"I can sing! And dance!" We're back on Pandora, and Claptrap—the hyperactive bot that serves as Borderlands 3's mascot—is cheerfully spinning and sliding down a familiar-looking desert hill. But for the Unreal Engine 4-driven graphics, it would feel much as it did back in 2009, when Gearbox first hit upon the idea to mate the FPS genre with Diablo-style loot mechanics.
As befits a series now in its third main entry (fourth, if you count the somewhat disappointing Pre-Sequel), the canvas is wider now. While Borderlands 3 starts on the familiar confines of Pandora, it soon moves from its scarred surface to a brand new starship called the Sanctuary 3; and from there, into the stars. That's right: Borderlands 3 is going full Mass Effect. Well, as Mass Effect as you can get with a looter shooter, at least.
For Gearbox, the new planets are mainly about keeping the setting fresh and interesting; and by extension, the formula. Borderlands is in some ways deeper than its direct competition, sporting multiple dense skill trees and many weapon types, but it's also a very known quantity at this point. Another jaunt across Pandora wasn't going to be enough for this sequel.
So now Borderlands 3 has three major planets as well as a multitude of smaller "planetoids." This has plenty of interesting implications for the look, feel, and overall structure of Borderlands 3. Among them, it opens up the opportunity to have a bit of fun with the mix of sci-fi and Wild West elements that have long been Borderlands' calling card. Where the Pre-Sequel shook things up by moving the action to Pandora's moon, Borderlands 3 hints at settings ranging from futuristic cities to Endor-like forest villages.
The sense of possibility suffusing Borderlands 3's new planets extends to the Sanctuary 3 itself. The Sanctuary 3 is as bursting with personality as the rest of Borderlands' wacky universe, filled as it is with familiar faces and visual gags. You'll find Claptrap busy designing a girlfriend in one area; in another, a trophy room is occupied by Sir Hammerlock, who looks right at home in the trappings of a Victorian hunting lodge (in space!). All of these characters, plus others, have their own individual sidequests, which will help to flesh out Borderlands 3's overall content.
The Sanctuary 3 will be your main home through the bulk of Borderlands 3. You'll have quarters that you will be able to customize with your favorite weapons and other special rewards. When you enter a friend's game, you will be able to take your private quarters with you too. The Sanctuary 3 will be instantly accessible no matter where you are, and will serve as the jumping off point for multiple sidequests.
I'll admit, I'm a sucker for any game that gives me access to a starship. It feels a little sacrilegious to compare the Sanctuary to Mass Effect's iconic Normandy, but it does have that vibe to it. Even Claptrap, who is described by Gearbox as equal parts "needy, bossy, and pathetic," feels like he'd be right at home in a BioWare game. (What is HK-47 if not a low-key psychotic Claptrap?) I even felt some of that old sense of wonder when the camera panned to the Sanctuary 3's window and I found myself looking down above the dusty surface of Pandora.
It feels like Gearbox is working hard to make the Sanctuary 3 more than just a place where you refill your ammo and set a course for your next quest. The customization is much appreciated, as are some of the unique challenges. I especially like Hammerlock's trophies, which are reminiscent of the monster bounties from games like Final Fantasy 12. Gearbox isn't quite ready to talk about the endgame yet; but on the face of it, there will be a lot to do in Borderlands 3.
The Remaining Question Facing Borderlands 3
On the ground, Borderlands 3 nearly the same as it did back in 2009. Borderlands 3 may be running on Unreal Engine 4 now, but it still has the distinctive ink-drawn aesthetic that has become its house style. Its manic sense of humor also returns intact; grating to some and hilarious to others. I'll admit, I'm in the former camp, but that's because my own sense of humor has always been a little more... dry. Old Game of Thrones references ("I challenge you to a trial by combat!" Claptrap yells at one point) don't really do it for me.
Still, Gearbox is sticking with what works, and who can blame it? According to creative director Paul Sage, Borderlands 2 can still reach 200,000 concurrent players. That's a pretty healthy number for a seven-year-old game, even one with as many ports as Borderlands 2. (It's even on Vita, which I know because I reviewed it.)
Apart from some key upgrades, like multiplayer level scaling that allows low-level players to play seamlessly with high-level ones, Borderlands 3's main innovation is the Sanctuary 3. In going to the stars, it will no doubt draw comparisons to Destiny, which has come to own the so-called "looter shooter" genre in the years since Borderlands 2. But the Sanctuary 3 is a necessary upgrade. It's time for the series to expand its canvas.
In doing so, it's taking the steps needed to survive in a space that has become ferociously competitive in the years since Borderlands 2 arrived in 2012. Its next step, beyond growing its setting, is proving that it has staying power beyond its fanatical core. If there's one complaint I see on a consistent basis, it's that the content in Borderlands and its sequels feels more finite and limited than that of its competitors. Accurate or not, Gearbox ought to take steps to remedy that feeling with a robust endgame.
I have a feeling that Borderlands 3 will be fine in any case. It has a rabid fanbase, a distinct personality, and history. It also stands to benefit from the stumbles of its competition, which has seen both Fallout 76 and Anthem fall flat in recent months. Even if Gearbox plays the rest of Borderlands 3 relatively straight, it's hard to imagine it struggling as hard as those two games did at launch.
But credit where it's due: the Sanctuary 3 is pretty cool, and so is the ability to travel to multiple planets. In that, Borderlands 3 is off to a very good start. It will be out September 13 on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.