Borderlands has always been about the haul, not the journey. The first game took place on the blighted desert planet of Pandora, Mad Max's post-apocalypse presented with the sensibilities of early Seth Rogen. Each game is all about hoping the random roll goes in your favor; that you find the one combination out of thousands or millions that you need. Seven years later, we have a proper sequel for the first two iterations in the series. Borderlands was a novelty when it first launched, combining fast-paced shooter with an RPG loot system, but we have Destiny and Warframe now. Gearbox Software's answer to the competition seems to be "more" and "bigger".
Lost In Space
Borderlands always felt visually sparse, and for the first few hours of Borderlands 3, you're still on Pandora, shooting masked zealots and palling around with series mainstay Lilith. The main baddies, The Calypso Twins, stand at the head of the Children of the Vault, a semi-religious collection of all the old bandits and riff-raff we've been shooting at for two games now. They want the power of the Vaults to fuel their vampiric Siren abilities, so you have to shoot them first.
I almost tapped out from boredom. After those few hours though, Borderlands 3 moves beyond Pandora to other planets, care of a new starship and hub area called Sanctuary. It's surprising how much a dash of color adds to Borderlands, as combat and traversal still play out largely the same, but the new environments and enemies offer unique engagement. For example, Promethea is a giant mega-city, home to the Atlas Corporation and our glimpse at proper civilization in the universe of Borderlands. Eden-6 is the opposite though, a massive swamp region that has rundown shacks and decaying manors like a futuristic version of Louisiana. The level composition is also slightly different for each planet: while Pandora is flatter overall, Eden-6 is crafted with far more verticality and elevation.
Gearbox also uses the scenery change to signal an evolution in enemy encounters. On Pandora, you'll quickly become used to the tactics and weapons of the Children, who throw explosives and charge headlong into battle. As you move on to Promethea, you'll see the soldiers of the Maliwan corporation, who sport force shields, use more cover, and utilize elemental weapons. Every new section offers new types of enemies, which helps keep the combat somewhat fresh; I'd settle in, only for a new tactic to appear a few hours later. It's oddly solid pacing for the lengthy main story.
The Gang's All Here
If you've played any game in the Borderlands series, you're already well-aware of the humor and delivery to expect here. You will enter a ship called the Family Jewels and one mission sees you using a piece of equipment called the Big Succ. There are jokes about dubstep in 2019. Borderlands' humor doesn't usually hit for me, as it tends to be more low-brow and tryhard than I like, but it didn't actively bother me, and I'm sure fans will enjoy it.
Long-time fans will also get a kick out the returning cast. Pretty much any major Borderlands character who's still alive gets an appearance or shout out here. Lilith and Claptrap are front-and-center, but you'll meet the rest—Moxxi, Marcus, Tina, Ellie, Tannis, Rhys, and more—and add many of them to your growing crew on Sanctuary. Borderlands 3 feels like the final season of a long-running television show, trying to give everyone a chance to shine.
You're joined by four new Vault Hunters. Each character has three skill trees like Borderlands 2, but they've been expanded and each tree offers its own Action Skill. My chosen meatsuit was Zane, your sneaky-sneaky roguelike character, who can send a small floating robot to attack for him, or create holographic clones to distract enemies. Amara is the Siren, with the ability to clear the crowd with her psychic Phaseslam. The robotic FL4K is a Beastmaster, an extension of Borderlands' Mordecai, able to command various animals to heal or deal damage. Finally, there's Moze, whose Action Skills let her call out her giant Battle Robot, which can lob grenades or offer a free turret to your friends. They're all pretty enjoyable in terms of play, it's just a matter of how much you want to be in the mix. If you're a frontline fighter, Moze or Amara are better choices, while Zane and FL4K are better harrying foes at the back.
I Want to Shower in Loot
Like Blizzard's Diablo series, everything else is just a vector for more loot. Borderlands 3 is touting "over one billion guns," drawing from the same manufacturers as previous titles—Dahl, Maliwan, and Jakobs, to name a few—each offering a different focus for their weapons. Atlas weapons shoot tracker pucks, creating homing bullets, while Hyperion gives you additional shields. You'll end up with some truly weird weapons and combinations in Borderlands 3. One weapon, the Smart-Gun XXL, creates little walking brains that hunt down and explode on enemies whenever you reload. Another, the Graceful Superball, shoots bouncing fireballs like you're playing a 3D Mario game. Every gun feels unique, which is frankly an achievement.
It's a shame though, because you can't rely on always having access to the same type of weapon. I had a great combo of Fire-boosted submachine gun and this wicked double tap sniper rifle, only to go through another three levels with substandard replacements for both. Or there was the grenade that sucked in enemies, froze them, and then summoned another six proximity grenades; it was a fantastic room clearer and I was sad to outlevel it. A more cynical person would note that the lack of weapon permanence helps push players towards buying Golden Key microtransactions, which open a chest with guaranteed Epic weapons. I wish there was some, even moderately difficult way to level your favorite guns.
The promotional materials show Diablo-like colorful showers of guns, but in-game, it's pretty much like previous games: mostly blue and green rarity weapons dropping, with the occasional Epic or Legendary. Bosses drop a lot more, but I really wanted Borderlands to lean heavier into those moments where you sort through a cornucopia of riches for the useful stuff, like candy on Halloween.
You'll also find different skins, heads, and themes for your ECHO communication device. Heads are the real prize, giving your chosen class a unique model. For Zane, I had a desert samurai look, a pigeon head, and a Marcus bobblehead. These customizations are largely aimed at letting players express themselves in cooperative play.
Play Together, Die Alone
While you can play the entire story campaign solo-I did-it's clear that many of the encounters are balanced with more than one player in mind. Towards the latter part of the game, some rooms will feature enemy combos that chew through your shields and life very quickly. The new Second Wind mechanic revives you if you can kill one enemy within a time limit, but it's no replacement for having two or more partners who can bring you back.
Speaking of bosses, many of these fights are great, but go on entirely too long when you're playing solo. You'll have the fight mechanics down and be at a similar level as the boss, but still spend 10 minutes dodging and shooting before it goes down. More than once, I simply ran out of ammo and had to wait for minions to spawn for a refill.
Following games like Doom and Rage 2, I'd also prefer if Borderlands 2 allowed players to be a little more offensive. It's very much a game of circle-strafing and hiding behind cover—there's no dodge mechanic—and whittling down the huge groups of enemies. You're counting your Action Skill cooldown or scouring the area for ammo for your best weapon. With all these cool guns at your disposal, you'd think Borderlands 3 would let you be more aggressive with them, but many of the classes are too soft for that. (Moze with her robot up is meaty enough.) I think the next Borderlands should rethink moment-to-moment combat a bit.
All those issues sort of fall away in coop though. In coop multiplayer, Borderlands 3 is still the absolute blast that the first two were. You can just get together with a friend and literally shoot the shit.
Gearbox has knuckled down and given players the choice between two types of cooperative play. The old Borderlands style, where you have to fight over weapons called Coopetition. There's also a new version with instanced loot, which is the default. As someone who disliked the cutthroat, loot ninja antics of the first two games—I'd only play with friends—the new default is a welcome change. This means I'm more likely to play Borderlands 3 in random matchmaking, whereas before that meant heartache and lost loot. It's a great change overall for Borderlands and if you want to go back, you can.
Borderlands 3, at its core, is still more Borderlands. While Destiny 2 and Warframe exist, those are distinctively service games. Borderlands 3 is (mostly) a done-in-one purchase by contrast. It's not all Vault Keys and Eridium though. I have problems with the story campaign's tuning in terms of enemy encounters and bosses. I also hope Gearbox that takes a look at some of its combat loops and movement mechanics in the face of other shooters. And the last sprint towards the end felt like it dragged on a bit; you think you're done, but wait... there's more!
Borderlands 3 is pure Borderlands though. If you love Borderlands, hey, it's back. If you don't, nothing here is changing your mind. Gearbox looked at Borderlands and figured that the way to improve it was "BIGGER" and "MORE". And I can't argue that the result isn't a good one.
Borderlands 3 is more Borderlands, and all the loot that entails. This proper sequel improves upon the formula with more guns, but more importantly, a stretch of unique planets to kill enemies on. The new planets offer more visual variety and a great evolution of enemy encounters. The tuning is clearly meant for more than one player, making a punitive experience at times for the solo Vault Hunter. Despite the formula growing a bit stale, Gearbox has expanded upon it in the right way, resulting in a great Borderlands experience.