First person shooters are ten-a-penny these days, but nothing else is quite like Borderlands. The first game was the progenitor of the looter shooter, and while plenty of games have refined the formula or put their own spin on things, Gearbox’s original still has a look and feel all of its own. The series has been kept simmering with current gen re-releases, spin-offs like Tales from the Borderlands and last year’s VR outing, but it’s finally time for Borderlands 3. We were lucky enough to be flown over to LA this week to take a very first look at the game in action, and thankfully we came away deeply impressed.
If you’re a fan of the series, you can expect more of the same over-the-top action, gun collecting and irreverent humour, but this is Borderlands all roided up and tuned to a modern audience, with modern tech behind it. Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford came on stage to tell us that they were aiming for it to be both “fresh and familiar”, and after around ninety minutes with the game it definitely seems like it’s mission accomplished.
This is a game that feels unequivocally cool from the moment you pick up the controller. Even with the billions of procedurally generated weapons, gunplay has so much weight and feedback from the get-go. Each weapon type manages to not only look different, but also feel different, whether you’re spitting bullets from an assault rifle, taking heads off with sniped shots or charging up a sonic shotgun blast, everything just feels right.
The folks at Gearbox have clearly been allowed to go crazy with the weaponry and there’s a joyous sense of what they’ve created that emanates from both Randy and his team. Most of the guns now have alternate firing modes accessed by a quick tap of the D-pad, so you might have a regular pistol with an alternate mode that allows you to fire a swarm of explosive mini missiles, shotguns with additional shields at the front, tracking guns that fire a tracer dart that the rest of your bullets follow, and even guns that you can throw into the fray that grow legs and become scurrying turrets. It’s often wildly ingenious, but more importantly it’s a whole hell of a lot of fun.
Returning players will be glad to know that looting and equipping weapons is easier than ever, and that you can swap stuff out on the fly without jumping into your inventory. When the game throws guns at you like lethal confetti at a wedding it is deeply welcome.
Perhaps the biggest change, and one which the series definitely needed, is that players are going to be able to leave the Pandora system for the very first time. You can travel between worlds in your faithful spaceship the Sanctuary III, while making use of the craft’s extensive facilities. It’s a big old ship, but as you progress you’ll learn that there are a number of shortcuts to help remove some of the frustration from getting around it. It definitely reminded me of a twisted take on Mass Effect’s Normandy, not least because it looks as though there are going to be a raft of characters to talk to and interact with during your journey.
Our hands on time took us to Promethea, one of the first planets that you’re going to come across, and it’s a completely different place to the unwelcoming and inhospitable Pandora. A neon-soaked cityscape that sits somewhere between Halo ODST’s New Mombasa and Akira’s Neo-Tokyo, this new landscape fits perfectly into Borderland’s canon while utterly reshaping the look and feel of the series at the same time.
The level of visual detail is simply incredible, and it’s obvious that many hours have been spent putting layer upon layer of art upon every surface. Whether it’s the ammo readouts of thousands of guns, crude graffiti on walls and containers, or the manner in which the central characters and enemy bosses sit so well in each environment, Borderlands 3 is easily a new highpoint for the series.
Your first mission sees you taking up arms with Lorelai, an Atlas employee who’s keen to take you to her employer Rhys, though whether you’re the right person for the job remains to be seen. Things obviously escalate from there – everyone always wants to shoot at Vault Hunters – to the point where you’re up against Gigamind, a boss character that’s basically a walking brain and who acts as a fantastic showcase for Gearbox’s gloriously grotesque artwork.
As a whole, Borderlands 3 looks phenomenal while staying true to the Borderlands art style. In the presentation prior to our hands on Randy Pitchford basically treated it as having its own patented look, and it’s true that you can instantly tell this is a Borderlands game, albeit one that’s been given a shot of Unreal Engine 4 and a much more advance design palette. Returning players will be glad to know there are plenty of familiar faces, with Claptrap – or General Claptrap of the Crimson Raiders as he prefers to be called – sidling up to Lilith, Maya and Zero who also appear at various points. There are of course plenty of newcomers, including new big-bads the Calypso twins. Troy and Tyrene are modelled on the “douchiest live streamers of the future” and there’s some nice nods to the worst side of streaming culture which are treated as you’d expect by a Borderlands game.
There’s a side mission or three to take part in as well, with one of the first seeing you heading after a pair of Maliwan fighters, one of whom was behind the murder of a girl’s family. You have to try and work out which of the two it is, though they’re both awful people either way. Both the main and the side missions, and the incidental moments for that matter, mark the return of the series’ flippant humour, with Randy describing it as “irreverent and genuine”. It’s not necessarily roll-on-the-floor funny, but it’s undoubtedly going to raise a smile or six when it arrives this September.
Borderlands 3 is shaping up to be everything that fans could hope for, with Gearbox making a commitment to “story, style and design”. It’s undeniably a Borderlands game, but while there have been plenty of pretenders to the looter shooter crown, Borderlands 3 is going to shoot them straight in the face while the world explodes around them. We wouldn’t have it any other way.