Gearbox’s flagship franchise marks its long-awaited third instalment with the usual brand of wacky juvenility and number-birthing gunplay in Borderlands 3.
No one loves the Borderlands series more than Borderlands itself. Across every world you’ll encounter in the adventurous third game you will in some way be reminded of the looter shooter’s unfathomable ego. Borderlands is its own imaginary friend; Borderlands voted itself Prom King; Borderlands shotgun-wedded itself after a single shot of Drambuie. (Ooooo, Drambuie!) In reality, Borderlands peaked in high school.
In an effort to quickly rekindle the fire we all felt with 2012’s Borderlands 2, the third game opens in a similar fashion. There’s a lavish opening cutscene that introduces our four new playable Vault Hunters: Amara, Fl4k, Moze and Zane. It’s not as interesting as it’s predecessor’s, which utilised a far catchier tune and introduced the main villain, but it’s a strong start. Then you meet Claptrap.
From here on out, the long-awaited Borderlands 3 is simply more of the same. Despite cooking for seven-years in Gearbox’s loud and aggressive oven, little has evolved in the series’ recipe. It’s immediately apparent: after colluding with the franchise’s walking, talking s**t-talking robot we’re told to take out a base full of enemies. They’re devout followers of Pandora’s latest tyrants, the “Twin Gods” Troy and Tyresse Calypso. Needless to say, you go in there, shoot some goons, loot some weapons and for the next forty or so hours it’s rinse and repeat.
Without sounding too cynical, this repetitive gameplay loop that drives the Borderlands experience is far from bad. While it may not be the jump in quality that one would expect in seven years, Borderlands 3’s bolted on improvements to the core combat system make shooting and looting your way through the colourful cel-shaded universe an absolute riot. Even bosses are improved this time around (well, mostly) which make for some of the best boss fights we’ve played in a long time.
Improved audio makes the bazillion-or-so unique randomly generated guns feel powerful and satisfying; new attributes and the addition of alternative-fire modes make them more interesting to use. With the introduction of a slide mechanic and the ability to mantle over ledges, the core combat has seen just enough of an overhaul to make it feel fresh in comparison to its 2012 predecessor. Unfortunately, that’s most of the major changes.
Thankfully, the return to Pandora isn’t disappointing: if you liked the previous entries in this series you are essentially getting the same experience, but it also feels lacking in comparison. The improvements to combat, the polished visuals and the new Vault Hunters are all fine and dandy, but there’s a heart missing that made the series so fun and interesting before.
The direct blame goes to the new villains: after the fantastic reign of Handsome Jack, who’s tale was told with heart and hatred hand-in-hand, the Calypsos feel underwhelming. It doesn’t help that Borderlands is borderline alexithymic: every emotional beat is quickly ruined by a bad joke or snide comment that crumbles any investable story moment into a groan or a sigh. That’s not to say there aren’t good jokes, although toilet humour and bad references pop up far too often, but Gearbox appears so afraid of making you feel anything other than happiness or humour that it pulls you out of its own storyline.
It’s why, after forty hours of playtime, I could never truly feel anything towards this long-awaited third game. Characters are killed, characters I deeply cared about in previous titles, but you’re never given a chance to truly appreciate their final moments. It’s not helped by archaic cutscene direction either – Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands has them beat in every single way – but that’s just the own-brand icing on top of an emotionless birthday cake.
Borderlands 3 does technically evolve the franchise, and it is a fun time for those who know what they’re getting into. While most of the quests don’t have the motivation that you’d expect, the core gameplay is incredibly engaging. Every Vault Hunter feels fantastic to control and the world-hopping adventure leads to some gorgeous locales, but it’s not a decidedly better game than what’s come before. It’s one step forward and a juvenile step back to impress its friends. Oh, and there’s a fart at the end just for good measure.