I never expected to enjoy Borderlands 3 as much as I did. Initially, it just seemed like more Borderlands but with updated visuals. Given that I’d only finished Borderlands 2’s campaign earlier this year and am currently taking a break from its Assault on Dragon Keep DLC, more of the same looting and shooting wasn’t a great thing in my eyes.
My opinion changed quickly as I played through the opening level. The reason wasn’t because of the addition of sliding and mantling, although I’d come to appreciate those features later. The mantling feature introduces a pleasing sense of verticality to combat that’s facilitated by combat spaces that feel like specifically-designed arenas rather than areas that happen to have enemies. Sliding became an absolute joy and made combat feel delightfully mobile once I found an artifact that increased my slide speed and had a cryo effect to boot.
It wasn’t- okay, it was partly because of the improved gunplay, which are among the reasons why I enjoy Borderlands 3’s shooting so much more than the second game’s. Everything sounds better and feels heftier, shotguns sometimes send enemies flying back, and headshots result in immensely satisfying explosions of blood. Heck, sometimes your shots cause the enemy's entire body to explode.
The main reason however was simply a pistol. I say “simply”, but this pistol came with an underbarrel attachment that took the form of a second barrel. Activating it turned the pistol into a mini-minigun. I found this gun within the first hour of the story, and as I hosed cultists down with it, I realized that I was going to have a good time with Borderlands 3.
Let’s tell a story
Before I delve further into the combat side of things, let’s talk about the story. Borderlands 3 sees your Vault Hunter racing against the Children of the Vault or COV, the unified bandit clans of Pandora, to discover and secure several Vaults, the ancient constructs made by the Eridian race that contain powerful creatures. This time, the story takes your character across several planets, from the futuristic cityscapes of Promethea and the swamplands of Eden-6 to the mountainous monasteries of Athenas and another I probably shouldn't spoil. Of course, you get to drive buggies and blast psychos on the series’ usual main setting of Pandora as well, while one zone on Promethea provides some low-gravity fun.
I liked the planet-hopping aspect of the journey, even though there aren’t as many planets as I expected. The new planets are all smaller than Pandora, and typically have more pronounced roads and routes in contrast to Pandora's wastelands. Add the fact that the game's zones are now spread across multiple planets instead of just one, and the scope of the game ends up feeling simultaneously bigger and smaller than before. I don't mind the smaller part of that, as Borderlands 2's Pandora was unpleasantly large to me, but I did wish Athenas was a bit larger and less linear.
Your hub this time around takes the form of a spaceship, so when you first discover a planet, you have to clamber into a drop pod to make planetfall. Once you find fast travel stations however, you can simply travel to one from wherever you are. It's delightfully convenient.
Throughout your journey, you’ll meet characters both new and old. Returning characters like Lilith and Tannis play a prominent role, while others like Brick and Tiny Tina don’t feature as much as expected. A couple of former Vault Hunters from the second game show up, and you’ll meet and ally yourself with the respective CEOs of the Atlas and Jakobs Corporations. A personal highlight is BALEX, an energetic AI who inhabits the body of a teddy bear thanks to a messy breakup with another AI. Gunslinger and Jakobs ally Clay, who looks a bit like Michael B. Jordan, is also entertaining to listen to. Borderlands 3 maintains the humour of the series, but I never felt truly entertained by it until I met those two. Ava, a potential Siren, is a tad disappointing though. She starts off as an impulsive teen, but her arc doesn’t deliver a satisfying sense of maturation and learning and feels rushed instead.
Still, she’s a better character than the Calypso Twins, the new baddies and leaders of the COV. They’re social media personalities who try to be annoying, but in all frankness, I found it too easy to tune them out every time they tried to taunt me. Unlike Borderlands 2's Handsome Jack, they lack the ability to be irritating yet magnetizing. And while the story tries to make them seem like dangerous foes during cutscenes, it does this by making the good guys act foolishly or not at all in order to achieve that. Aside from a decent backstory, the new main villains ultimately suck.
In contrast, I liked the minor villains a whole lot more. Katagawa Jr., the CEO of the Maliwan Corporation, is an early highlight. Despite launching an all-out invasion of Promethea in order to pressure Atlas into agreeing to a merger, he converses nonchalantly with Atlas’ CEO (a.k.a. Rhys from Tales of the Borderlands) as if they were close buddies. Female AI GenIVIV (BALEX's ex) and the pompous Aurelia Hammerlock stood out too, as did Pain and Terror, two “murderstreamers” who run a bloody festival called Carnivora and are much better at taunting than the Calypsos. My favourite line however was when Pain asks you to pick an entrance music before you confront them in their ring, because it’s your “big moment” and a professional event. It really left an impression, one that the Calypsos just can’t compete with.
Let’s go hunting!
As with previous games, Borderlands 3 comes with four new Vault Hunters, but this time they have 3 Action Skills to play with. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to sample all of them, but here are the basic descriptions of the three I didn’t pick. New Siren Amara’s powers are normally used to deal damage, but she can also summon a giant fist to lock enemies in place. Zane is the high-tech guy who can make use of a drone, deploy a barrier, or create a digi-clone of himself for some sneakiness. Fl4k has pet companions, which I’d often confuse with enemy creatures during co-op sessions.
Although my initial plan was to start with Amara, I ended up picking Moze the Gunner as my first character. Two of her trees allow her to buff her shields or improve her splash damage. During my first playthrough of the story, I focused on the Bottomless Mags tree because I really liked shooting Borderlands 3’s guns, and not just the splash damage ones.
Her Action Skills aren’t really active abilities like the others. Pressing F will always result in her Iron Bear mech slamming down D.Va/Titanfall style, but you can decide what guns it comes with, and you can unlock more or tweak what the existing ones can do as you progress down her trees. My Iron Bear ended up with two miniguns, one altered to do more damage as it fires, the other customized to fire explosive rounds. I haven’t gotten tired of that loadout yet.
Speaking of guns, let’s get back to that topic, shall we? While I found Moze’s skills to be more interesting than those of Borderlands 2’s Gunzerker, who also focused on shooting but felt a bit more dull, the guns contributed a lot to my enjoyment too. Aside from the improved feel I mentioned near the start of the review, there’s also more variety thanks to the new or improved manufacturer traits. Tediore weapons don’t just explode when you throw them - some turn into turrets that spring legs and follow enemies, or spit bullets in every direction as they fly through the air. DAHL offers different fire modes to switch between instead of simply going into burst-fire when aiming. Vladof gives you under-barrel attachments like tasers, rockets, or even a shotgun attached to a sniper rifle.
Atlas guns can fire tracker pucks that allow your shots to home in on a target. Hyperion weapons put up shields while you’re aiming. Torgue weapons feature an alt-fire mode that shoots sticky versions of their explosive gyro rounds instead. Jakobs guns reward critical hits with ricocheting shots. COV is the new manufacturer, and their mag-less guns basically let you fire non-stop until you overheat or run out of ammo. Their misleading description says that overheating “breaks” them, but they don’t actually get permanently destroyed. Finally, Maliwan continues its role as the king of elemental weapons by giving its guns the ability to swap between two elements. A less pleasing change is the charge-up time required to fire their beams or blasts of energy. It’s fine on fully-automatic weapons, but I find myself actively avoiding Maliwan shotguns and sniper rifles now.
In Borderlands 2, I’d just categorize weapons as elemental, slag, or boring. New weapons I picked up were just upgrades for me, non-elemental weapons were dull, and the different manufacturer traits didn’t register in my mind. In Borderlands 3, I spent the first few hours of the story eagerly comparing all the different manufacturer traits and alt-fire modes. Even though I’m familiar with them now, I still find joy in comparing new loot with my current loadout because I’m not just looking at the stats, but their different natures. Do I want to hose things down with my Vladof assault rifle, or do I want to fire smart bullets with an Atlas one? Do I want an under-barrel shotgun or an under-barrel missile launcher? I love my minigun-like pistol, but I haven’t used a COV gun in a while - maybe I should try the COV pistol I just found. This elemental-spitting SMG is vicious, but this fire beam-shooting pistol is an insane death ray. Which do I go with?
It also helps that assault rifles in Borderlands 3 perform better than the largely underwhelming weapons I remember from the second game. I rarely used assault rifles back then unless they were from a manufacturer like Torgue; now, they’re a staple of my loadout. The removal of the debuffing slag element is another wise move that lets me equip weapons I like and not just weapons I need. Instead, Borderlands 3 adds cryo and radiation to its list of elemental types. Cryo slows down enemies, while radiation causes irradiated foes to damage their nearby friends. When they die, they burst violently and release irradiated liquid. It’s yucky, yet so, so satisfying.
Shooting the COV cultists, who now have female members too, and wildlife with these weapons is fun. Borderlands 3 also introduces lanky, alien enemies later in the game, but my favourite enemies were the Maliwan forces. I dig their high-tech design, and the fact that their infantry are supported by jet-pack troops, sword-wielding warriors, heavily-armoured soldiers that send elemental attacks your way, the occasional futuristic mech, and more. The cultists also mix range, melee, and brutish fighters to good effect, but their shield-wielding guys are occasionally annoying to deal with. The loot tink, who drops a ton of loot when killed, is a fun addition though.
The one misstep Borderlands 3 makes with its enemies are the anointed. Their defining feature is their tankiness, which makes them tough but not very interesting to fight. They’re usually tolerable despite that, but at one point in the story I ran into two anointed who were such a pain to deal with that I actually ran past them to jump straight to the main boss, who turned out to be more fun to battle. Then there’s Billy the anointed, who despite not having a boss-like health bar, turns out to be a boss that hits really hard and can even teleport with ease. After getting my butt kicked the first time, I decided to leave the theatre that houses him during my second attempt in order to formulate a plan. That’s when he teleported out of the theatre into the room I was in. Ironically, that was how I ended up beating him, as I used his ridiculous teleportation ability to lure him away from the restrictive confines of the theatre to a larger area that offered me more space and cover. Despite the initial frustration, I have to admit that it felt satisfying when I finally took him down.
I had a fairly good time with the other main story bosses, despite not being a fan of FPS boss fights in general. Shooting at them does feel slightly tiresome once they start having two health bars, but their attack patterns kept me engaged. There’s a giant boss that literally lifts the platform you’re on in an attempt to send you sliding to your doom, while the incorporation of bullet hell-like elements in another fight reminded me of Nier: Automata (in a good way). My favourite is a mech that shoots buzzsaws at you and occasionally swings a massive blade around. It’s rare that I actually enjoy dodging attacks in an FPS boss fight, and the sliding feature deserves some credit for that too. In contrast to all these, the final boss felt a little anticlimactic and left me wondering if there’d be one more boss when the game abruptly ended.
It took me slightly over 40 hours to complete the story as well as some side quests. If I had done all the side quests I accepted, it’d likely have been 50 hours at least. The initial side quests I tackled were basic fetch quests or go-here-and-kill-these mission types, but I later came across a potion-brewing witch, participated in a game show, and went on a quest to find a missing janitor that was a lot weirder than I expected. There's also a brief but memorable side mission that explores the pasts of Handsome Jack and his daughter Angel. Crucially, the side missions I've played so far didn't require much travelling, so they feel less padded out.
After the story, you’ll unlock True Vault Hunter Mode, which lets you replay the campaign with enemies matched to your current level and your existing loadout and skills intact. You also gain access to Guardian Ranks, which offer small bonuses and new skills. Mayhem mode can be activated to spice up the post-story experience with random effects that usually make enemies more dangerous in some way. If Mayhem 1 doesn’t feel challenging enough, you can go up to Mayhem 3.
Then there are the Circle of Slaughter and Proving Grounds modes. Circle of Slaughter is basically horde mode, while Proving Grounds offers timed dungeons with optional objectives that culminate in a boss fight. They can be easily found in the Social menu that allows you to join co-op games, but you can seek them out via the game map as well. The game actually explains how to unlock the Proving Grounds levels, which requires revisiting past locations and scanning Eridian writings. Because of the way it’s introduced after the story (as Eridian Trials rather than Proving Grounds), I ended up experiencing my first Proving Grounds level alone without realizing it. They’re not tailor-made for co-op as I expected, but going at it alone is a bit boring compared to tackling it with others.
The Circle of Slaughter areas are easier to miss, but you can simply opt to join a co-op session and hopefully experience all the different locations as they remain marked as side missions after you “discover” them. It doesn’t feel like a lot, but it should be enough to keep players occupied until DLC or the upcoming Bloody Harvest come out.
Despite enjoying Borderlands 3 greatly, the experience was often marred by frame rate drops. Typically, my three-year-old entry-level laptop would manage 50-60 FPS on medium settings at 1080p while dipping to the 40-50 FPS range during heavy combat. This performance would sometimes drop tremendously even when there wasn’t any fighting going on. When it does happen during a fight, well, let’s just say that one epic city zone-wide side quest turned into a tremendously irritating slog because of this.
Apart from that, item icons are often bugged, so my sniper rifle would sometimes be displayed as an SMG from my inventory for instance. There was also a mission where an enemy would show up on the minimap but wouldn’t spawn, while the boss for that chapter made incessant monkey noises. I had to reload twice for the issue to fix itself.
These blemishes are hard to ignore, and I hope that Gearbox patches things soon. Nevertheless, it doesn't change the fact that I had a great time with Borderlands 3. It isn’t just more Borderlands like I first thought, it’s better Borderlands. While future Borderlands games might have to shake up the formula more to stay fresh, I’m satisfied with what this instalment delivers.