The biggest game of the year so far made very sure there were no console reviews before launch but what is Borderlands 3 hiding?
Long before developer Gearbox, and publisher 2K, decided not to send out review copies in advance it was obvious that Borderlands 3 is review-proof. No matter what kind of reception it gets, it was always going to be a massive seller. But from a publisher’s perspective there’s still no need to take a risk. They’ve very little to gain from positive reviews but still something to lose from negative ones, which is a logic you see many big companies follow even with games that are actually very good.
Borderlands 3 is not that straightforward though. It’s certainly not a bad game and apart from some performance issues there isn’t any terrible revelation to explain all the secrecy. There is the fact that this sequel is still extremely similar to the last one, despite a seven year long wait, but we don’t think either company regards that as something they’re ashamed of. The question is whether it’s an approach most fans are going to be happy with.
The original Borderlands came out in 2009, five years before Destiny – with even Borderlands 2 arriving two years before Bungie’s shared world shooter redefined the concept of co-op shooters. But it was Borderlands that first came up with the idea of mixing a Diablo style action role-player with a first person shooter and making the whole thing playable for up to four people at a time. And in that sense, as in many others, Borderlands 3 really hasn’t changed at all.
The most divisive element of Borderlands 3 is nothing to do with the gameplay or graphics but revolves around whether you find it funny or not. Which is, of course, all down to personal taste. All we can say is that we feel the games have got increasingly less amusing the more successful they’ve become; the nervous energy of the originals having given way to an obnoxious self-satisfaction. There are some good jokes, generally the nerdier ones when the game stops trying to be relentlessly cool all the time, but still nothing that was able to elicit much more than the odd smirk.
The characters are always more important than the story in Borderlands and here you’re facing off against superpowered twins who act like YouTubers and have started a cult to break into the mystical vaults of treasure that everyone is always after. As villains they’re not a patch on Handsome Jack though and instead work only as half-hearted parodies of Internet culture, their motivations only properly explained right at the end.
But if the game’s comedic value is difficult to quantify there has been unequivocal improvement in terms of the action. Although the basics of the combat are the same as any first person shooter the gunplay is noticeably tighter and more satisfying than before, even if it’s still a few rungs below Bungie’s best. The variety of the weapons is far superior to anything in Destiny though, and while the majority are still genre staples like sniper rifles and sub-machineguns – just with randomised stats – there are plenty of others that appear much more unique.
From fireball-spitting cannons that must be powered up before use to guns that fire heat-seeking ammo or can be turned into turrets or, as promised, sprout legs and start chasing after bad guys themselves. Some do elemental or radiation damage, while others can be flung like grenades, or dropped like mines. The rarer ones definitely feel hand-crafted and are extremely desirable, greatly increasing the lure of more loot that is at the heart of the game’s appeal.
Other improvements include the vehicles, which are a lot more fun to bomb around in than they used to be, and multiple skills for each of the four new player characters. This in turn means three separate skills trees for each, all of which can be unlocked in whatever way you want and allow much more flexibility in how you customise your chosen character.
Some are definitely more fun than others though and while robot FL4K has three separate pet monsters to fight alongside him, and Moze has a giant mech that other players can also climb onto, Amara just has a range of disappointingly dull magic attacks. And while Zane’s high-tech gadgets are useful, drones, a shield, and a hologram decoy aren’t exactly original.
It’s fine if you’re one of the good ones but we know we don’t want to get stuck playing as Amara or Zane ever again. Although it doesn’t matter that much if you’re playing with friends, as while it’s perfectly feasible to play the whole game on your own it’s nowhere near as fun.
There is plenty of improvement in Borderlands 3 but what there isn’t is anything approaching a new idea. We actually quite admire Gearbox for not doing the obvious and turning Borderlands into a Destiny or The Division clone, which is what everyone was assuming given the mammoth wait for the sequel. Instead, this feels like the sort of sequel that would’ve appeared just two or three years after the last one, with lots of refinement and additions but no fundamental change.
One thing we were looking forward to though, was the multiple different planets, instead of just dusty old Pandora, but they’re not nearly as much fun as we hoped. Swamp world Eden-6 is disappointingly bland and while the city planet of Promethea feels like it should work completely differently to the others it doesn’t. The graphics change but the potential to also mix up the gameplay is almost completely ignored.
The open worlds themselves are also a bit of a let-down, with small loading pauses and connecting corridors that make them feel like a collection of smaller areas rather than one massive world.
The most disappointing part of the game though is the mission design, which seems strangely desperate to drag every quest on for as long as possible, with constant sub-quests and detours that quickly have you forgetting, or caring, what it was you were supposed to be doing in the first place. Despite the size of the game it all feels strangely like padding, with the various side characters reduced to the role of virtual animatronics.
Unlike the previous games there’s very little heart to any of them, with only a few attempts at any serious character moments. Instead they’re just there to make outdated pop culture references and pretend that repeating a meme counts as telling a joke.
If it wasn’t for the better guns we’d almost accuse this of being little more than new Borderlands 2 DLC. It certainly doesn’t look very different than the first two games, after they got their HD upgrades, with the cel-shaded art style now too distinctive to change despite not being all that interesting. It’s never really looked like a comic book (Void Bastards did that much better), just a photorealistic game where someone has done the colouring in by hand – which is essentially how the whole concept started.
In terms of performance the frame rate isn’t consistent even on a PS4 Pro in performance mode (which tries to keep things to 60fps, as opposed to running at a higher resolution but only 30fps). It’s nowhere near as bad as the PC version though and only a common problem when a lot of vehicles are onscreen.
Despite it all there’s nothing to really get angry about with Borderlands 3. Ignoring the quality of the jokes, the biggest flaw is the repetitive mission design and the game’s general sense of unwarranted smugness. But if you were already satisfied with Borderlands 2 and just wanted something a little bit better, with a lot more content, then that’s exactly what this is.
But Borderlands 3 doesn’t seem to exist for any reason other than that fans and accountants feel it should. The punk energy of the earlier games has drained away, replaced only by a sense of unexciting competence. If you want Borderlands 3 then here it is, but if you want a brand-new game you’re going to have to look elsewhere.
Borderlands 3 PS4 review
In Short: A surprisingly unadventurous sequel, given the long years fans have been waiting for it, but the entertaining weaponry just about makes up for the overfamiliarity and obnoxious sense of humour.
Pros: The action is the best it’s ever been, with some fantastic guns and gadgets and tons of content. Expanded customisation options and FL4K and Moze are great. Fun four-player co-op.
Cons: Bland, overlong mission design and disappointing new planet environments. Not all vault hunters are created equal. Uninvolving storytelling and strained attempts at comedy.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC, and Stadia
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: 13th September 2019
Age Rating: 18
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