Playing a sequel to a game you remember loving is always a bit nerve-wracking, even more so when that game came out the better part of a decade ago, back when you were young and full of hope, not beaten back by life and still full of beans and fart jokes.
Ah, simpler times. More innocent times.
Borderlands 3 has been a game that many of us, myself included, have wanted for years. It’s hard not to look back at the joy of meeting Mr Torgue or the heart-wrenching sorrow of hearing Tiny Tina’s back story without rose-tinted glasses. That’s especially true as the remaster of the first game only came out a few months ago and helped reignite the hype for this latest entry.
It’s always been a bit crass, but the humour always felt like it was layered on in an entertaining way. I’ve got a soft spot for the way Hammerlock talks about being impossibly cruel to puppies in a former life, as a way of explaining how he’s ended up dealing with Claptrap. Then you have the weird family dynamic of Moxxi, Scooter, and Ellie, and the confidence that all three radiate, or the weirdly touching story from Borderlands 2’s DLC of Mr Torgue getting upset when the other geeks tried to gatekeep him out of the game because he was hench. The jokes were almost always self-deprecating and a little knowing, and while it was loud and brash, it felt like it had a lot of heart.
Borderlands 3 opens with a bandit stepping in some poop and then sniffing it; it follows that up with a bandit wanting to use Claptrap’s head as a toilet. If you’re looking for toilet humour, then here it is. I don’t remember this being the case previously; I feel like the humour was better, more interesting. Sure some memes were outdated, but the characters had a little more nuance to them than being called Tumourhead because they have a tumour in their head. Didn’t it?
I mention this all upfront because while gameplay is usually the thing that takes centre stage, the writing here is so overwhelming obnoxiously in your face that it feels like the main focus of the game. Monologues take far too long, and you have to wait until they’re done before you get the next quest or mission marker. I got impatient once and had to backtrack to grab an item from the body of a Bandit I’d just killed, which wasn’t there before. It’s not game-ruining stuff, but the fact that it happens constantly definitely kills your buzz.
The good news is that this is rarely an issue when playing co-op with friends, which has always been by far and away the best way to play Borderlands. After all, chatting with your mates is a sure-fire way to ignore the assault of stupid jokes and clichés (and terrible Rick and Morty jokes), letting you just soak in the series’ shooty looty action that we all love.
The addition of both mantling and sliding is a nice one; both make movement feel much better and improve the game no end. Then you’ve got how different the Vault Hunters feel from one another. The new Action Skill system – with its wealth of upgrades and tweaks – is genuinely excellent, but even here there is a tinge of sadness as most characters get one action skill from a choice of three. Zane doesn’t though. Zane can equip two at a time.
He’s a god damn revolution, and playing as him will immediately fill you with regret. Why don’t the other characters also have two action skills at once? That would genuinely change how the game plays, it’s such a small thing, but it makes such a big difference. While it’s cool that that’s Zane’s thing, it’s irksome that other characters don’t get it too.
The nigh on endless guns are a highlight of the game’s combat, with many of them having useful modes to switch between and an incredibly enjoyable feel. If you want gun feel, then Borderlands 3 has it in spades. That being said, the inventory system is abhorrent, and the limits to your carrying capacity are far more annoying than they were before, probably because other games have done it better.
The core gameplay loop is one that will hook you, but it’s hard not to want a little more from Borderlands 3. We’ve had a lot of cool innovations since 2 came out, and seeing some more of them adopted into this game would have been nice, even if just to spice things up a little. When Ellie forlornly mentions the fact that she just had to eject the grappling hooks and jet packs into outer space, I’m just left thinking they could have broken up the pacing and made traversing the huge open spaces more enjoyable. It’s still a fun game to play, it gets a lot of the fundamentals right and refines them further, it’s just not advancing the series as much as you might hope.
Then you’ve got the final puzzle piece of any Borderlands game, which are the bad guys. The Calypso twins are the worst. They aren’t endearing in the way Handsome Jack was, they’re just a perpetually annoying presence that could have been a scathing commentary on YouTube and Instagram culture if it wanted to, but isn’t. It lacks the teeth and depth necessary to have that effect.
Visually the game is very easy on the eyes, the trademark cel shaded style is gorgeous, and there are a near infinite number of cool touches that show off how talented the team behind it are. Pulling out a water pistol to cool down an overheating gun is charmingly silly, flicking a switch on your weapon to enable a different firing mode is terrific, and there are tons of little enemy animations which just make them more interesting. A special shoutout to the team that did the Skag petting. I’ve never felt more attached to an in-game pet, especially one that poops from its mouth.
Music has always been a strong point in the series, and Borderlands 3 is no exception to that. An early battle that has you fighting a DJ is a real treat for the ears. The music manages to add to every moment of action brilliantly and enhances each second. The weapons all sound great as well. It’s all very satisfying to hear the unique ‘clunk’ of reloading a Jakobs gun or the sound of a gun screaming as you throw it away.
Disappointingly, regardless of how the game’s tone and gameplay speaks to you, it’s all undercut by a range of irritating technical issues. These can crop up occasionally to decimate your frame rate or stop a menu from being opened, and I even had one where my gun stopped reloading. I had the ammo for it, but it just wouldn’t load!