The biggest question I had going into my recent hands-on demo with Borderlands 3 wasn’t even about Borderlands 3. It was about Destiny, The Division, and Anthem
It’s been almost 7 years since the last numbered Borderlands title, and five years since the Pre-Sequel, and in that time three more major publishers have released looter shooters. Heck, over the last several years, the subgenre has become so prevalent that the phrase “looter shooter” now exists. In that time, the only Borderlands game we got was a narrative adventure title. In other words, I guess I was wondering how—if at all—Gearbox’s bread-and-butter series would try to keep up with the Joneses.
As it turns out, Borderlands 3 doesn’t give a crap about Destiny or The Division or Anthem. For better or worse, depending on your feelings about the series, Borderlands 3 just wants to be more Borderlands.
Looking back on it, after having run the gauntlet of every looter shooter over the last several years, Borderlands seems quaint in its approach to the subgenre that it practically created. While drop rates and rarities dominate the conversation about the games that have come out since, Borderlands kept things copacetic by making the loot random and giving it away with the same gusto and generosity that Bill and Melinda Gates have for charity. Destiny 2’s forum dwellers are obsessed with names—Ratking, Coldheart, Whisper of the Worms. Borderlands has been and continues to be all about numbers.
As opposed to these other games, Borderlands 3 proudly, defiantly remains more shooter than looter. Don’t get me wrong. There was a ton of loot in the 90 minutes I got to play, so much that I couldn’t even pick it all up, mostly due to the small inventory size but also because there’s just so much. I was a little annoyed at first that I couldn’t pick up everything, until I realized that The Division 2 has been training me for the last several months to hoover up every gun I find like a famished Second Amendment rights activist. Borderlands has always been about quality over quantity, despite the fact that there’s a ton of quantity.
The last time I played Borderlands 2 was when it came out, and the last several years of looter shooters have made it easy to forget that games in this subgenre can be about more than just how much cool junk you can collect. Truly, these kinds of games can have distinct characters, compelling narratives, and simple but effective mission design.
While Destiny has at least made an attempt at crafting something resembling a story, The Division and Anthem have fallen woefully short of giving players anything other than the most rudimentary excuse for shooting a bunch of bad guys. Borderlands, on the other hand, is almost exclusively about its story. This is a series with lore that’s so interesting (to some people, at least) that it even spawned a canon narrative adventure game. Just trying to imagine what that would look like for The Division 2 gives me a headache.
Borderlands 3’s story exists in the wake of Handsome Jack’s demise. He wasn’t mentioned once during my 90-minute session, but his absence has created a power vacuum that’s expanded the series’ reach. This time, the main baddies are the Calypso Twins, Tyreen and her brother Troy, who lead a cult known as the Children of the Vault. At one point during a 60-minute preview, Tyreen uses her powers to sap a psycho of his life force and feed off it, and her main goal is to do the same to a Vault monster. Greed has always been God in Borderlands, but in Borderlands 3 that theme is fully realized in the Calypso Twins.
A ton of characters have returned from previous Borderlands games, and they give Borderlands 3 a nice sense of history without taking too much away from the freshness of the story. Lilith is the leader of the Crimson Raiders and one of your main allies, and Claptrap is inexplicably one of her generals. Zer0 shows up in a mission where you’re retrieving a boss named Gigamind’s brain for Rhys, the president of Atlas. Obviously, alliances have shifted and changed over the years, and it gives Borderlands 3 a sense of newness while also promising to please longtime, hardcore fans.
The most exciting newness comes in the form of Borderlands 3’s new Vault Hunters. In total, there are four new Vault Hunters, but I spent my time playing as Zane, a middle-aged operative with a thick brogue who is possibly my new favorite character in the series. This time around, the Vault Hunters come packing with three different abilities that you can swap out and experiment with, but Zane’s claim to fame is that he can use two different abilities at once. He’s got a Zer0-like decoy that also shoots enemies, a flying drone that pumps enemies full of lead, and a barrier that blocks incoming fire while giving your bullets elemental damage. While that might all sound like pretty standard stuff, Zane’s ability to swap places with his decoy is one of the best new mechanics in the game. Being able to instantly flank or escape from a tight spot by swapping with the decoy is a gamechanger, and deploying both that and the drone can turn the tides of a battle fairly easily. Pair this with a new movement system that allows players to slide and mantle over ledges, and you’ve got a formula for fast-paced, physical, visceral gun fights.
But the main stars of the show are Borderlands 3’s weapons. In terms of inventiveness, Borderlands 3’s got the competition beat by miles. Each of the game’s nine brands offer different weapon perks and new ways to play and will drastically affect your experience. During my time with the game, I had access to a Hyperion shotgun that shielded me when aiming down the sights while also providing fire elemental damage, and a Vladof assault rifle that let me switch to its underbarrel grenade launcher on the fly. But by far my favorite weapons were my Tedicore SMGs. When reloading Tedicore guns, you toss them away to different effects. The first Tedicore SMG I used turned my discarded weapons into auto-tracking turrets that I could stick on walls and toss behind enemies to hit their critical areas. But the second Tedicore SMG not only exploded in a toxic cloud on impact, but also sent out a cluster of three more toxic grenades, absolutely devastating my enemies. Firing off a few rounds and then tossing my gun quickly became my primary strategy, and it never got old.
It might say more about the state of the industry (and the statements of its own publishing partner) than it does about the game itself, but Borderlands 3’s most radical quality is that it’s just more Borderlands. During a presentation on stage, Gearbox founder Randy Pitchford drove home the concept that this is a Borderlands game. He hinted that we might get DLC sometime down the line, but there aren’t going to be microtransactions and, from what I could tell, any form of a live-service approach. The only inspiration it seems to be taking from other games is that it’s giving players the choice when teaming up with other players to play in classic mode in which loot is shared and levels are retained, or to play in a new mode that lets everyone pick up every pick up loot and balances the enemies per each character’s level. Other than that, it’s Borderlands, and what you see is what you get.