Borderlands 3: Bounty of Blood – Final Review

As is characteristic of much of Gearbox’s recent work, the environments in Bounty of Blood are overflowing with creativity, the central planet of Gehenna atmospheric, imaginative, and immersive. Western stylings are boldly embraced, browns and oranges holding a position of prominence in the color palette, while much of the landscape is sunbaked and bright in nature. Similarly important to Gehenna is its relative remoteness, a remoteness which points towards relative technological perverseness, resulting also in pervasive lawlessness – here is an erratic planet, a planet characterized by hostility, tension. The hub world of Vestige, meanwhile, is completely emblematic of the tropes of Western fiction. The town is bustling, NPC’s moving to and fro, while a constantly crowded saloon features lively music and even livelier dance, the happiness displayed therein suggesting that not every facet of the planet is consumed by hostility – some brightness and gaiety persists. Further reflecting convention, though, the town’s interests strongly rest on the shoulders of the town’s sheriff, an individual who dedicates himself to preserving the citizen’s relative happiness, or at least contentedness – he is an affable, kindly fellow, selfless to the last. But reflecting ample creativity, the landscape, the entire narrative, is not squarely centered around Western ambiance or realism – imagination thrives, most notable being the overall crisp coloration, while the sprawling nature of the maps explored is also magical, communicating player smallness. The maps, though mostly linear – featuring branching paths rather than being completely open – illustrate planetary largeness, with massive draw distances and skyboxes singular in their beauty, as moons and distant planets are observable high above in the skies, a reminder of mankind’s technological advancement, a reminder also of Gehenna’s comparatively backwards technology, a place not completely lost to time, but certainly rather detached from it. Verticality is abundant, too, in that the topography is surprisingly mountainous, those objects stretching upwards for a considerable duration. The loftiest mountains boast dustings of snow at their zenith, and the oranges and browns, while prominent, do not completely monopolize the color palette – blues and greens have their place, as do the whites, manifest in the light snowfall. Interior environments, when explored, have the opposite effect, suggesting claustrophobia rather than openness, even as the interiors are rather spacious, large in scope; they seem claustrophobic largely because the skyboxes, the planets, and the moons are no longer visible, being concealed; here are diversity of sensations.  

The DLC’s narrative far eclipses that found in the base game, boasting complexity, intrigue, and very real appeals to emotion, appeals which are largely successful – the player is engaged from the first, and will likely remain engaged to the last. Much of these successes are attributable to the highly focused nature of the narrative. In the opening minutes, the central antagonist is introduced, this early introduction being a major asset; in so many games, the villain is like a non-entity, periodically menacing the player though never actually emerging until the final confrontation; Bounty of Blood rejects this approach. Everything centers around Rose, the primary antagonist, who announces her presence in a dramatic, tragic way. The Vault Hunters, upon reaching Vestige for the first time, come in contact with and discourse with the mentioned sheriff, that great keeper of the peace. But just as soon as he is introduced, he is slain, Rose resorting to violence unhesitatingly, unafraid of slaughtering an innocent man, a completely selfless man. While the sheriff is present for only ten or fifteen minutes before his murder, his likability and altruistic attributes quickly endear him to the player, the end result being that his murder is actually impactful and resonant – were he a dull, unlikable individual, his murder would mean nothing; the narrative would falter or fail. Instead, his death only increases rage towards and hatred of Rose, that ruthless killer and bounty hunter, leader of the Devil Riders. Continuing down the path of villainy, an hour or so later she returns to Vestige, determined to cripple it and make the town more vulnerable for future attacks, principally by stealing a protective stone situated in the heart of the city, an object which wards off destruction, much needed when considering the destruction much of the rest of Gehenna is subject to. This theft, meanwhile, greatly heightens player agency – if the stone is not retrieved, and fast, then Vestige and its inhabitants are sure to meet with a grisly, brutal fate, a fate of which they are completely undeserving; Rose must be stopped. It is a relatively simple narrative construction – best the antagonist and save the planet – but here it is immensely effective, owing to Rose’s great depth, which is periodically developed as the narrative progresses. It is revealed that she wields the metaphoric sword not necessarily because she delights in violence, but also because of her lust for revenge, desirous of vindicating a grandmother who was subject to exploitation and violence. This knowledge further morphs her into a profound character, and her presence carries much of the narrative. She commits extreme acts of violence, true, but mostly because she is motivated by pain, a pain she wishes others to experience so that she is no longer alone. 

Narrative effectiveness is bolstered further by the secondary characters, both those major and minor. Amongst the most compelling major characters is Juno, a hulking woman of some ferocity who has an oversized blade slung over her back, suggesting violence, a delighting in violence. Her position grows in importance upon completion of the sheriff’s final wish – seek her out and transfer to her the badge, that mark of honor and inherited responsibility for Vestige. Most individuals, save the most ambitious, would reject this object, seeing the responsibility as being excessively demanding. Juno does not act in this fashion, honoring the sheriff’s dying breath, becoming Vestige’s great champion, a role she is suitable for owing to her commanding strength. This transfer of power is fairly straightforward, but greater depth arises as Juno’s backstory is communicated to the player. Some time before the narrative, Juno was a subordinate to Rose, serving as lieutenant in the Devil Riders, occupying a fairly elevated status in that collective. Eventually growing frustrated with that violent life, she ultimately quits the group, desirous of a more peaceful, less confrontational and erratic existence. Most notable is the reception she receives while settled in Vestige, the town’s inhabitants unable to look past her prior life as lawless bounty hunter, even as she has discarded those menacing, frightful attributes – here is a woman who remains strong and virile, but one who has embraced kindness, a kindness which absolutely must be recognized, but a kindness which is never recognized, at least until Juno dons the sheriff badge, until she begins in earnest her defense of the town and the townsfolk. Her dialogue is also very well-written, increasing her own endearing attributes, even as the precise nature of that endearment is rather different from what the original sheriff constantly displayed. More minor characters, such as the somewhat cowardly Titus or the enigmatic Oletta, also serve to flesh out Gehenna, to capture and develop its diversity, also contributing to the narrative.       

While certain of these characters are defined by complexity, guided by sometimes warring motivations, and displaying many human attributes, the developers inevitably could not stop the insertion of some obnoxiousness, failed attempts at humor. Almost all of these failings stem from the Vault Hunters. Playing as Zane the Operative, every time he goes to speak, the dialogue is consistently cringe-worthy, his delivery style, the content of the dialogue, destroying narrative strengths. His juvenility is in stark contrast to the more morbid and mature aspects of the narrative. In this precise instance, a silent protagonist would absolutely be preferable, a statement which is not made lightly – in almost all narratives, the protagonist should speak, for such speech has the tendency to develop narrative complexity, especially impressive being those titles which include dialogue choices or other such systems. Here, though, if the player character’s voice were removed, a more consistent tone would be achieved – the mature themes of the narrative would continue unchallenged, while the damning, unpredictable tonal balance would be rectified, meaning also that the narrative would lose its erratic instability. Even the very minor, almost completely insignificant characters boast more compelling dialogue than Zane’s, illustrating his narrative failings. These characters, then, show depth, even as they are relegated to a world-building role, being barred from making more dramatic narrative contributions, like those made by Titus or Juno.

The quests distributed by these characters are traditionally very enjoyable, though some are characterized by simplicity. Early on, the player character sets out to dismantle a snake-oil salesman’s operation, he peddling a supposed cure for all ailments, knowing all the while the medicine is a mere placebo, serving no real restorative role. Toppling him and his empire, then, spares the townsfolk of their wealth, while cutting down drastically on corruption and exploitation. Besting him, then, was a triumphant affair, in that Gehenna’s many citizens benefit incalculably. In another secondary mission, the Vault Hunter does fairly mundane chores at a small ranch and farmstead, gathering together eggs and performing other such trivial actions. While it is overall unengaging strictly from a gameplay perspective, the effect is the same – in gathering together these eggs, a portion of Gehenna’s population, however small, will not go hungry, will not suffer from that hunger. In additional mission, the Vault Hunter is tasked to track down a missing woman, being nudged in her direction by a concerned husband, frightened at her absence and feeling incomplete without her. Finally located towards the quest’s conclusion, it is revealed she left behind her husband, with his mundanities, willingly, in search of greater excitement. A moral choice is presented the player: take her to her husband or allow her to go free; here, surprisingly, is no black and white decision making. While these side quests are not especially abundant – this is DLC after all – almost all of them are gripping and engrossing in their own unique way, serving a sharp world-building function.     

The DLC’s greatest failing has little to do with itself, inheriting its flaws directly from the base game. Upon starting the DLC, my character was level seventy, level seventy-two being the level cap. It was a long road to get to that point, of course, in that reaching the level entailed completing the base campaign in addition to the previous two DLC, actions which took roughly ninety hours, a not insignificant number. Given the sprawling nature of this time investment, it follows that my character would have access to many powerful weapons and other secondary objects like shields, class mods, or grenade mods. Indeed, upon starting the DLC, the fully expanded backpack, permitting the carrying of fifty objects, contained only purple and orange rarity weapons – with access to these guns, I went into the narrative, into Gehenna, grossly overpowered, and that over-empowerment persists throughout the entirety of the DLC, the end result being open combat is trivial, and, accordingly, unenjoyable; using these guns almost breaks the entire experience, resulting in a certain mindlessness, which is only exacerbated by the litany of skills invested in Zane’s skill tree; the way my character was speced meant that death was essentially an impossibility, meaning the player never has to rely upon tactics or cautiousness to succeed in combat – they can merely charge into the fray, with no regard of health values or anything of the like: rush into the engagement and shoot everyone in sight, relying upon the action skills when accessible; that is the extent of the gameplay here. It makes sense that the player would be rewarded for this massive time investment, but they should never be endowed with almost godlike capabilities and strengths; balance, so crucial to a game’s success and continued enjoyability, is completely absent here, making the game unfun. The lack of any cerebral dimensions, meanwhile, results in a certain spacing out; I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering because, while playing the DLC, there was relatively little content which would actually occupy the brain, higher mental faculties. It is an odd admission, certainly; with a dozen or so enemies thrown at the player at any one time, logic says thoughtfulness should dominate, should absolutely be required. Almost inexplicably, though, thoughtfulness is completely unneeded. Fortunately, all is not tragedy: the gunplay is as solid as ever, the shooting being immensely satisfying, while overall mobility options are exhilarating, empowering but not excessively so. Exploration, too, is incredibly enjoyable, owing to the beauty of Gehenna. The new enemy types, while not requiring the adoption of new tactics or tactics at all, are indeed compelling and threatening in design, many boasting eerie audio designs. The drop rate generally seems rather generous, and upwards of ten legendary items were dropped throughout the DLC. Repeated successes, then, are indeed present, only making more frustrating the central failure of over-empowerment. Were balance better adjusted, were enemies actually threatening rather than being mere cannon fodder, the gameplay could improve considerably. Instead, the gameplay follows the formula of shoot the target until they fall. The freneticism, too, only makes one yearn for simpler gameplay systems, for slower gameplay, where tactics and strategies are incentivized and even essential to gameplay successes.           

As DLC, Bounty of Blood’s successes are directly connected to narrative and world building. Regarding the former, a very mature story has been crafted here, one which is occasionally morbid, everything anchored around enigmatic, profound Rose, a figure who exercises violence though not reveling or delighting in it. Either way, an entire town, an entire planet, is at threat because of her machinations – the player must act, and fast. Regarding the latter strength – world-building – Gehenna is frequently beautiful and imaginative, not only adopting Western design conventions, but building upon them, distorting them considerably, the planet a canvas for the developers’ ample creativity, as displayed in the Borderlands series broadly. The joys of exploration, joys which are immense owing to the map design, are only heightened with the inclusion of a new vehicle, a bike of sorts which is both speedy and highly maneuverable, literally zipping across the Gehenna landscapes. In exploration and narrative delivery, the highs can be very high. Simultaneously, the lows can be terribly low, and this is most observable in the gameplay systems, the triviality and unexciting nature of combat overall. Bosses, traditionally interpreted as particularly threatening and comparatively impervious to damage, possessive also of the potential to deal out considerable damage, are here completely unchallenging, and thus the triumphant adulations which normally accompany success over a boss are here completely lacking. They may drop a legendary weapon upon death, and it is certainly enjoyable to wield that weapon and experiment with it, but by this point Zane’s backpack was literally overflowing with weapons. Indeed, the only way to maintain gameplay freshness was to swap out these weapons, to alter the experience somewhat; gameplay fails just as narrative soars. Being DLC, though, it follows that the overall length will be dramatically shorter than that found in the base campaign, and so it is here. Secondary content, so enjoyable and central to the experience, inflates the playtime somewhat, though it is never overwhelming, the content easily completable. When regarding DLC, it is easy to describe it as being “more of the same,” this designation largely carrying negative connotations. And so it is here, Bounty of Blood never innovating over the base game, at least in terms of gameplay systems; Gehenna, at least, is a radical departure from the explorable planets in the base game or prior DLC. Indeed, it is this world, characters like Juno or Rose, which give the DLC heart, give it its own unique identity, justifying its completion. Its completely self-contained nature also helps the experience. Rather than having returning characters of whom the player has already forged perceptions, totally new characters mean no perceptions are in place; new ones must be forged, resulting in a certain sense of giddy excitement: the unknown is appealing. And while the formula is not altered in any significant fashion, the DLC is easily recommendable as an extension of inherently enjoyable – if simplistic and repetitive – gameplay systems.

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