By Mike O’Brien | ★★★✰✰
Disclaimer: 2K provided Quench with a PC copy of Borderlands 3 for review purposes.
Borderlands 3 is a sci-fi looter-shooter. If you’re not one for gaming jargon, it’s a first-person shooter all about leveling up, travelling the galaxy, and acquiring new equipment, usually in the form of a new firearm. Developer Gearbox Software aggressively touted the promise of ‘a billion guns’ during the game’s marketing, and by Jove, it certainly delivers. Indeed, the guns in Borderlands are all comprised of different parts and properties, and there are so many that the game’s loot algorithm can generate a mental menagerie of possible combinations. It would be a stretch to say that all the guns feel distinct from one another, but there is certainly enough variety to justify the claim. Considering the gameplay loop is fundamentally ‘go to places and shoot people’, Borderlands 3’s journey through gorgeous level design, the regular endowment of unique and amusing weapons, and the specialisation of one’s character keeps this 30-hour campaign fun and fresh.
Whilst the sheer abundance of guns and statistics in Borderlands can be overwhelming at times, Gearbox has included a nifty Destiny-styled ‘item score’ which gives a rough idea of each gun’s overall quality. It’s not always a dead ringer, but it goes a long way in cutting down the inevitably long time spent in the menus of a game like Borderlands 3. But how do these guns actually feel to use? Bloody brilliant, that’s how. Borderlands 3 offers a great deal of visceral feedback that was simply lacking in earlier titles. Few games can match the immediate joy one feels when a Psycho leaps towards you, only to be shotgun-blasted away at hilarious angles previously limited to Tarantino films. Essentially every gun in the game can reduce enemies to a bloody pulp, offering at the very least a hearty dismemberment.
The gunplay is enriched further by the diversity of approaches afforded by clever weapon and character design. Each of the four playable classes in Borderlands 3 comes loaded with three unique special abilities, all of which come with a variety of modifiers and passive upgrades. Whether you want to get in close and terrorise enemies with earth-shattering mana hands or pick off foes from afar whilst a hologram takes the flak, Borderlands 3 has a good knack for facilitating your preferred pace of play. What’s more, whilst certain weapons are clearly better suited for some classes than others, I never felt bound to a particular weapon type, even if it didn’t take full advantage of my class’ abilities. All in all, there is little room for error in Borderlands 3’s core gameplay. It feels fantastically brutal in the fray, enemy types are varied and engaging from Pandoran psychos to gargantuan boss fights, and growth is constantly satisfying. I do feel however that the game would benefit from an extra hint of mobility, such as an omni-directional sprint or a dash button, especially during projectile-heavy boss fights or claustrophobic encounters.
Borderlands 3 is a jaw-droppingly stunning and fun-fuelled goregasm to play – but it comes at a price. If you’ve ever played Splatoon, there’s a good chance you’ll share my hatred towards the unskippable news segment which plays every time you launch the game. Without fail, this once-charming charade intrudes upon and obliterates any remaining desire to play Splatoon, or live, for that matter. If you’re wondering what on earth this has to do with Borderlands 3, well, here’s the catch: this otherwise excellent romping rampage is, spiritually, one big Splatoon news segment.
Borderlands 3 is not a charmless game. There are a handful of amusing and well-constructed jokes, some of which are woven fantastically into missions, like a bandit-hosted gameshow which eventually devolves into a massacre. My favourite joke centred around a robot named BALEX, whose attempt to spell out his name as a technical acronym ended with the chagrined admission that his manufacturer simply wasn’t sure whether to name him Barry or Alex. Sadly, jokes of this calibre are few and far between. Claptrap, your robot companion and series mascot, is the video game equivalent of Despicable Me’s Minions. I could forgive unfunny throwaway dialogue in most other circumstances, but Borderlands 3, like the annoying kid at the back of the class, is so desperate to be liked that it forces you through these laboured and unskippable crimes against comedy. Between Rhys’ ‘siege moustache’ and Claptrap’s abysmal physical comedy, Borderlands 3 is far too often an obnoxious and immediately obsolete memefest than it is a genuinely amusing experience.
Exacerbating matters is Borderlands 3’s messy and tonally inconsistent narrative which, like its jokes, also insists on being the centre of attention much too often. Borderlands 3’s occasional attempts at serious and emotionally commanding storytelling fall woefully flat. The game’s antagonists, the Calypso Twins, are a pale imitation of Borderlands 2’s Handsome Jack, a pair of shallow and barely motivated brats with little to no personal or established conflicts with any other characters. Their actions throughout the game feel like forced efforts to prolong the action rather than any desire to tell a story or build an adversarial rivalry with the player. Indeed, the player character is barely involved in the story at all, instead watching scenes of contrived drama and robotic dialogue play out before them. Beyond the confines of its lacklustre theatre, dialogue in Borderlands 3 is mostly limited to awful one-liners about how ‘badass’ the characters are, making it almost impossible to invest in anybody involved or give their interactions weight.
Again, all of this would be acceptable if the story was merely a vehicle to contextualise the carnage, but this mandatory slog of a narrative is an assault on the game’s pacing. The game is constantly forcing you back to its hub world to watch uninvolving and cringeworthy dialogue play out before sending you off to a new shooting gallery. It’s a damn shame, because Borderlands 3 is a fantastic game when it actually lets you play. If Borderlands 3 swallowed its pride and found the self-awareness of its contemporaries, letting you coast past the story a la Diablo, it would be a streamlined and infinitely superior experience. Instead, it forces the player to endure these agonising and disruptive ‘comedy’ routines and dramatic cutscenes involving barely developed characters.
All in all, poor pacing, misplaced focus, and dreadful character development undermine what is otherwise an exceptional looter-shooter experience.