It has been five years since we’ve seen a new Borderlands FPS title. Borderlands 3 is now upon us, offering four new Vault Hunters and the return of fan favourite characters from the entire franchise. Five years of development have also brought modernized game mechanics, including plenty of quality of life changes.
The story picks up soon after the events of the new Borderlands 2 “Commander Lilith and the Fight for Sanctuary” DLC and the Tales from the Borderlands adventure game. The Children of the Vault cult lead by the twins Tyreen and Troy Calypso are now quickly absorbing or destroying the bandits in the Borderlands. Lilith recruits four new Vault Hunters to beat the Calypso Twins to the Vaults in hopes of stopping the cult from completely taking over the galaxy.
The story is very much on course for the franchise. It’s a story with a clear villain with plenty of off colour, ridiculous humour and pop culture references piled on top. The humour hasn’t matured too much over the years, although the characters and the world have. It is a little weird how Borderlands 3 treats the galaxy’s corporations. Certain companies are now being treated with a slightly kinder, more human light, while others are still portrayed negatively in Borderland’s satirical and cutting manner. The choice makes sense within the context of the story, but it feels a little out of place based on the previous three FPS titles.
The plot is an enjoyable ride, although the Calypso Twins fail to be as entertaining as Handsome Jack. Tyreen Calypso does a fantastic job parodying the social media queens that have carved niches on YouTube and Instagram, but she lacks Handsome Jack’s charisma and ridiculous sense of humour. The story does feel like a big family reunion after all these years, as almost every major character makes their return in the game.
Borderlands 3 feels more like the jump between the first and second title. Granted, Borderlands, The Pre-Sequel was more of a standalone expansion pack extended into a full retail release as almost all the mechanics from 2 were left in place. The most noticeable change to Borderlands 3 is the new action skill system. Instead of a single action skill in the previous three FPS games, the Vault Hunters have three action skills to choose from. Each skill is associated with one of the three skill trees for the Vault Hunter. Two active skill modifiers are unlocked with each skill tier, and each Vault Hunter has its own combination of active skills and active skill modifier slots. The new system is more interesting as different playstyles are now more distinct compared to previous games. At the same time, the skills are generally weapon agnostic, preventing Vault Hunters from being stuck with one weapon type.
The movement system has been modernized with slides and mantling. The slide function isn’t nearly as important as a more tactical FPS, but it still has some fun use cases like punting explosive barrels at enemies. The mantle function feels much more at home in a Borderlands game. There’s always been some jumping puzzles in the franchise. Much like Claptrap and stairs, jumping puzzles are my mortal enemy. I found the mantling system was a lot easier to use as it is a little more generous when it comes to nailing the landing. It also allows snipers get up to high perches in a hurry so they can fire unimpeded on the enemy while their shotgun toting friends rush into the fray.
The subtle quality of life changes Borderlands 3 introduces are fantastic, bringing the game up to modern standards. Players can choose between an instanced cooperation mode where each player gets their own loot and enemies are scaled appropriately to their level. The traditional Borderlands experience is still available through the coopetition mode. Ammunition and health are automatically looted if necessary, which is a huge time saver. Additionally, gamers can also finally ditch the Halo-style vehicle controls for something more traditional.
Borderlands has been known for its wild variety of guns. Each manufacture has always had a guiding design principle, whether it’s Maliwan’s focus on elemental damage or Vladof’s emphasis on low damage and high rate of fire. Borderlands 3 takes it up a notch by further differentiating manufacturers with a variety of secondary abilities. Some of them are pretty normal, like Jakobs’ ability to ricochet on a crit, others are just off the wall, like Tediore’s guns with legs. The new special abilities make the choosing the right manufacturer for your gun a meaningful decision.
The overall balance is a work in progress. While Maliwan and Zane were a touch underpowered at launch, a quickly released balancing patch addressed some of the early issues. While I don’t expect every RPG to be perfectly balanced at launch, Borderlands 3 was at a pretty playable in terms of balance right out of the gate.
The levels and mission designs are generally straight forward and entertaining. Collectibles are easy to discover as they are marked clearly on the map but require solving a jumping puzzle to access usually. The mission puzzles are even more generous as NPCs will start giving more obvious hints as the player continues to struggle. Extra loot is available for players who are willing to complete optional objectives or explore side areas. There are plenty of boss fights with some interesting mechanics, although few ever become as complicated as an MMORPG. Instead, the boss difficulty tends to hit the right spot where mechanics provide an extra challenge to long time FPS players without being overwhelming.
The PC port is where Borderlands 3 really struggles. The game is plagued with bugs big and small, from random elemental effects never disappearing from the screen to quest givers bugging out and breaking the quest. I suspect a few more weeks of debugging would have helped, but Gearbox now has a busy post-launch schedule full of bug stomping. While Gearbox has continued its tradition of PC ports offering fantastic support for all the graphical options for PC users, they also utterly fail at everything else. Menus are mostly designed for console. Inputting commands is keyboard heavy with absolutely no right click options in sight. While it was nice to see an option for changing controller key binds, the keyboard situation is an absolute mess for those of us not using a QWERTY keyboard. Menu navigation and push to talk are completely hardcoded. Options for changing vehicle control styles is broken, and it is currently impossible to change the air control and vehicle control key, something that shares the same keys by default. Then there are smaller annoyances, like unnecessarily switching the order of quit to menu and quit to desktop buttons while in game and in the title screen. I am completely disappointed in the Borderlands 3 PC port after Borderlands 2 easily earned itself the title of one of the best PC ports of its time.
Borderlands 3 is looking great. The game is still sporting its signature cel shaded graphics. Leaving Pandora means players are finally treated to a more diverse set of environments than the dusty, bandit-ridden Borderlands. The new planets offer a great variety of sights and sounds, from the dense cityscape of Promethea to the murky backwater swamps of Eden-6. It’s also nice to see the planets come with their own set of monsters.
The audio experience is top notch. The soundtrack is a great mix of traditional video game scores and rock songs. The sound effects have improved significantly over Borderlands 2. The guns have a lot more punch to them and sound very realistic. The voice acting is also excellent. While it’s a shame that some beloved voice actors were not able to reprise their roles, their replacements keep the quality high.
Borderlands 3 is a fantastic FPS. The story is solid, even if the Calypso Twins aren’t the most lovable villain. The gameplay is a significant improvement over previous titles, and the audio/visual presentation is top notch. The PC port is a little more disappointing. If you plan on using the default key binds, you will avoid most of the frustration. However, the Borderlands 3 PC portstill has plenty of room for improvement.
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