Borderlands has cemented itself as the premier looter-shooter franchise of all time. That’s pretty non-negotiable; even those who don’t count themselves as firm fans of the series will have, at some point, likely actually picked up a Borderlands game and enjoyed it. Whether it’s the much-acclaimed Tales of the Borderlands, or the run-and-gun wacky fun of the Presequel, there’s no doubt that Gearbox’s FPS has become something of an industry presence. You might not like the games or the jokes, but you’ll have heard your fair share of the latter if you’d picked up any sort of console in the past decade. Borderlands 3 feels like Gearbox and 2K are acutely aware of the fact that their games are essentially ubiquitous with the looter-shooter genre. The popularity of the series is something that plenty of developers and publishers aspire to, and it’s not like the individual titles didn’t earn their place in video game canon. That being said, Borderlands 3 is just one wink and an overly-enthusiastic nudge away from overstaying its welcome at times.
For those unfamiliar with how the games normally go, they usually involve being a Vault Hunter. Think a space mercenary cowboy with a whole lot of firepower, caught up in events truly beyond your comprehension and your understanding, yet fuelled by your relentless lust for bigger weapon and more cash to blow on ballistics. At some point, there’s a planet-ending evil that has to be taken down, and you end up being one of the best people for the job by virtue of having the biggest and most powerful guns.
And boy, do you have a whole lot of guns. From the word “Go”, it’s a race to collect them, and to collect other things that go boom in the night. After the obligatory Claptrap tutorial, the action is fast and frenetic if you stick to the main quests and run-and-gun your way to each objective, and this is where the game’s greatness really shines. Shooting on the PS4 is a seamless, exciting experience. With the introduction of dynamic sliding, it’s now even easier to throw yourself into the fray, whether it’s advancing into enemy territory heavy with turret-manning Tinks or running through hordes of elementally-enhanced skags.
The weapons that you collect all feel distinct from each other in their own way, even the ones that aren’t earmarked as Rare or special in any real way. Regular weapons have a variety of things tacked onto them, whether it’s shields while you’re aiming down the sights, explosive ammo, or ridiculous amounts of recoil and a tiny magazine. As with the older titles, mastery of a few particular types of guns will serve you well, and you really won’t have to stray too far from the playstyle that you develop within the first few hours of emptying clips into the heads of bandits. It’s bloody good fun, quite literally.
The series has never strayed from gleefully allowing you to indulge in your own particular brand of violence, and that hasn’t changed in Borderlands 3. It’s thematically consistent, and dare we say, as stylishly compelling as ever. Meleeing enemies at close range when they’re at low enough health turns them into a fine mist as their innards plop onto the ground with a decidedly chunky sound. It’s would be over the top for any other franchise, but not Borderlands. Here it’s expected, and you start to look forward to the opportunities to rip spines out of things and to establish your dominance over your foes, even sans guns. The UI does the player plenty of favors too: bright colours pop where they should, loot lights up in cathartic shades according to rarity, and everything looks one step up from Borderlands 2 where it counts.
Enter: the Vault Hunters that you can use to interact with this manic pixie homicidal world. Just like Borderlands 2 and the games before it, you can draw upon a varied cast, all with different talents. There’s Amara, the Siren, who can play a decidedly tankier version of fan-favorite Lilith on account of her multiple spirit arms that can crush the pelvises of your enemies. There’s FL4K, one-part beast tamer, one-part robot, one hundred percent badass. You’ve got Moze, a co-op dream who commands a literal mech with a railgun that you can use to obliterate people. Last but not least, you’ve also got Zane, who can chuck out holograms, barriers, drones, and more to get the jump on you in style.
As always, the characters have distinct skill trees which allow you to play them the way you want and to synergize that with the weapons that you’re the most fond of when you’re wanting to raise Hell. Each playable option here in Borderlands 3 handles distinctly differently, though you may want to try them all out before settling on the person that you’re going to play as for the rest of the campaign just so you get a feel for all their skills. We’ll warn you though; you will have no way of skipping the introductory tutorial at all so taking each class through it might get a little time-consuming, but it’s worth it to find the one that you really click with.
However, the looting and shooting part of a Borderlands game being good is almost a given at this point. The team at Gearbox have painted this picture for us many times, and their experience shines through in just how fun the distinct characters are to use, and how punishing and rewarding getting good at meting out carnage is. That being said, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows when you’re jumping into sessions with your mates. Getting into a multiplayer session is easy enough, and the fact that you can have individual difficulty levels set for each player will definitely incentivize newcomers who aren’t quite sure whether they can keep up with friends who are old hat at this. For all those additions, though, framerate drops are still intensely noticeable in packed combat and vehicle sections in multiplayer, along with lag that sees even the hosts rubberbanding across the screen sometimes in heated moments. If you’re trying to customize your loadout in the slightest, expect the framerate to drop to a crawl.
There’s also the matter of the horizontal split-screen, which we can definitively say is not most people’s preferred way to engage in some co-op Skag shooting. Without current plans for a vertical option, the layout for local multiplayer isn’t ideal, not to mention the current graphical anomalies which can plague any well-meaning Vault Hunter’s playthrough. There’s more pop-in than expected on the PlayStation, with some NPC character models not fully rendering until you’re within spitting distance of them before the distinctive artstyle of the game kicks in and entirely changes the visual landscape of their face in a split second.
That’s not to say that Borderlands 3 is a bad-looking game. Far from it. Unfortunately, the polished, quality-of-life updates to the UI and the otherwise beautifully rendered world of Pandora and beyond can’t be enjoyed without these blemishes that crop up at least to the point where they’re noticeable. Regardless, it’s a testament to the Borderlands legacy that their formula continues being refined and improved upon from a mechanical perspective when it comes to slick gameplay, which is why it’s a bit of a shame to see that the narrative doesn’t push the limits of the series any further, nor does it reach the heights that we’ve seen the franchise be capable of, a la Tales of the Borderlands.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the narratives in the games haven’t been meaningful. There are certain commonalities between the games when it comes to tropes, but the series has had no shortage of compelling characters in the past to carry the story along. In Borderlands 3, your foes and friends are almost larger than life in scope and in the sheer number of character cameos, and while they’re exciting and bombastic to interact with, they’re also incredibly on the nose. Almost too on the nose to carry the true weight of the people or things that they’re satirizing.
This is most noticeable when it comes to the Calypso Twins. Both of them are probably some of the most intriguing villains to date when it comes to the Borderlands series, and not only because they feel like such a product of our time. They’d have been impossible to pull off years ago before the true advent of streamer culture, and here, their introduction is a delight to behold.
Borderlands 3 walks you through these cult personalities, their followers, their gruesome subscription plans that clearly ape Twitch content and influencers, and then, well, it leaves you there without probing any deeper. You feel like you’re just one step away from really “getting” them as villains, but there’s no real impetus or motivation for you to close that gap when the momentum of everything keeps pushing you forward into the next kill. The next headshot. The next grenade that also sets things on fire.
That’s really the key issue when it comes to the ideas that this latest Borderlands game is presenting as part of its story. There’s a ton of jokes, which are par for the course. The jokes aren’t the problem. But there’s just a little something about the writing (whether it’s with the Twins, the million-and-one cameos, or the Easter Eggs harking back to anime franchises or Rick and Morty) that makes it feel like the game is one leap away from greatness, and all the Eridium Shards in the world couldn’t close that gap.
It introduces the Twins and doesn’t really do anything with its burgeoning critique of consumer culture, hypocrisy, and online toxicity made flesh. It introduces a whole load of concepts with its NPCs, a whole load of inside jokes for players to enjoy, and then doesn’t quite nail any of its punchlines even when it’s trying to make relatively straightforward connections between One Punch Man and gun with a single round. It’s clear that there’s no shortage of content in Borderlands 3, but how much of that content is truly memorable beyond the initial one-two chuckle that you get when picking up a sidequest with a funny name?
There’s an overwhelming melange of things to do in Borderlands 3, so much so that things get downright frenetic at times. It’s in those chaotic moments that Gearbox has truly created a product that thrives. When you’re downed and the only way to advance is to go right through your enemies as your screen fades to read and your controller is shaking almost painfully in your hands. When you’re holding down a position from hordes of screaming Psychos with your friends and trying frantically to gain any sort of ground. When you’re exploring the Mad Max overworld in whatever Catch-A-Ride pumpkin carriage you’ve unlocked after skewering twenty bandits in the head. Borderlands 3 shines when it’s doused liberally in blood, guts, and glory, but what do you do in the moments in-between? Quite frankly, you’re not given much of a reason to remember.