I finally did it. I played Borderlands 3. After chatting with Jason on the Frosty Canucks Podcast about it, I was convinced to pick up Borderlands 3 and play it with Miranda. Upon revisiting a post I wrote in 2019, I am in disbelief at how correct I ended up being. Turns out the Commander Lilith DLC was an accurate representation of Gearbox’s development aptitude and I wasn’t extrapolating inaccurately. And thus I present, for your reading pleasure, Borderlands 3: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Let us begin with the areas that Borderlands 3 actually makes tangible improvements over its three predecessors.
Firstly, and most importantly, shooting has seen a minor improvement relative to previous titles. Getting shooting right can be a tricky task as it involves a lot of small details. A weapon’s animation and sound need to convey the weight and power of every shot. Games like Doom (2016) do this quite well, but one could argue that is out of necessity as you spend almost all of your time in the game shooting. When shooting doesn’t look and sound good it won’t feel satisfying leading to a far less enjoyable experience.
Past entries of Borderlands relied far too heavily on sensory feedback provided by the rumble feature of modern controllers to make shooting feel satisfying. I know this because I originally played the older games with a controller and never noticed how weak the guns felt until I started using mouse and keyboard. The over-reliance on rumble led to many of the older games lacking the necessary punch to provide satisfying shooting.
By contrast, a lot more attention went into weapon feel in Borderlands 3. Shooting animations look and sound heavier delivering greater impact. No longer will you feel as though you’re firing a nerf gun as you churn through the endless, brain-dead hordes of Borderlands. With gameplay revolving exclusively around shooting it is nice to see that Gearbox finally hit a stride where their weapons have a nice punchiness to them.
Secondly, the looting has been improved. In my opinion, fixing the looting was easy because the past three games in the franchise were extremely stingy. According to Steam I have sunk almost two hundred hours into Borderlands 2 and in that time I have managed to obtain four or five legendary pieces of gear. That’s it. Seriously. The comforting warm glow of the coveted orange weapons almost never graced me with their divine presence.
However, in Borderlands 3 I received so many legendary drops I was able to pick and choose which equipment I wanted to use instead of hording it all like a fucking goblin. I’d count this as a huge improvement over previous games as rare loot is no fun when its so rare that you never see it. Regularly stocking vendors with higher tier loot also helped immensely in this regard. Keeping the loot goblin inside my brain happy may be a rather superficial improvement to gameplay, but I still appreciated regularly finding new rare equipment across the whole of my time playing the game.
Thirdly and finally, Borderlands 3 massively improves at character customization. In previous games each character class had a single defining skill. Accompanying that were three skill trees that would expand their general power level with a collection of passive or active-passive abilities. This made character customization, in a word, lame. Instead of unlocking powerful new abilities throughout the game, you increased one of numerous stats that made you slightly more efficient at killing. How exciting.
In Borderlands 3 skill trees finally have the kind of depth and variety that the franchise always needed. Each skill tree offers a unique augment to your character’s active ability. In addition, several of the skills on offer provide large bonuses some of which dramatically shift how you’ll play the game. As an example, the skills I grabbed for Moze during my playthrough allowed me to fire indefinitely without reloading while sprinting around the map. This was not only dramatically different from the other three characters, but also resulted in a distinct play-style compared to the alternative juggernaut and AoE damage skill trees.
Additionally, as you invest more and more skill points into a tree you’ll unlock augments for your active ability. These can be changed on the fly so as to best adapt yourself to the challenges you’re currently facing. It also gives players yet another layer to express themselves through their character build. All of these enhancements make it a lot easier to get into the meta-level of Borderlands’ skill progression making each level-up far more exciting.
While I have praised the shooting, looting, and leveling of Borderlands 3, I must, unfortunately, present a caveat to what I’ve said. These three elements are improved over the previous games, but they aren’t exceptional. Borderlands has been playing catch-up with other games that do all of the above listed things much better and has only now, on its fourth outing, caught up to them with a passing grade. And a passing grade doesn’t help compensate for the areas where Borderlands has failing grades.
Borderlands 3 continues the long legacy of Borderlands‘ large and bland open-world design which actively harms the central experience. The maps feel like they were cobbled together from random assets with very little thought or intent. As a result, almost every enemy encounter plays out very similarly.
The problem with this design is that it never asks the player to think, nor does it provide any kind of spectacle for players to get invested in. Shooters with short, laser focused campaigns feature a variety of set piece moments and unique levels that ask players to think critically about their available abilities and weapons. That same level of thought hasn’t been put into Borderlands, so you’re left with a map filled with encounters that don’t meaningfully stand out from one another.
What’s even worse is that the game doesn’t benefit in anyway from being open-world. Open-world games are at their best when developers give players a set of tools and let them loose in a map filled with problems. You’re able to explore and solve the problems you encounter however you see fit. This means that players can have varied experiences throughout your game’s world driven by their creativity and innate desire to explore. In Borderlands you’re always moving from one objective marker to the next, thus the open-world offers no additional benefits and is entirely squandered.
What’s worse is that some areas of the map are locked off until you reach certain parts of the story or access specific side missions. Gating content from the player in this way is no different than making the player complete levels in a sequential order, again pointing to an open-world approach as being the incorrect one for the experience on offer. Many other companies have slowly evolved past this rigid misalignment of level and world design, but Borderlands feels like it is stuck in the previous generation of games thanks to its rigid adherence to this flawed design practice.
On a similar note, the quests are likewise poorly designed. Every single one of them runs you to a location to either shoot or collect something. This is uninteresting and needs to be garnished with good writing to help elevate it. I had a similar complaint about Yakuza 0’s quests, but the writing there helped to make it worthwhile and entertaining. The same is never true in Borderlands. Each quest will leave you asking, “why am I even doing this”, until you begrudgingly set into a routine of completing the mundane out of necessity to drive the plot.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “aren’t the quests just an excuse to get players to engage with Borderlands’ core gameplay”? And you’d be correct. However, Borderlands core aspects don’t carry it well enough to sustain players through the laborious monotony. Were the encounters memorable instead of a bucket of homogenous grey matter I think that the quests would feel a lot better, but as it stands they are merely an inconvenient roadblock.
However, the most frustrating aspect of quests is when NPCs will ask you to come talk in person. Why do I need to leave an area to talk with someone so that they can tell me to march back to the area I was just in? This blatant waste of the players time is used throughout Borderlands 3 to an unacceptable degree. What’s even sillier is that characters regularly talk to you remotely, so there isn’t even an in universe reason for this waste of time. This was tedious eight years ago in Borderlands 2 and its unwelcome reappearance in Borderlands 3 is very much unappreciated.
That’s all without mentioning that quests still require you to wait for NPCs to stop talking before you can continue. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem were it not for the steep decline in the overall quality of the writing, which finally brings us to the massive elephant in the room regarding Borderlands 3: the writing.
No one plays Borderlands for the writing. If you insist the contrary then you are a liar and a cheat. I’ve played through all the Borderlands games and I could give you a brief rundown of events and some specific moments that made characters endearing or entertaining, but the writing has never been a selling point. At the best of times it would make you chuckle and at the worst it’d make you groan in annoyance, but you’d never want to stop playing the game because of it. That’s not the case in Borderlands 3.
The dialogue in Borderlands 3 is so indefensibly bad that I can not understand how anyone attempted to defend it following the game’s launch. Similar to the Commander Lilith DLC, characters spew mountains of gibberish so quickly that if there is a joke it never has time to breath before being thrown in the bin for another one. I assume this was done so that when a joke flops it doesn’t completely kill a moment, but this has the knock on effect of making every single character an insufferable tit. Dialogue feels like it just keeps going and really drags down the experience.
Characters are also still written in such a way that their whole character boils down to a single set of traits.
Hi my name is cool militia leader and I care for the people of this planet and really love coffee. Have I mentioned that I love coffee? Cause I do. A lot. Boy I could go for some coffee right now. Do you have any? It’d be great if you got me some.
That probably reads like complete hyperbole, but isn’t far off of how you’re introduced to one of the newcomers in Borderlands 3. The same lack of depth is applied to all characters which, at its worst, results in the unfortunate removal of personality from established returning cast members.
However, as bad as the character writing is nothing quite tops the new antagonists: Troy and Tyreen. These two feel as though they were written by a boardroom full of old people who wanted a character that a younger demographic would find humorous and relatable. They also have no motivation aside from being evil, which makes the overarching story flat. The result is a cringe worthy attempt to pander to a young demographic with memes that were dated before the game released.
That’s all without mentioning the numerous controversies that happened outside of the game. No I’m not talking about the game being Epic exclusive. Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford had an allegation levied against him for physical harassment at the workplace as well as the whole USB debacle. In addition, publisher 2K paid private investigators to harasses a Borderlands super-fan who found and leaked details about Borderlands 3 ahead of its release. I tried to stay entirely focused on issues within the game, but I’ve linked articles for further reading for those that are interested.
There you have it: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Generally speaking, Borderlands 3 is an improvement over past games at least as far as gameplay is concerned. It’s just a shame that more attention wasn’t provided to the whole package. The open-world design still feels at odds with the gameplay, the quests are bland, and the writing is abominable. Borderlands 3 demonstrates a failure from Gearbox to move their leading IP forward in a meaningful way. Instead of exploring new depths, they are content to remain splashing around in the familiar shallows.