Borderlands 3 Review: Return of the King
Spoilers: The twist at the end of Borderlands 3 and the final location are discussed during this Borderlands 3 Review.
Borderlands 2 was one of my favourite games from the previous console generation, but leading up to the release of Borderlands 3 I was completely disinterested. After all, a lot has changed since 2012. The looter-shooter genre has changed, gaming as a whole has changed; I’ve changed.
Goliath games like Destiny, Warframe and the Division now dominate the looter-shooter genre and now more than ever, gamers are seen as profit margins rather than people. With so much change I’m not sure if I was ready to put on my 2012 brain and play another Borderlands game. If the franchise hasn’t matured, it might feel like we are going backwards, where the past seven years meant nothing.
Borderlands 3 Review
- Developer: Gearbox Software
- Available on: Xbox One/PS4/PC
- Played on: Xbox One
As soon as I started playing Borderlands 3 all of my positive memories came flooding back. The opening cut scene is expectedly bombastic and sets the tone for the entire game – we are here to have fun. Shortly afterwards I was reunited with Claptrap and within minutes I was laughing again as he danced around like a lovable child. It felt like I’d returned home after a long trip away.
Even though I felt at home, everything felt fresh due to a wealth of major improvements. The guns feel great and responsive with a nice amount of feedback with each trigger pull and you can now ledge grab, knee slide and finally sprint, which were all absent before. All of the improvements allow increased flexibility in combat and it all feels exceptional.
Endless Variety and Creativity
It’s clear that a core design pillar of Borderlands 3 is to keep the fun going for as long as possible by providing an insane amount of variety in combat. For example, most weapons have two fire modes. A sniper with a shorter zoom can handle enemies up close or an attachable grenade launcher can clear groups of enemies with ease. It negates the need to swap to a different weapon, keeping combat flowing and keeping you entertained during every encounter.
A large amount of variety also exists across Borderlands 3’s secondary equipment. Certain shields project forwards when crouched (which is a stand-alone ability in Destiny 2 and Rage 2), and others create a spectacular supernova when depleted. All of this illustrates just how creative the team at Gearbox are and just how unwilling they are to give us uninteresting class abilities (when you think about it, how basic is a shield ability?)
The endless variety allows you to create unique and interesting builds with each of the four characters having three skill trees which can be mixed and matched as you please. I played as FL4K the Beastmaster, whose pet Skagg (mutated dog) irradiates anything in close proximity. This meant I could focus on a radiation damage build with my weapons and secondary equipment following suit. My shield released a radiation supernova and my radiation vortex grenades pulled enemies inwards causing an explosive chain reaction. It felt great reaping the rewards as all out carnage ensued before me.
But the combat is propelled to even greater heights due to the games superb soundtrack which adds significant weight to each encounter. The variety extends here too, with pounding synths, East Asian influenced drum and bass and an electronic funk track with a two minute saxophone solo as you’re battling in space. All tracks are of an extremely high standard and I’ve never seen a soundtrack with this much variety which retains its quality throughout. The Sanctuary theme was a personal favourite.
The locations within Borderlands 3 highlight the ethos of the entire game – a bigger and better Borderlands 2. Here each location is a new planet which are accessed by flying through the galaxy on your space ship, Sanctuary. Each planet is meticulously crafted with a detailed design and again, lots of variety. You travel from the well-known desert planet of Pandora to the swamps of Eden-6, complete with indigenous monkeys (Jabbers) and actual dinosaurs (Saurians), to the home planet of the ancient Eridian race.
Borderlands 3’s greatest achievement however, is Promethea; a futuristic neon-lit Megacity. Upon landing here via drop pod, I was immediately engrossed by its realistic presentation. In a district called Lectra City traditional industrial features like a power plant, subway and dock are utilised to make the area feel grounded (even if the dock was an unfunny pun, ‘Big Dock Energy’). To top it all off, Lectra City created amazing combat arenas with buildings to climb and tight alleyways to funnel enemies through. I hope the developers at Gearbox received special praise for their incredible work here. It is simply outstanding.
Great Side Quests, Standard Main Quest
The main quest line follows the same trend as other looter-shooters. There’s an undefeatable enemy (who actually turns out to be quite defeatable), designed to push you through each location. As just mentioned as every location is outstanding, I was happy taking a back seat and simply taking in the scenery. There’s also some mind blowing blockbuster style set pieces which ferociously ramp up the spectacle. Fighting in space on an asteroid mining facility in low gravity or boarding a huge mobile vehicle were phenomenal and reminded me of space fighting and Scarab boarding in one of my favourite games; Halo 2.
But Borderlands 3 truly excels due to its large pool of inventive, engaging and narratively interesting side quests. Several of these side quests are even dense and detailed like in the world class Witcher 3. In both games a quest may start of simple, but then additional layers are added to create a diverting, yet sprawling adventure. One quest in particular on Eden-6 asks you to investigate missing scientists who are trying to create intelligent Jabbers. Fusing Planet of the Apes and Turok, the quest concludes with the King Jabber battling an abomination Saurine in a Thunderdome style arena, only after taking a whistle stop tour of the Jabber Kingdom. The whole quest took around an hour and I was enthralled throughout.
There are admittedly a selection of fetch quests, but they are cleverly disguised using absurd narratives. On Promethea two of these quests fall back to back when you’re tasked to collect coffee and subsequently burgers for the planets homegrown guerrilla fighters. The sheer silliness of each quest kept me invested, especially when meeting the robot coffee barista, robot burger chef or when returning the goods followed by every troop cheering. Again, Gearbox illustrate the creativity and variety woven throughout the entire game.
The main issues with Borderlands 3 are unfortunately it’s characters who generally fall into one of three archetypes. They are either loud and annoying, bland or toe-curling stereotypes.
On Promethea you meet Lorelai, an ex-coffee barista turned guerrilla warrior. She is also British. And of course because she is British she has a stereotypical British accent and runs around calling everybody a wanker. There’s also scientist Tannis who wants to understand the Eridian race, but she’s a scientist so naturally has no social life. Being British and a scientist I neither run around calling people wankers nor live my life as an antisocial hermit (most of the time).
These stereotypes even go to arguably harmful lengths with the presentation of the hyper-sexualised character Moxxi who has shown no maturity over the past seven years. She loves wearing corsets and suspenders, is a master of innuendos and tries to get every living being into bed at any given opportunity. There’s a side quest where you have to kill her bazillionaire ex-boyfriend on a game show called “Who wants to bang a Bazillionaire”. Unfortunately, the whole experience is marred by horrendous dialogue from Moxxi who reveals their relationship ended because “He couldn’t satisfy her cravings” (that actually makes me cringe). Gearbox needs to take a leaf out of Square Enix’s book and bring Moxxi up to today’s standards, just like Tomb Raider was.
(To show I’m not cherry picking examples here, a handful of characters go against these stereotypes such as Hammerlock and Jakobs who are a gay couple, Tina who is a lesbian and the majority of people in powerful positions being female, such as the leader of the Crimson Raiders, Lilith. I do feel however, that the non-sterotype characters were far too rare, making most characters feel seriously outdated.)
Borderlands 3 insists on putting its key characters into these archetypes such as the loud and annoying Typhon DeLeon. Within each area you can collect audio logs from Typhon left over from when he searched for the first ever Vault many moons ago. The problem is his voice is so comically over the top I couldn’t bear to listen to them. Sometimes the audio logs don’t even add anything valuable and only exist as a gag that tries too hard to be funny. Collecting all of these logs in an area unlocks a special Typhon chests meaning I had to decide if I was willing to put myself through audio torture or miss a shot at some legendary loot.
Even the games main villains, the Calypso Twins, are written using these archetypes and remarkably fall into all three categories simultaneously. Each time they spoke I couldn’t wait for it to be over, they never say anything that is actually worth listening to and they are written as stereotypical YouTubers/Streamers which is cringe inducing. In the twins defence, they are provided with some much needed depth towards the end of the game using an M. Night. Shyamalan-style twist.
It turns out they are Typhon’s children. As the twins run a cult called ‘Children of the Vault’ this works on two levels. Not only do they worship and idolise Vaults, but they are literal children of the very first Vault Hunter. Except the game goes one step too far and reveals they were in fact, conceived in an actual Vault. All the magic created from the twist minutes earlier is thrown out of the window by creating a ridiculous, unbelievable plot point. In typical Borderlands style, the writing was far too over the top.
Borderlands 3 Review – Final Thoughts
Borderlands 3 has not matured. It still contains juvenile humour and arguably harmful stereotypes, which at times are so annoying I couldn’t bear to listen. On the other hand, this lack of maturity also helps the game in many ways. Its gameplay systems remain unchanged with improvements to gunplay, movement and accessibility only. I also never felt like Gearbox were driving me towards an in-game shop or microtransaction bundle. It was refreshing being allowed to play the game in peace, and highlighted just how far many triple-A games have strayed from greatness over the past seven years.
It’s clear that less time on gameplay allowed Gearbox to focus on creating each of Borderlands 3’s outstanding locations. And although I disliked almost every character, these locations, polished gameplay and inventive side quests made Borderlands 3 the most fun I’ve had all year. Within the first hour, my worries faded and I was having fun again. I knew that the King was back. And rightly so.
Related Post: Borderlands 3 was number 5 on the top 10 games I played in 2019!