Borderlands 3 review - bigger, better and even more polarising than ever before
Sticking to its guns.
Borderlands 3 and I don't seem particularly compatible; not on paper, anyway. We don't have a whole lot in common. The eleventy gazillion gun options in its predecessor? That overwhelmed me more than it intrigued. The in-your-face hyper-meta edgelord humour? Nah, I'm good, ta.
I'd ventured to Pandora before, but they were little more than fleeting visits, really. Though a fervent FPS fan, Pandora's beige world of anarchy and excess just didn't click for me. So, as I stepped back into Pandora for Borderlands 3 I was open-minded if a tad hesitant. It's always daunting, stepping into a well-heeled universe, especially one this loved. Would I understand the plot? Will there be too many in-jokes?
It turns out my fears were unfounded, and it's to Gearbox's credit that while I'm waiting for the novelty of this sequel's balls-to-the-wall mayhem to wear off, it still hasn't.
There's too much of everything here, though; too many guns, too much loot, too many bandits, too much driving, banter, talking, and way too many irksome, irritating villains. This sequel wears these excesses proudly, like a Day-Glo badge of honour tattooed in shades of shocking pink. No, it's not a particularly cerebral experience, but nor is it trying to be; while stuffed with gore and violence and frankly infantile humour, Borderlands 3 is a solid shooter with a meaty 30-ish hour campaign, plentiful - if repetitive - busywork, and a colourful cast of hard-to-forget characters.
That said, it deviates little from the blueprint that grew the franchise such a devoted fandom, and it's entirely up to you to decide if that's a good thing or a bad one. Whilst your skills and weaponry evolve as you progress, the mechanics of the game - shoot, loot, manage your inventory; shoot, loot, manage your inventory - essentially remain the same whether you're ten minutes or ten hours into the campaign. It's a hypnotic loop and one that's deliciously satisfying given the game's stunning presentation, fantastic soundtrack, and rock-solid gunplay.
You play as one of four Vault Hunters in a story that takes place after the events of both Borderlands 2 and Telltale's excellent narrative adventure, Tales from the Borderlands. The chief antagonists - Calypso Twins Troy and Tyreen - are a throbbing embarrassment of cliches and facepalm-worthy one-liners, and their "Children of the Vault" cult lackeys are no better. I loathed them on sight and not once found their anarchical patter and demands for viewers to "Like, follow and obey!" amusing. The writing veers wildly from corny to gut-wrenching cringy, but I suppose if the plan was to make me want the nauseating duo dead: mission accomplished, Gearbox.
Whilst you'll spend a good time trudging across the beige, lawless landscape of Pandora, Borderlands 3 invites you to other places, too, such as the neon skyline of ultra-futuristic Promethea. They're gorgeous places, stuffed with colour and detail, and whilst the busy work on each planet varies little and you'll continue to complete similar fetch quests and battle the same cookie-cutter selection of bandits, mutants, grumpy wildlife, and ne'er-do-wells, you can't help but feel invigorated by the change of scenery.
The story is woven in between the firefights, but the game's endless quest for better guns and loot meant my grasp of what's going on was slippery as I was often distracted by looting or going through my inventory. I'll admit it's hard to follow anything whilst in a party of pals, but the emotionally-charged moments felt a little too contrived at times, especially when peppered either side of humdrum missions, combat sequences, and a lot of backtracking.
Oh my, that combat, though. I rolled off the back of Gears 5 to jump into Pandora - a fact that could've biased my entire experience, let's face it - but trust me: the shooter part of Borderlands 3's shooter-looter pedigree is sublime. Guns feel weighty and solid, and firefights are both frantic and fabulous. Your tight backpack offers endless and thrilling experimentation, forcing you to constantly scour the ground - or yank open the doors to chemical toilets (pulling back to avoid the inevitable, if inexplicable, splashback) - in search of something, anything, with a full clip.
The quest for the Next Best Weapon is never-ending, looping you into an endless, entertaining cycle of extermination and experimentation. You never know if the next gun you pick up will have the magical RNG combination of perks and abilities you've been looking for.
These aren't merely cosmetic changes, either; guns feel, and operate, distinctly different, with plenty of choice and variety to suit individual playstyles. Some manufacturers offer alternate firing modes to keep firefights fresh, while others have their own quaint quirks. One particular early-game sniper melted almost anyone and anything that stood in my path, but if I didn't keep an eye on it overheating, the bloody thing could melt me, too, forcing Amara to periodically spritz the barrel with a water pistol to cool it down. Another weapon screeches "ouch!" each time you reload it.
Consequently, you'll spend a lot of time peering in your backpack, marking stuff as junk in your quest to keep the INVENTORY FULL legend from spoiling your looting. It's tedious stuff, particularly early game when the world is littered with goodies and your backpack is insufferably restrictive, and it'll often stick a spanner in the flow of both action and story - especially if you're playing with pals and all of you are routinely having to do the same. Ammo resources can be problematic if you're not carrying different weapon types, too, and even when I did diversify, I'd often get to the end of an encounter with at least one, maybe two, empty weapons. Just as well there's plenty of ammunition lying about the place, eh?
To complement the firefights, you also have a range of passive and active special abilities. As you might expect, there's a skill tree, and yes, you'll level up as you play, and skill points unlock with just enough regularity to keep you engaged. But while the specials certainly help with crowd-control and vary nicely between the classes I saw in action, they certainly didn't dominate my combat strategy as much as I initially anticipated. Again, the key here is frequent and unabashed experimentation.
Driving, however, is loathsome - I only ventured into a vehicle by necessity, and even then, hated every second even though they're grossly overpowered - and the "social" bits - random pop-ups to tell you that someone on your Friends List has completed a level - are just as tedious. Maybe I'm just a Grumpy Old Person now, but while you can seemingly individualise how often, or how long, these notifications pop up on your screen, there doesn't seem to be any means of opting out of it from your side. At best it's an irritating distraction, and at worst, it's grossly invasive.
As you might expect, Borderlands 3 is best enjoyed with a pal or two at your side, and the cooperative mode - a setting that enables players to share loot rather than compete for it - is very much welcomed. While not particularly taxing on normal difficulty, the sheer range of foes can occasionally be a little overwhelming, and it's always handy to have another body in the room when you're attempting to take down an armoured boss. You can also trade gear with your coop partners and ping points and items of interest.
There's a good selection of goons to take down, too, and they're usually pretty smart, ducking into cover at sensible moments. Bigger bosses get a little bullet-sponge-y the closer you get to end-game, but not quite enough to force a ragequit (yet - I've not started Mayhem Mode). I'll admit I winced each time a dwarf lay dying on the dirt, begging me to tell everyone he died a foot taller, though; there were too many of these cheap, inexcusable, punching-down "jokes", and the game would've been no worse off for having left them out. That said, I did enjoy the numerous bandits who died taking their chilli recipe with them.
Despite its great gunplay, striking visuals and throbbing soundtrack, Borderlands 3 is far from unblemished, however, shipping with a host of issues across every platform that range from the quietly irritating to the utterly unplayable. Most of the issues popped up during cooperative play and included missing waypoints, framerate drops, and the delayed-loading of assets and textures. There was also a big issue in performance between performance and resolution mode, as our friends at Digital Foundry will attest, and horizontal splitscreen in couch co-op is horrible, rendering much of the on-screen text unreadable.
You'll likely have seen - or even experienced for yourself by now - that Borderlands 3 is everything Vault Hunters loved about its predecessors. It's hard to imagine how, technical issues aside, existing fans could not find more to love about this latest iteration, but that could also be said for fans who didn't like its predecessors. But whether you believe it's giving the fans what they want or a dazzling lack of ambition - evolution or revolution, in other words - Borderlands may be polarising, but it's back nonetheless: bigger, better, and more unapologetic than ever.