I counted the number of guns I used over the course of the Borderlands 3 campaign. Seriously, I kept track with a tally counter and everything. The total, so far, has come to 223. Not quite in the bazillions territory, then, but I must have sold, chucked, or ignored thousands more throughout my time with Gearbox’s latest vault hunting romp, and I’ve barely even scratched the surface of its ambitious endgame.
Of those 223 firearms, at least two dozen were bipedal, a handful cried out in physical pain at regular intervals, and I’m pretty sure one of them contained the vengeful soul of an enraged Cthulhu god. The point I’m trying to make here is that Borderlands 3 is essentially Borderlands XXL; not just more of the same (though that’s certainly true at a surface level), but a sugar rush induced fever dream of Borderlands’ greatest excesses as a looter shooter.
For some, that description alone will be an instant turn-off. But for those, like me, who have been hunting vaults since 2009, Borderlands 3 is like manna from heaven, and the best part is that it tastes just as good as you remember.
Vault hunting writ large
Set several years after the events of Borderlands 2, Gearbox wastes no time in throwing players right back into the ongoing saga, leaving little space for newcomers to pick up on the story so far. You play as one of four new Vault Hunters who, for reasons revealed in another of Gearbox’s beautifully choreographed opening cinematics, are leading the fight against Pandora’s latest scourge; the Children of the Vault, a fanatical cult of bandits and outlaws led by the villainous Calypso Twins.
This time, however, the action isn’t just limited to the planet of Pandora, as Borderlands 3 sets its sights on the stars for a quest of grander proportions. This cosmic scope doesn’t just allow the story to raise the stakes of its narrative, but gives Gearbox carte blanche when it comes to providing new zones for players to explore. While Pandora has its fair share of snowy tundras and lava-soaked caverns to complement the planet’s vast stretches of arid wasteland, Borderlands 3 transports our Vault Hunters to jungle tropics, neofuturist cityscapes and beyond, with each new planet representing a completely distinct sandbox with its own personality.
Borderlands 3’s new spaceship hub of Sanctuary 3, despite being ridiculously difficult to navigate, also makes for a perfect respite from the on-land action; letting you customise your HQ with trophies and decorations, sharpen your deadeye at the practice range, or just recuperate with Borderlands’ ever expanding roster of friendly faces and NPCs. Even the very process of the game’s globe hopping traversal system, in which you boot up a new destination from Sanctuary’s control room and watch the ship punch into lightspeed before the next planet pops into view, lends a sense of scale to Borderlands 3 that we’ve never quite seen from the franchise before.
That said, like most forms of mayhem (mass, criminal etc.), Borderlands 3 remains an acquired taste. And by acquired taste, I mean the complete absence of it, because Borderlands has never really had any. Sure, it’s moved on from the days of Slag barrels, Midgets, and “Girlfriend mode”, but this is still a game that isn’t afraid of more than a few dick jokes and scatological punchlines at frequent intervals. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re a regular patron of the lowest common denominator yourself, but it’s still something to bear in mind before going in.
Anthony Burch, who endowed the series with its very particular brand of dry humour as Lead Writer on Borderlands 2, left Gearbox long before the studio began work on this sequel, but the new writing team do a decent job of continuing in his tradition. The jokes come thick and fast, and while they don’t always hit their mark, the sheer frequency of one-liners, slapstick gags, and not-so-subtle pop culture references – all of which are threaded as tightly into the gameplay as much the narrative – ensures you’ll be laughing along with Borderlands 3 more than anything else you’ve played this year.
In between the hijinks, though, the story also hits hard where it needs to. Like Tales from the Borderlands and Borderlands 2, Gearbox’s threequel sneaks a number of emotional wallops into the comedic frivolities without warning, and they’re all the more impactful for it. Granted, no one’s going to be considering Borderlands 3 for its narrative come Game of the Year Award discussions in December but – all told – this sequel confidently and respectfully closes the books on a decade-old chapter of Pandora, all while paving the way for more Vault Hunting adventures to come.
The story’s only real blemish is its villains, Troy and Tyreen, whose streamer turned cult leaders schtick isn’t half as funny or clever as Gearbox seems to think it is. The pair begin to grind gears from the first moment they scream “Like, subscribe, and obey” through the intercom, and I was glad to see them distanced from much of the events leading up to the story’s grand climax. Gearbox may be done with Handsome Jack, but the Calypsos prove to be far from a worthy replacement.
Guns for hire
Previous Borderlands titles often traded substance for size, in which the sheer number and variety of guns were more than enough to make up for the slight but pervasive feeling of weightlessness that flavoured combat. That’s changed with Borderlands 3, which now whirs and snaps with the same level of haptic feedback you’d expect from any AAA shooter, cementing Gearbox as a true master in the fine art and science of virtual gun handling.
Things aren’t just humming smoothly under Borderlands 3’s bonnet, though – the whole car has been pimped out too. Many weapons are now equipped with alternate fire modes, for instance, whether it’s a sniper rifle endowed with an underhand shotgun or a pistol which can spew out micro-missiles at the touch of a button, while parkour mechanics like vaulting and sliding speed up and complicate the rhythm of combat and traversal. This, on top of Borderlands 3’s destructible environments and smarter AI opponents, means there’s no more cheesing your way through a tough battle, but thankfully our four new vault hunters – some of the most complex and satisfying classes the series has had to date – means you won’t even have to try.
(Image credit: Gearbox)
Borderlands 3 Shift codes: Every active Golden Key to unlock the Golden Chest on Sanctuary for free loot
Zane, the Operative, is the least interesting of the bunch, especially as all of his Action Skills have been lifted almost wholesale from previous games, but the same can’t be said for Amara, Moze, and FL4K, all of whom bring something new to Borderlands’ frenzied firefights. New Augment branches on each Vault Hunter’s progression tree stretches out the parameters for self-expression through combat, while the much requested ability to switch between Action Skills on the fly means you’re no longer funnelled into a specific subclass for an entire playthrough.
While I wish Gearbox would concentrate on roles that breakaway more radically from their DPS archetypes (I’m still holding out hope for healer class DLC), the fact I can now hunt alongside animal companions as FL4K or customise a rideable mech with Moze means there’s more than enough toys to play with for both the campaign and its endgame-focused True Vault Hunter mode.
For early adopters, however, all this good news does come with some caveats. The fact is that Borderlands 3 is a bit of a technical mess at the moment, with delayed texture load-ins, reduced frame-rates, and a laggy user interface, all of which is exacerbated when playing on PC or in split-screen mode. Gearbox has promised a series of patches to fix these issues over the coming weeks, but they’re hard to avoid right now, leaving a noticeable blemish on an otherwise exceptionally polished experienced.
As for the loot… well, you’ve already heard about the cthulhu gun. The sheer number and variety of weapons available is – as always – staggering, but the most ridiculous part is that every new addition to your Vault Hunter’s arsenal is as robust and enjoyable to use as the last.
I’m a particular fan of the handcrafted guns dropped by various bosses throughout Borderlands 3’s main campaign, each one inspired directly by the character themselves, adding a unique sense of reward and motivation to defeating each one. Separately instanced loot streams for each player in co-operative sessions also means you won’t be competing with fellow Vault Hunters for the best weaponry any more, though this feature can always be turned off at any time if you’re feeling more competitive.
In many ways, Borderlands 3 feels like reacquainting with an old childhood friend after years of radio silence. They’re older and smarter, and looking a little different to how you remember, but no less immature. More of Borderlands 3 has stayed the same than that which has changed, then, but that’s nothing to do with a lack of ambition on Gearbox’s part.
This is a game that knows exactly what it is and who it’s for, smartly building on what came before without ever compromising the series’ core identity. I wish Borderlands 3’s villains had been as entertaining and well crafted as the rest of the game, but putting up with their vexing influencer imitations is a small price to pay for enjoying Gearbox’s heady cocktail of perfectly organised chaos.