Gearbox has managed to do something I fear Valve will never do: count to three.
After seven years, we’re finally able to get our hands on a “proper sequel” rather than a “Pre-Sequel” to the huge critical and commercial success that was Borderlands 2. I’ve personally put a fair few hours into the series, and I’ve very much been looking forward to this game since my early thirties.
When you wait this long for something, can it live up to the considerable hype and slick marketing, which we’ve most definitely been experiencing for the last few months for this title?
This review is based on around 40 hours of playing a single character in solo mode. By any normal standards, that would be enough to write a review, but in Borderlands, this is barely scratching the surface. This is a big, long game already, which will only get bigger. As such, I will very likely tweak this review over time as the game and my experience with it changes.
On the night of release, I’m busy completing my True Vault Hunter Mode play-through on Borderlands 2 on the Xbox One X, which I started from level 1 a couple of months back, by way of training myself to play with a controller. Until that play-through began, Borderlands 2 and Overwatch were the only two games left on the PC I wasn’t purposefully or at least capable of playing with a controller. In a truly poetic turn of events I couldn’t have timed better if I’d tried, I defeat Handsome Jack and the Warrior and watch the credits roll a little after Midnight. I then jumped straight into Borderlands 3.
This game has not been without controversy leading up to release, the only topic bothering me however was the Epic Games Store timed exclusivity for the PC version. It annoyed me so much, I chose to go with the Xbox One X version of the game.
After leaving my previous job with a Microsoft Store voucher and cashing in my own Microsoft points, I had £50 in Xbox vouchers to splurge, so the Super Deluxe version only set me back £40, said to include four story DLC releases in the future.
If Gearbox deliver on Randy Pitchford’s promises and the bar set by previous titles, that will be a great deal of content for comparatively little money on my part. Yes, I’m still on my frugal gaming kick.
Our journey begins once again on Pandora, home to the series since it began in 2009. Much of what you’ll see at the start is familiar, this looks like Borderlands for sure, only much shinier. It doesn’t take long for things to feel different though, and not necessarily in a good way.
There’s vaulting over things, rather than just vault hunting, there’s sliding too, which does give me the freedom of movement I’ve always longed for in a Borderlands game. From the very start, I’m reminded of the first Borderlands game, things feel a little clunky, not quite right. They’ve changed the models for the various containers, things sound different, things overall feel different. I’m immediately worried. Maybe this feeling can be put down to coming straight from playing Borderlands 2, maybe the move to console and controller? What have I done!
I persevere though, in the interests of diving into the story and safe in the knowledge that Borderlands 2 felt “different” from the first game, and I didn’t like that to start with either. I can happily jump between all entries so far in the series, each has their own feel, and that’s OK. Maybe Borderlands 3 will be the same in that regard. Several hours later, I’m comfortable, but this is where I start to notice other things. Bad things.
The story is dreadful, there’s nothing kind I can say about this, which makes me very sad. This is of the utmost importance to me, the primary reason I play the Borderlands series, or most video games for that matter. In the second game, I was fully drawn in to the lore. Handsome Jack was one of the best video game villains ever. The Calypso twins in Borderlands 3 are nowhere near as entertaining and they’re extremely forgettable. In fact, I won’t even mention them again, they’re that dull.
Where the story went very wrong for me
This could be seen as a possible spoiler, if you’re sensitive to such things, skip to the next section.
Lead writer of Borderlands 2, Anthony Burch, is gone from Gearbox now. That definitely shows, I was worried when he departed and apparently was right to feel that way. The way major characters from the second game are treated in this third instalment is a disgrace.
The way in which the Vault Hunters from the first game were introduced and utilised in the second game was just beautiful. In this third instalment, they’re wheeled in and cast aside as the unhinged plot necessitates, almost like Rick Moranis playing with his dolls again in Spaceballs. Clip is probably NSFW by the way!
Playing one evening, I had to stop for the night to process what had just happened, after one character was killed off. It seemed completely ridiculous, implausible and just downright nonsensical, serving an equally daft plot point and the introduction of a new character I’m now suddenly supposed to care about. I’m not the only one incensed by this, by any means. I took it personally simply because I spent so long investing myself in that character during the second game. The way other characters react to this death is just infuriating, “Oh well, that happened. BIG LOL.”
The situation with the story doesn’t improve, even by the end of the game. My feelings toward how that previously mentioned character was treated never go away either. In fact, feelings of negativity are further amplified by the manner in which other pivotal characters are treated, which is better overall, but still serves to magnify just how bad the first misstep was earlier on in the game.
I feel I will never be able to forgive Gearbox for this, even if they dedicated an entire DLC to that character. It just wasn’t the right thing to do and served no purpose in my eyes.
One saving grace is Vaughn, first introduced in Tales from the Borderlands, who serves the main plot throughout, with much enthusiasm and humour.
Rhys, also from Tales, serves the main story too, but I don’t recall the two characters properly interacting, which seems strange given their previous relationship. It’s possible I’m miss-remembering, or this is explained somewhere that I missed.
I get it, Gearbox, there’s lots of characters to keep track of here.
Other elements which grate
The balance in enemy strength and levels in solo, on the first play-through at least, is terrible. The boss fights in particular are grating. It took me a silly amount of time to take on one vault monster, who was at my level, with the appropriate gear. I’ve drawn the conclusion this is the first time I’ve played a Borderlands game immediately after it has released, so balance will probably be tweaked in later updates.
I did play Borderlands 2 a couple of weeks or months after it released, but I don’t remember this being an issue. Other encounters which I expected to be difficult were in fact extremely easy, and I was left dumbfounded as to how it could take two minutes on that occasion while other battles could take thirty.
The user interface is just completely horrible on console. It lags when you go into your inventory and switch between the tabs, something you do frequently in a Borderlands game. Worst of all however is the font size, which is microscopic even on my 49″ TV, I have to stand right up to the TV to properly read it; this is not a 10ft UI. Everything is too small, the mission descriptions, mission log, prompts, item cards, even the game-play tips on loading screens. Everything seems about 50% of the size it was in previous titles.
This is a worrying trend I’ve noticed recently, The Division 2 felt like this too, but with a semi useful accessibility menu which allowed you to change the font size, it was at least serviceable. Borderlands 3 on release gives you the option to change the font size for the closed captions, that’s it.
It’s too long. I never thought I’d be saying this, more Borderlands is a good thing, right? Well sure, but towards the end I was skipping side missions and still clocked in around 40 hours and level 36-38 to finish the main story. The pacing of the story just didn’t seem right at all, much like the first game and Pre-Sequel. One particular section of the game felt like it was taking a very long time, it also felt like I’d spent longer in that area than some of the more interesting places I’d have preferred to spend my time.
It isn’t all doom and gloom
OK, that’s all the things I didn’t like, but it isn’t all bad. The list of good things is ultimately longer and ever growing, the more I play:
- The graphics are phenomenal, Unreal Engine 4 shines
- The art style makes great use of the engine too
- The environments are larger and filled with more detail
- The sound effects are terrific, everything punches very nicely
- The weapons are numerous and vary wildly
- The alternate fire modes of the weapons is a great addition
- The legendary items and weapons are interesting and fun to use
- Gunplay is finely tuned and great with a controller
- Love me some grenade spam
- The additional skill trees and abilities are brilliant
- Sanctuary III is a great home base
- Voice acting is top notch, Vaughn and the Psycho death one liners had me chuckling throughout
- The rag doll physics add some hilarious consequences to the action, particularly in my play-through with Amara’s singularity phaselock and a singularity grenade mod both in play
- Numerous quality of life improvements do just that, make the game much better on a technical and usability level
I could go on, but you probably get the point. Gearbox knew they had a huge task ahead of them in creating Borderlands 3. It was always going to be a massive game which made them a huge sack of cash.
In their pursuit of achieving this huge task, they forgot one thing; the story matters. Maybe not to everyone, but to many of us. We care about these characters, treat them with some respect, will ya?
If you can look past or have no interest in the story, this is more Borderlands, improved in every way. Otherwise, prepare to (probably) feel disappointed, as I and many other fans of the world Gearbox created have been feeling over the last month, since the game released.
There’s more content to come, I’m sure, so bring it on, my body is ready. We’re promised four story DLC packs and the free stuff begins with the Bloody Harvest DLC in October 2019.
Remind me, who are Valve and what was that game they were famous for never making?
If you’ve got some thoughts to share on Borderlands, feel free to slap them all over the comments section below; I’m always up for talking about this series.