Why has Borderlands 3 thrown out its playable Vault Hunters again?

We’re just a few days from the next numbered entry in the Borderlands saga. The release of Borderlands 3 will bring new wacky guns, enemies to gun down, and additional vault hunters to hold those guns; the latter of which has been the same in every entry. Each has an original skill tree and toys to play with. This makes sense to a certain point, especially in a series that does little to change up its shoot ’em up gameplay between releases. However, as more characters keep piling onto the world of Pandora, there’s a risk losing some of the magic of the first entry. Borderlands 3 looks to be a very similar sequel (perhaps too similar), and but this change might be the game to break the franchise’s worldbuilding.

Borderlands 2 is where this trend started. Just three years removed from the original game, this sequel did make significant changes to some aspects of the world. Gunmakers gained specific identities (arguably locking their stock into unfortunately restrictive roles) and villainy came from a well-defined character rather than a vague military force. The most significant change was how the game handled the original cast of characters from Borderlands. It took what were essentially player avatars and injected them with personality, centering the story around them. The narrative desperately wanted you to care about their plight from the outside, despite transforming them into cool characters players would want to experience the story as.

Borderlands 3 Vault Hunters | Lifting Jack’s mask

Borderlands 3 Handsome Jack

The problem is twofold. For one, the new narrative hooks rob the game of its focus. The original Borderlands (and most action RPGs) focuses heavily on building your chosen warrior. The game is your character’s story, with gameplay and quests that all work to propel you towards greater glory. By contrast, Borderlands 2 casts you as a coffee runner for the badasses from the first game. It’s the Crimson Raiders versus Handsome Jack, and you’re there too! The gameplay is still working to build you up, but the story seems to only require you as hired muscle. It makes the six new playable characters feel like second stringers, which is a shame for their fans. Although second stringers would be a step up for the cast of the Pre-Sequel, but they aren’t even worth getting into.

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In addition to player dynamics, the expanded cast of characters throws off the balance of the distinctive Borderlands attitude. A common complaint about the second game was that it cranked up the bad jokes. While the meme material is quite grating, there’s another aspect that sometimes goes overlooked. The original Borderlands often left you alone during missions, letting you focus on the shooting and looting. Borderlands 2 is exactly the opposite, shoving in dialogue from all the big lineup of other characters, loudspeakers and screaming raiders whenever possible. Not only is it a longer campaign, but the developers pack every inch of it with new attempts at humor.

These jokes are a way for Gearbox to accommodate the game’s bigger cast. Since the team adds characters to the franchise in every entry and feels the need to have so many returning faces, the roster grows and those people need to show up somewhere. And that somewhere is often the radio. If Borderlands kept around the same core group, it wouldn’t have to have to splice in so many voices and the radio chatter would likely die down as a result and it would be less prone to have the perceived tonal issues as Borderlands 2. This would probably make the game’s tone more in line with the first entry: lonesome with the room for occasional humor. Fewer voices shouting would like mean fewer bad jokes, which is where the call for a returning cast would help the narrative.

Borderlands 3 Vault Hunters | Pandora needs heroes

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These aren’t quite invalid evolutions of the Borderlands concept, but they do both add to the real problem at hand. Looking at Borderlands 3, it seems that the surviving cast of Borderlands 2 still run the show. That makes sense since you spent a whole game establishing these characters and building their personalities. However, going from what fans have meticulously gathered from the game, it seems like we’re getting cameos at best from the playable characters of the two other games.

So outside of new mechanics and seeing different faces — which are likely the main reasons for these changes — why are we going to once again choose from a pack of four newcomers? Why are these characters still mostly silent ciphers that barely affect the story? Why would invest in a random mech woman in the slightest when she probably isn’t even going to matter in Borderlands: The Sequel Spin-Off?

It’s an odd feeling, especially in a game that so many play while listening to podcasts and ignoring the narrative. However, it’s still a valid question, especially in a world with games branded around their colorful casts. Would a hero shooter release a $60 sequel and throw out their entire roster just to add in some new blood? It seems unlikely, but that’s essentially what each new Borderlands game does. From everything Gearbox has shown (including the bit I played at E3), the sequel is doubling down on this method of storytelling. There are story characters and then there are throwaway playable characters that just exist to give players a role in the world. Borderlands should have the former, as the potential is there, but it mostly has the latter.

Borderlands 3 Vault Hunters | Brainstorming the Borderworlds

borderlands 3 preview

If just making throwaway characters is the goal, why not go all the way and let players design their own Vault Hunter? That’s reason enough to bring back all the skills from previous games as long as they are all balanced. This move would let players experience the game as they like or try out the new classes. Each sequel and DLC could expand on the pool of moves, much like a modern game might. It would certainly give the franchise the forward momentum that it seems to be lacking as this would be quite a new direction for the series.

People already play these games over and over — the Steam charts are enough proof of that — so why not give them more variety and expand the player experience along with the world? It doesn’t solve the problems of the expanded cast and it might cause balance headaches, but at least this would let players go through the campaign as they like. Although, it’s probably harder to sell DLC mechanics than it is to sell another character. However, Randy Pitchford has said that character DLC is probably off the table, so maybe that isn’t possible.

Borderlands 3 Vault Hunters | Questions for the angels

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As we get closer and closer to Borderlands 3, it’ll be interesting to see how it performs. There’s no denying that Borderlands 2 is an unstoppable juggernaut with staying power dwarfed only by games like Skyrim and there seems to be a lot of pent up hype for Borderlands 3. However, the Pre-Sequel proved that just putting out more Borderlands isn’t a winning formula, despite the fact that a half sequel from a different studio coming out only a few years after its predecessor won’t garner as much excitement. After the honeymoon period, will players really latch onto the game as they did before? Or will the creeping rot of the past games finally take root? Gearbox’s devil may care attitude regarding its own worldbuilding may finally come back to roost in Borderlands 3 or people will still plug in their podcasts or play co-op in droves like they did with the two numbered entries.

Will Gearbox surprise us all with a fresh look at their off the wall franchise? Will the studio that brought you Battleborn work that unfortunate magic once again? Can the same tricks work again, or do players want that character consistency à la Overwatch? The truth will come with time, and it will be interesting to see whether lightning strikes twice. 2019 is a much different time than 2009, but it looks like Borderlands might always just be Borderlands with a constantly cycling cast of characters.