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Borderlands 3 – Review

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Borderlands arguably kicked off the looter-shooter genre. And in the current console generation, there’s plenty of those to go by. Now five years (or three if you count The Pre-Sequel) since its latest outing, Borderlands 3 is here.

With smart changes, upping the content load, and retaining most of the core gameplay almost to a T, Borderlands 3 is like what you’d expect: more Borderlands. Though saying only that is underselling it how great it is still.

Presentation

Borderlands 3 carries the same signature cel-shaded-ish design it is so famous for. The colourful characters and the drab wastelands do get some nice pop with all the black outlines and dashes on them. Yet, the game still suffers the same issue of textures loading too slowly.

The UI is tidier and with a nice font choice. If only there’s a way to increase the small font size.

The guns overall look even better. The different gun manufacturers have even more pronounced styles based on what brand it is. And it still lends a nice surprise seeing from a super angular Hyperion to the old-school Wild West-style of a Jakobs gun in your very frequent loot drops.

Not only do the guns look distinct, so are the sounds. You can hear the sci-fi-ness of the Maliwan guns spooling before it wreaks havoc. Some Tediore models deteriorate into an 8-bit gun noise as the magazine empties. The explosive sticky pellets from a Torgue shotgun pops in a satisfying crackle.

While you’ll be hearing the guns blazing through the speakers most of the time, the soundtrack that hums diligently in the background of Borderlands 3 is sublime. Each planet you’ll travel to has a different vibe, genre and composer. Which results in some nice variety in the soundtrack. I particularly adore the ambiance in the high-tech Promethea, where it feels a dash of cyberpunk and a swathe of synthwave being used lavishly.

Not to mention, the song on the main menu is so good I spent way too long idling on it.

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Gameplay

In Borderlands 3, you play as one of four Vault Hunters. Your goal is to open the Vaults before the Calypso Twins. The villains are bratty streamers that have amassed a literal cult following and aspiring to be gods. The story takes place after Tales From The Borderlands, with characters from Telltale’s adventure game being part of the plot here.

The writing is, depending on how you look at it, is as good or as bad as the previous games. It follows a bit too formulaic to Borderlands 2 with its plot points. The early 10 hours feeling rather weak. But it does come together nicely into its own near the end.

The jokes, which still involves contemporary meme and references that may or may not age well in the next few years, are as what you would expect. I don’t know if it’s good or bad that the in-game characters (and possibly, the writers) are self-aware of how crude the “jokes” can be.

They are a few good ones, including one where resident punching bag Claptrap was not the butt of a joke. Though you must really love low-brow humour to be laughing out loud throughout the game.

Loot And Shoot

Borderlands 3 is all about two things- the looting and the shooting. And those two core pillars of the gameplay loop remain stalwart as ever.

You may notice the word ‘mayhem’ is being thrown out of a lot in the game’s marketing, and they were not kidding. Each fight and combat encounter feels more intense and hectic than past titles. The areas are bigger with a lot of cover spots and vantage points. There are more elemental hazards other than just barrels, including puddles you can electrify.

Enemies flinch when you shoot them, and even flop off and go ragdoll on bigger blasts like from a shotgun. They can also gib and explode in a pool of gore, adding more visceral-ness to the already chaotic combat.

You can now slide after sprinting and mantle on objects but so are the AI enemies. The enemies will scuttle around to flank you, throw grenades to flush you out of cover, and more often than not carry similarly zany weapons as you are. At times it is utter chaos where you cannot even discern where the enemies are because too many effects are popping off left right and center.

At its best, you don’t feel the enemies being extravagant bullet sponges as you control the chaos being unfolded with your guns and skills, exploiting the environment to your advantage.

This is most evident in the improved boss fights. Named boss fights with big health bars on top will have phases where they attack differently. On normal difficulty, it’s still a case of circle-strafing and dealing consistent DPS to beat them, and the patterns are not as wild or difficult. Yet it beats the boring bullet-sponges of the previous games, so a good step forward.

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Glorious Guns

The bazillion of guns you get as loot gets some nice overhaul across the board. Each weapon manufacturer brings even more pronounced characteristics than ever and it’s really fun to experiment with. Maliwan weapons now have wind-ups but it’s satisfying to see it splurge in sci-fi bullets, for example. The alt-fire addition brings new wrinkles to gunplay, and makes the already huge pool of procedurally-generated guns even more diverse.

And it goes without saying that each of those guns overall just feels good to shoot.

As per tradition, each new Borderlands comes with a new set of four Vault Hunters, the playable characters. Borderlands 3 tweaked a bit on how the action skill works and make each character plays even more differently. Zane gets to equip two action skills instead of one, while Moze’s two equippable action skill determines what guns her Iron Bear mech has. Other than that, most of the passives divided into three skill trees are as expected. It seems straightforward at first but there are some wicked synergies and potential for interesting builds.

Also, Gearbox improved the car handling, and made you care more of those Catch-A-Ride vehicles with custom parts to find and unlock.

(Questionable) Quality Of Life

With five years and a bunch of looter-shooters on the market these days, Borderlands 3 brought a lot of quality of life changes. you now have a one-number gear score for quick comparisons of gear stats. The map is so, so useful now that it is in 3D that shows elevation. Ammo, health and cash pickups automatically after opening boxes. If you are in the range of a collectible, an icon pops up to show you it’s there. No need to worry if you and your mates have the right character level as there is an option to enable level scaling to the party leader, and have loot instanced for each player so no loot stealing. You can fast travel from anywhere now. Ally AI sometimes will accompany you in fights and will help revive you.

Though it could still do more. The UI when bringing up the ECHOCast (the player menu) is horrendously slow to load. With the map being so huge why isn’t there an option to highlight each of the markers immediately so you don’t spend minutes trying to find where your objective is at?

On that note, Borderlands 3 really needed another pass on polish. While I personally don’t find framerate to be an issue during the hectic combats, reports of performance issues from all platforms, especially in split-screen, are pretty much true. I also found the AI getting stuck at geometry, and some side missions not spawning the enemies (the one about a ratch in Promethea, in particular). And the player menu sometimes just give up loading the skill trees when you load it straight after a level up.

Content

Borderlands 3 is amazingly girthy in content. It is still designed to be a full-packaged game with a campaign to beat. Not a games-as-a-service like other looter-shooters. And that campaign can take you more than 30 hours. I finished my first playthrough at 40, doing as much side missions and exploring the map as much as I can.

There are plenty of these side missions, and as you’d expect most of the questionable humour and references come from here. These take place in parts not seen in the critical path so at least it’s worth seeing the areas where you wouldn’t stumble upon naturally.

The collectibles this time are much more gratifying to collect. The three Typhon DeLeon audio logs on most maps not only give some good lore, but a great reward in the form of a loot cache, with a bigger chance to spawn rare loot. It’s worth going for them.

Circle Of Slaughter, the series’ Horde mode, returns again. And there’s a new mode called Proving Grounds where you push through a few combat areas and then face a boss, which plays closer to the usual gunplay in the story. Both of these are available normally within the story. But now it has separate matchmaking so you can play these as if they are an entirely different game mode.

After finishing the story, you will then get access to True Vault Hunter mode, the New Game+. On top of that is the Mayhem Mode modifier that adds wacky status effects and make the game even tougher. These two modes offer better loot drops, so that’s a good incentive to go back for another round. And of course, going through the game as another Vault Hunter and try out different builds is always on the cards.

Guardian Ranks (previously Badass Ranks) will now only unlock after beating the game. So all the extra passives are strictly for your next playthrough. Again, more reason to keep going after the 40-hour mark.

Gearbox has promised an event for all players and there is already a season pass of DLCs. If it follows what the previous titles did, expect a long tail of content, free and paid.

With Borderlands 3, the game dabbles a bit more on cosmetics. The skin variants don’t have palette swaps, colours can be customised separately. On top of the skins and head variants, you can now add emotes and also put on skins and trinkets on weapons. Honestly, it’s not that compelling and this feels like the game is playing catch-up with its genre peers. But it doesn’t hurt anyone, there’s no micro-transactions of sorts. Hopefully it will continue that way.

The Twitch integration is excellent. Not only can viewers of Borderlands 3 streams peruse the streamer’s inventory and skill trees, but there are also cool events that can show up, with opportunities to mess them up by buffing badass enemies or reward them with goodies. Plus, you can nab a piece of loot from the red chests they open for yourselves too.

Personal Enjoyment

When the first Borderlands arrived, I was already a fan of Gearbox’s output from the Brothers In Arms days. So I have a personal bias of loving this franchise from the start.

Borderlands 3 is the Double Down burger of video games I feel. It’s excessive and loud. It’s indulgently good. The ultimate comfort food if you, like me, love crispy greasy chicken patties. But it’s not just one burger, playing through Borderlands 3 is munching through a platter of these Double Downs non-stop. Instead of meat on meat on meat, it’s guns on guns on guns.

But boy, I am not gonna lie, it can be a bit overwhelming. During the early 10 hours, I feel like there were too many excessive combat sections. And with not much of a strong plot thread for me to cling on to.

Proper stakes in the story do get set up after that initial hump. And the pacing gets better with heavy combat sections sparsed out a bit. The shooting shines and getting rare loot, even if it is just minor variations of a gun archetype you’ve seen before, is rewarding.

And the soundtrack has synthwave. So, big points for that.

That said, those quality of life issues does affect my enjoyment. I didn’t spend time comparing weapon stats as much and hated the times I need to sort my backpack because of the chugging menu. Those need to be snappy and I hope it’s one of the things to be rectified, alongside the performance issues.

I have a feeling that once these issues are sorted in the months to come, it would make an already great experience even better.

Verdict

With more chaotic gunplay and many small improvements, Borderlands 3 proves that the pioneering looter-shooter series still has a place in 2019.Though it still carries the same low-brow writing and the performance issues cannot stand as is.

That said, if you’ve used to the series, Borderlands 3 is like grabbing a huge platter of your favourite comfort food. Clear some time, get your mates if you can and sit down. It’s time to dig in and get those orange drops.


Review based on version 1.01 played on the regular PS4. Review copy purchased by the reviewer