In terms of presentation, Borderlands 3 is incredible, particularly creatively. The various explorable planets are full of diversity, each having their own unique character; the starting area, Pandora, with its sandy, oppressive deserts and craggy mountains is decidedly different from, say, the planet of Promethea, with its impossibly tall skyscrapers and seemingly advanced technology. Neon lights abound here, the planet having overall a cyberpunk theme, which contrasts greatly the western stylings of Pandora. The game becomes a thematic fusion, this combination resulting in a gameworld that is totally unique. The game is ambitious, too, at least in terms of environments – there are a multitude of planets on offer, besides the mentioned Pandora and Promethea. The overgrown, nearly untamed wilderness of Eden 6 particularly stands out, with towering trees and an overall foggy aesthetic; for me, a strong sense of awe is evoked here, this pleasant surprise most impactful upon first entry to the planet; you are given but a name before departing for the area, unaware of what that planet contains, or even what it looks like. It brings about this strange sense of curiosity – where will we travel next? While resonance is subjective, I found almost every planet to be better than the last, though I do have a certain prejudice for the futuristic Promethea. There are other planets on offer, too, like the Asian inspired Athenas, through to the concluding planet, a bizarre planet, populated by centuries old aliens, ultimate guardians of the vault. The landscapes here are very peculiar and fantastical, reddish, exotic ivy curling around a great many objects, while a plethora of scaffolding suggests efforts at taming this exoticism, exploiting the planet for its various resources. This steady trickle of new explorable areas was perhaps the greatest motivator for me to push through and actually finish the game; I always wanted to see what exactly lay ahead.
Beyond the creative, though, technically, it is but serviceable – stable, but not particularly revolutionary. Running on the Unreal Engine, there are the expected flaws which accompany that ever-popular engine. Textures can be rather slow to load at times, resulting in many objects having a murky aesthetic, though accurate, intended textures don’t take too long to reappear. The frame rate holds steady for the most part, though there were a few instances in which it dropped – dropped hard. This flaw occurred almost exclusively in the various boss battles, where there is much action present on screen. Beyond the boss battles, this occurred in especially intensive basic encounters, though this was even more infrequent. These frame drops are in no ways game breaking, and the title never crashed on me, but they are worth mentioning. Still, the draw distance can be incredible at times, helping to further the largeness of the world; you may be exploring an area, but these distant objects reinforce the idea that this explorable map is but a small, insignificant fraction of a larger whole. There is present also very effective baked lighting, which is especially notable on the desert planet of Pandora; the mountains and sands look very impressive, while the skyboxes are equally arresting. There is present, too, the series’ signature cel-shading, though for some reason it doesn’t seem to be as prominent as in the previous titles; perhaps I am just accustomed to it because of my time with those prior games. The presence of this styling here, even if it seems more minimalistic, does a great deal to distinguish this title from its great many competitors. What also sets this game apart is its unique tone, very humorous and charming, even as much of the humor falls flat.
Why does the humor fail so often? Again, something like that is extremely subjective – one person will find enjoyment from a joke, another receiving it with indifference or even disdain. I think humor is most effective when it is delivered sparsely; Borderlands 3 does not seem to understand this. The playable vault hunter contributes very little to the conversations and dialogue in the game, playing a very small part narratively. Playing as Zane the Operative, about the only lines he delivered were cheap jokes; in consequence of their great quantity, for me they were very ineffective. Part of these failings could be attributed to the quality of the writing, though I suppose I had rather low expectations with regards to this. The voice acting is stellar across the board, and even as Zane’s words are boring, they are bolstered somewhat in intrigue by his clever, endearing voice acting; they did a great job here. There is great conflict tonally, though. The game is fairly light-hearted, sure, but at times it seems to want to break that playfulness, to go ahead and discuss darker themes. Because of the overbearing humor, there is great conflict and dissonance here. The two villains, the Calypso twins, are perhaps intended to be menacing – they are the primary antagonists, after all, with supposedly sinister intentions. But this intimidation factor is totally destroyed whenever they speak; overly relying on humor, just like Zane, they are more obnoxious than imposing. Towards the late game, more of their past is revealed. Revealed also are possible motivations for their actions. Here, in theory, there is an effective merger between the humorous and the dark. And then, they reappear, and again display their obnoxiousness. This flat humor goes beyond Zane, Tyreen, and Troy – it permeates almost all aspects and characters in the game.
And the cast of characters is very large and diverse, in terms of personality and motivation. Many of them are holdovers from the previous games. Lilith the siren emerges from the first as a key figure. She has hold over Sanctuary 3, the navigable ship, and acts for much of the game as primary mission giver. Her voice acting is expectantly impressive, though her character model has not changed much at all, save receiving a slight upgrade alongside the change in upgraded engine. I like her, and as her siren powers are drained away at the beginning of the game, I liked her further because of her vulnerability. Among the other holdovers, there is the charming if overbearing Claptrap, Ellie the mechanic, Marcus the capitalist, and even Crazy Earl, who presides over all Eridium purchases.
It was a great joy to me to see the crewmates steadily increase as the game progressed, constantly growing numerically when characters like Hamerlock and Zero are reintroduced and come aboard. Maya is there, too, she being a vault hunter in Borderlands 2, though her presence here is rather short, because of the plot. She has as her apprentice Ava, a young, ambitious girl who desires only to become a Siren. I really like her as a character, especially when she is compared to Tiny Tina, who fulfilled the role of plucky youth in the previous game. She seems moody and introspective, and one mission hints that she has had a very rough past. Hammerlock is also developed, as it is revealed he is homosexual, having as partner the leader of the Jakobs corporation. Despite the abundance of juvenile humor in the game, the exchanges between Hammerlock and Wainwright were done very tastefully. Overall, the characters are great, even if some of them – like Brick, Mordecai, and even Tiny Tina – seem to be forced inclusions. While these figures do offer assistance to the Vault Hunters directly on a few occasions, for the majority of the time they are confined to Sanctuary 3. This is disappointing, especially considering how enjoyable it is to fight alongside them, even as their aid is, objectively, not very great. Either way, even if some of the characters are intriguing, with differing motivations and backstories, the broader narrative is an uncompelling failure.
Initially, the primary motivation in the game seems to be the opening of the Vault. Soon after that search begins, the mentioned Calypso twins are introduced, draining Lilith of her powers. The plot becomes twofold, one portion dedicated to exacting revenge, another the dogged pursuit of the vaults, scattered around the galaxies. It is a long, winding road; any time success seems imminent, some obstacles unfortunately and arbitrarily emerge. Upon triumphing in battle and opening one vault, Maya also is drained of her abilities, and is ultimately killed. In her death, the rival twins are empowered, growing greatly in strength. Here, with her death, I think the game is attempting to strike a resonant core. It mostly succeeds, especially as the likable Ava is witness to her death. The Calypso twins make scant appearances, though the majority of the exchanges are merely broadcast as audio logs, or visual holograms. They take a backseat for quite a while, as the player’s search for vault fragments continues. In this search, the player gets wrapped up in various conflicts, like the battle between the warring Maliwan and Atlas corporations, on the compelling planet of Promethea. It is this great side diversion, and while fun at times, it seems extremely unnecessary, something I can say about a lot of things in this game. This particular section ends with an epic shootout, this epicness only being reinforced by the spectacular music, which I must mention here. It is very incredible and diverse, electronic at times, more subdued at others; it goes a long way towards establishing the tone. Furthering these forced diversions, on the planet of Eden 6, the task is to assist those of the Jakobs family, as they engage in a sort of dynastic struggle. This task culminates in a struggle at the Jakobs manor – which is very well designed and a joy to explore – a struggle accompanied by a rather difficult boss battle, different from all the others because of the tightness of the battlefield.
From here, narratively things get back on track. Rhys, head of Maliwan, has been assisted, his position and dominance secured; Promethea is safe and in good hands. Sibling squabbling has been ceased on the planet of Eden 6. There is further planet hopping, seeing a return to Pandora, new explorable areas made accessible. Troy, the male, somewhat more fragile member of the twins, is ultimately destroyed in combat, their combined forces weakened. Finally, though, there is the planet of Nekrotafeyo, an ancient land of many secrets, the location of an elaborate vault, and the first vault hunter, Typhon, who has been periodically developed throughout the narrative, due to his various audio logs scattered around the galaxy. With his assistance, Tyreen, despite her vast resolve and strength, is bested; the threat is ended, supposedly, though an ultimate sacrifice is made. Then things end.
This is all unsatisfying, but satisfaction and intrigue actually emerge throughout the game’s many side quests. Very unique in terms of objectives, they further flesh out the world and its characters. So good is some of this content, it is difficult for me to see how they made it optional. One quest late in the game – which sees the player engage in a gauntlet of sorts with the alien, shield-protected guardians – takes place in an entirely self-contained area, which is totally missable. One quest sees the Vault Hunter beta testing a game, protecting a deliberately poorly-animated A.I. character and performing the most menial of tasks, in an almost meta scenario. It’s brilliant, as the developers make this commentary about the greed in the video game industry. One mission takes place at a party for a deceased young girl, complete with party games, despite the supposedly somber tone. There are countless side missions with interesting objectives like these, and I even interpret some of them as being superior to that found in the primary questline.
So, then, this primary narrative seems to lack real direction or focus, things being bogged down by unnecessary diversions. Still, I knew going in that the plot would be lackluster, though I was hopeful at the same time that those low expectations would be shattered, that I would be engaged on some kind of deeper level. My prediction of disappointment was right, though really, that is ok – the game is carried solely by its gameplay, which is quite impressive. The gunplay is responsive, the guns feeling overall fun to shoot, while there have been some modernizations towards the movement systems. Mantling initially seems unintuitive, but I eventually came to grips with it, and it does change the gameplay in pretty tangible ways, allowing flanking and redirection, though this is in no ways required. Indeed, strategy overall never becomes totally necessary; there is the expected choice of weaponry, but beyond that, the gameplay devolves to mere shooting, with next to no variety – there is no stealth, no dialogue options, nothing of the sort. Even the cutscenes – which might serve to break up the gameplay – are few and far between. Again, I should have know going in that the game would play out in this manner, based on my time with the previous games in the series, but I still can’t help but be disappointed.
The choice of weaponry is dizzying, with countless, almost innumerable guns on offer. The primary choice is deciding which guns to wield, though the skill trees are also fairly robust, if at times fairly unexciting, with many passive abilities. Still, in this title there are three different skills to choose from, which only heightens the sense of flexibility on offer. Playing as Zane, he as character possesses the ability to wield two action skills at once, equipping a second with the removal of the grenade function. Coupled together, my choice of the drone and the clone-creation seemed at times overpowered, especially considering the skills at the end of the tree, which are noticeably more powerful and useful, which is logical considering the expenditure of points necessary to acquire them. I had a blast experimenting with these abilities, and it is fascinating to consider what some other build might feel like. I can imagine respecing – a seamless process – would result in a totally different playstyle. Even still, despite these solid mechanics, with a massive quantity of guns on offer, and flexibility in terms of character build, as I gradually approached the end of the game, I had lost almost all interest.
Why is this? I’m not totally sure, though I would likely attribute it to the overwhelmingly repetitive nature of the game. While the stakes and difficulty of the late game are far removed from those to be found at the opening, at the end of the day, the only real, active gameplay element is the shooting. True, there is an incredible degree of enemy types on offer here, each planet having its own distinct types of foes, from the apelike creatures of Eden 6 through to the alien Guardians of Nekrotafeyo, all requiring somewhat different tactics, though any real strategy is lacking greatly. Every enemy has their own unique weak spot, which must absolutely be exploited if victory is to be achieved, but whether you are aiming for the head of a bandit or the open maws of a skag, still you are shooting. That is all. A great failing, though, when it comes to gunplay is just how easily many weapons can be dismissed. True, the choice of weaponry is subjective, each player gravitating towards their own weapon type or manufacturer – some preferring shotguns, for instance, others favoring sniper rifles – and it is this subjectivity which really hinders the amount of available options. If you’ve decided (like I have) that Tediore weapons are boring and lackluster, you might habitually gloss over all weapons from that brand.
Towards the end of the game, though, I fell into greater experimentation, wielding widely different guns than I had previously. This really shook things up, breaking up – somewhat – the tedium. My enjoyment with the title suddenly resurfaced, though I would then engage in some ridiculous combat encounter, dozens of enemies thrown my way, and the reasons for by boredom and frustration would similarly resurface. It can be frustrating, and despite the great options available, staleness persists. The legendary, orange rarity weapons seek perhaps to dispel this, each offering their own unique, special quirks, but these weapons, impossibly difficult to locate, veer more towards the gimmicky than the practical. As a result, I relied most heavily on purple rarity weapons, with good stats and a more straightforward nature. True, one epic weapon might have the ability to change between sniper and shotgun, even bullets having unique effects. In theory, this would free up an entire weapon slot, much coveted. Realistically, though, while having these alternate firing modes, it is useless considering both types of shot are weak in comparison to so many other weapons on offer, those with a dedicated, singular type. A revolver might inflict 300% additional critical hit damage but be fitted with a long-range scope. Coupled with very low accuracy, distant shots are difficult to connect. For every perk these supposedly “epic” weapons possess, they are hindered by a great many flaws. True, I must confess here I obtained a scant twenty or so of such weapons, so I am likely missing out on hundreds of guns of such rarity, but I am basing these examinations on my own experiences. I am not dismissing these guns as boring, in no way. As with the environments, there is great creativity on offer here; there is great modelling, many guns – despite their great similarities to others – looking unique from the others. The attention to detail here is simply astounding, and there is a great deal of charm, as with everything else in the game.
Really, it is astounding to consider just how much as changed in the ten years existing between this title and the original Borderlands – and how little has been changed. The game feels decidedly modern, with graphical fidelity and creativity that puts that earlier game to shame. Borderlands 2 exists as a logical, well-designed game to bridge the gap. It was creative, too, and this title really doubles down on that creativity; the environments are gorgeous, lovingly crafted, and a pure joy to explore, with their great diversity. Here, reflecting this modern approach, fast travel is available at the push of a button, locations and galaxies easily accessible. But despite its newfound beauty and its enhancements to skill trees and character building, this game is firmly linked to those others in the series – for better or worse. It builds on the formula but doesn’t really go far enough. The humor is retained, and while they do attempt at times to insert more dramatic elements, they fall flat for the most part, lending to the game a sense of inconsistency. Your whole game is stuffed with humor, and then suddenly you hope to evoke, out of nowhere, a sense of pathos? It is very odd, and while the characters, likable, might encourage that emotion when placed in harms way, emotional stimulation is never really achieved. Neither is the cerebral, combat being basic at best, despite the litany of guns. The flaws from those previous games are retained, although the quality of the side content has been amplified greatly. The gameplay systems at work here are admirable, the core gameplay loop of shooting and looting is as satisfying as ever, but that natural desire for constant self-improvement is no longer enough for me. I found I had to convince myself to finish the game; that is never a good thing to confess, not at all. But that’s my current impression. The moment to moment gameplay can be very satisfying, but in the grander scheme of things, it is entirely forgettable. I can certainly understand the appeal of the game, with its sense of constant progression, but now I simply want more out of games.