Sequels that come after long hiatuses usually do one of three things. They either make huge swings in new directions, fall behind in the curve, or try to become the biggest and best version of its established formula. Borderlands is destined to fall into at least a few of these categories since it has been almost seven years since its last numbered entry. And after spending some time shooting and looting with Borderlands 3, it looks like it is going to fall into the latter camp of iterating on what has come before and giving players a whole lot more of that formula.
That’s not necessarily a knock against the game. Borderlands helped kick off the whole loot shooter trend and when other games took that into the live service realm, Gearbox’s commitment to stay true to its roots is quite refreshing in a hip, almost contrarian way. Senior Producer Anthony Nicholson said as much when speaking about the game.
“Borderlands 3 is, at its root, a game about combat, exploration, and loot,” he said. “So we know the formula we had in the previous Borderlands games and take that foundation and build on it and expand.”
Borderlands 3 Preview | A familiar return
The confidence the team has in its formula is admirable but the loop is quite similar. Players run around an open environment and blast away at the hordes that pile on them with an assortment of different guns and abilities. Then players pilfer through the wreckage for money, ammo, and weapons and repeat that cycle until the mission is complete. If you know Borderlands, then you know what to expect. It’s not inherently exciting but it does set expectations pretty quickly as players ease into what they know. Mantling is new and the melee attacks feel more impactful, yet that doesn’t override how similar it all feels and looks.
But, like Nicholson said, the game is seeking to deepen what is already there and not forge ahead into unknown territory. This most elegantly shown in the new playable characters, Zane the operative and Amara the siren warrior. Zane can summon a hologram double that blasts and distracts enemies, a drone that can attack specific targets, and a large shield that can be picked up and moved around. He can even use two of his three action skills in lieu of a grenade, giving him even more options.
Sending out holograms and then teleporting to them is a good tactic for flanking. Ordering the drone is typical but still a decent way to cause more chaos. The shield rounds him out nicely, giving him a proper shield to defend him and his team with. There’s no one class that Zane fits into as he is a bit all over the map and this hybridization injects a little more ingenuity into the game.
Amara is more offensive since she can use a Phase Slam ground pound, Phase Cast that sends out a spectral doppelganger that damages enemies, and a Phase Grab that summons an arm that grabs foes. It’s a different playstyle, one that Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford said was important for each character. There are even different action skills and sprawling skill trees that mean most players will have different builds despite having the same character.
Borderlands 3 Preview | Gunning for the most guns
But even if the characters have personalities, the guns are the true stars. There are more in this game, but some of them even have alternate firing modes, which exponentially expands the already large arsenal. For example, some guns may shoot regular bullets in one mode but rockets in another or it may swap between automatic and semi-automatic. And while not every gun has more than one firing mode, this is an efficient way to add more firearms to the game.
Although killing things is still in line with what players will expect especially if there aren’t more unusual alternate firing modes or goofy guns. The gun with legs is hilarious and effective and hopefully the game’s final arsenal will make those types of weapons the norm, rather than temporary abnormalities in a sea of samey shooter standbys. Most of the rarer guns have slick designs, but weren’t always as impressive in function. Not every gun needs to be of a Ratchet and Clank level of absurdity, but it could always use more off the wall weapons as those are what will make this specific entry stick out more. Of course, there are over a billion guns so there is bound to be some memorable ones in there.
Its level design did have a different feel though. While Borderlands 2 was more varied than its predecessor, Borderlands 3 is seemingly taking a bit from Destiny 2 by having players travel to different planets for completely unique locales. Moods and tones differ from place to place as there were neon cities, swamps, green areas, and more. Visual variety (and with it, enemy variety) in long, grindy games is important and Borderlands 3 seems to be taking that seriously. Nicholson talked about how this approach fulfills a promise the team made in Borderlands 2.
“We knew at the end of Borderlands 2 that there were multiple vaults,” he said. “So what we wanted to do was stay true to that promise that we started. I worked directly with the world building teams and I oversaw the production efforts on level designs, level art, and lighting so working directly with those groups and seeing how they got to do different things from a desert, rocky landscape to a lush jungle or a city road is really awesome.”
Travelling to these different planets requires a ship called Sanctuary 3 that acts a home base. Players can use this as a place to break up the missions by trading in loot, recover lost loot, play slot machines, and more. There are even ways to customize it by hanging up certain guns or killing specific beasts to use as trophies. It’s also full of recognizable faces like Moxxxi and Marcus that you can conversate with and almost looks like a space version of the ship in Wolfenstein 2. Taking this time to breathe looks to be a good change of pace and one of the bigger new additions to the game. Pitchford even stated that the ship “passed through more of [the] developer hands at Gearbox than any other piece of content” in the game.
Borderlands 3 Preview | Craptrap
These characters still speak like they are in a Borderlands games, which means they’re a little inconsistent. Some of the absurdity has some charm but it also still has Claptrap, who the series can’t outright jettison but his schtick is a bit dated in the current age. The little boxy buffoon seemed to overstay his welcome last time around and while he still has a joke a two worth chuckling at, his early lines still feel like they were birthed in the last decade.
He didn’t dab or floss (but you know he probably will), but it’s likely he still dabbles in “lol” internet humor that just seems like a shortcut nowadays. Hopefully, this type of comedy will take a backseat to the genuinely clever joke style that Tales from the Borderlands excelled at. Pitchford did say that the writing was “irreverent and genuine,” which may mean some of the more grating characters will continue to grate or be great, depending on your sense of humor.
And this appears to symbolize Borderlands 3, judging by its first few hours. This is either the Borderlands you know and love or know and don’t care much about. Borderlands 3 seemingly isn’t try to win over new players but only to appeal to those who love the series already. And that’s fine, given how popular it is and how long it has been on vacation. Little updates and a healthy helping of more firearms tweak the formula a bit but Borderlands 3 still feels like a sequel that came out two or three years after Borderlands 2, not over seven years later. That gap may smooth over some wounds and make people more willing to jump back in. That formula still has some juice in it as it is still fun to loot stuff and blast away a variety of oddball foes. We’ll just have to see how much juice and how sweet it is in September.