feel a bit spongy, and a little bit unfair, particularly Killavolt, who can cover large swaths of ground in high-damage lightning that can down most of your team at once. Beyond that, however, the game does what it wants to do very well. Even the Catch a Ride vehicles feel better this time around.
The game isn’t over when the credits roll, either. You can check out Mayhem Mode, which steadily ups the challenge and throws in special modifiers. Unlocking Mayhem Mode also gets you access to Guardian ranks, which allow for further stat increases. Add in the traditional new game plus option, a horde mode, and Proving grounds (think mini-dungeons), and there’s a whole heck of a lot of Borderlands 3.
Really, though, the best thing about Borderlands 3 is that it has refused to change. It’s still the same cell-shaded, ridiculous looter shooter that it was ten years ago. In an era where every game in the genre seems determined to force you into a persistent world that’s always online so you can chase the next piece of rare loot, Borderlands 3 is content to just be. Yes, it’s a loot game, but it never feels like one. Borderlands 3 is content to be what it always was: a really fun co-op game that just so happens to have a lot of guns you can use. Borderlands may be leaving Pandora behind, but it hasn’t forgotten its identity. It feels like itself, and in an age where everything feels like everything else, that’s something special.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Bazillions of guns that are lots of fun to shoot. The new characters are a lot of fun. Varied skill trees. Fantastic sound design. Very funny, though your mileage may vary. Local co-op!
Some of the bosses can be spongy or feel unfair. A bit too much backtracking. Some technical issues in local co-op.