Loot shooters have changed a lot since Borderlands first introduced us to the idea of running around a battlefield like a trigger-happy magpie. The likes of Destiny and The Division have taken the simple act of robbing a corpse blind and added new layers of complexity, gear and painstakingly micro-managed weapon mods.
In this brave new world of agents, engrams and unlockable emotes, you might well ask whether the tried and tested Borderlands formula can really capture players' imaginations without being significantly reworked. To put it another way, will Borderlands 3 stick to its own format or will it cannibalise its more recent contemporaries in order to fit a changed landscape?
This was the main question on my mind as I sat down for a 90-minute chunk of hands-on time at a preview event in Los Angeles, and I can confidently say that Borderlands hasn't moved an inch - in a good way.
Instead of chasing after Destiny, Borderlands 3 has resolutely doubled down on its open-world, quest-based format in an attempt to remind you what made it good in the first place, and it absolutely works. Instead of introducing all-new mechanics or reworking its gear system, it's obvious that Gearbox has thrown the majority of its efforts behind tightening up the combat. Mantling and an Apex Legends-style bum slide have made nipping around the battlefield feel more fluid and interesting, while the weapons themselves give a great sense of feedback and sound absolutely brilliant.
Player characters now have three class skills to unlock as opposed to one, offering far greater variety in terms of character build - although you have to pick one skill to equip from the inventory menu. Operative Zane, for example, can throw down a shield, send out a drone to attack nearby enemies or ping out a decoy of himself as a way of drawing fire. He can also swap places with that decoy, setting up some good opportunities for a flank or getting you out of harm's way in a pinch. Zane is unique in that he can have two skills equipped rather than the usual one (though choosing to play this way means you can't use grenades), and the sense of versatility is really compelling.
The game's guns have also been reworked, with alternate fire modes now a part of the game's signature procedural weapon generation. You might stumble across a rifle with a grenade launcher attached, for example, or you might find yourself wielding a gun with auto-homing bullets, effectively the video game version of that gun from The Fifth Element.
If there are any concessions to other loot shooters in Borderlands 3, these come in the form of simple quality of life improvements rather than a massive overhaul. The game's loot now instances individually for each player, preventing others from pinching gear from under your nose. There's a lost and found bin back at Sanctuary (your home base in Borderlands, which takes the form of a giant spaceship this time round) for any loot you failed to pick up in the field, meaning you'll never miss a gear drop. Nothing groundbreaking to say the least, but a sure sign Gearbox has been watching its competitors and taking notes.
With that in mind, it's heartening to see that Borderlands 3 has stuck so resolutely to the things that made the franchise great in the first place, and that the formula has, indeed, stood the test of time. When the presentation first started - showing us the tutorial, which was slightly bizarre - I found Claptrap so intensely irritating I wondered whether Borderlands' ersatz brand of in-your-face, obnoxious wholesomeness might finally have played itself out. Playing the game for myself, however, I found that there's still plenty of charm to the weird and intentionally edgy characters. Going on a coffee run for sweary new NPC Lorelei should have felt like a tired cliché - you spend much of the mission dealing with a painfully pretentious hipster robot, digital handlebar moustache and all - but the writing and voice acting managed to make even this well-worn comedic ground fun and interesting.
To say that Borderlands 3's format hasn't changed a bit is not, however, to say that it lacks ambition. Indeed, while I only got to play a small chunk, I was left with the impression that it's going to be a pretty sizeable game. For the first time in the series' history, the action isn't confined to just one planet - piloting Sanctuary around, you'll jump between several different worlds; there's no word on exactly how many just yet, but from the brief trailer we saw at the end of the presentation, it looks like there'll be no shortage of environments to explore.
Borderlands 3 looks to be in rude health, then, despite - or possibly thanks to - the fact it's outright refused to move with the times. It plays well, it looks great, and if its unashamed sameness is an attempt to remind one how good the series was to begin with, it's worked.
Oh, but emotes are coming to Borderlands 3. Maybe there's room for a little change after all.
This article is based on a preview event in Los Angeles. 2K paid for flights and accommodation.
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