'Borderlands 3' Preview: A Game So Nice They Named It Thrice
Heinz Ketchup. Coca-Cola. Cool Ranch Doritos. Some recipes are so iconic, so perfect, they withstand the test of time. So, too, does Borderlands. It's arguably one of our most influential looter shooters, giving fans a decade of remarkably consistent content. The recipe is simple: mayhem, humor, shooting.
Some critics decry the franchise as only offering "more of the same" but I counter by saying we didn't need New Coke. There are plenty of games on the market, let Borderlands be Borderlands. Anyone who's ever been to cons knows it has a special grip on cosplayers, themselves a de facto litmus test for a brand's authenticity and potential appeal. There's a reason it inspires dedicated fans. There's a reason the franchise draws hype a decade after its first game. Borderlands is fun. And Borderlands 3 may be the most fun yet.
I recently spent four hours demoing Borderlands 3 and perhaps the most obvious sign it's unabashedly fun is how quickly the time passed. It gave me that itch, that zone that keeps you playing until you hear birds chirping and realize it's sunrise. The recipe is there. A chaotic story introduces you to some familiar faces - Claptrap, Moxxie, Lilith - as well as some new villains: Troy and Tyree a.k.a. The Calypso Twins. The siblings are Pandora's version of influencers, streaming their murderous hijinks to a loyal following ready to pillage and plunder for a piece of the clout. They might not be as epic as Handsome Jack once was, but their particular brand of sadism fits well in the Borderlands lore. They even harbor some dark powers that turn out to be literal game changers.
There are new heroes too. I spent the bulk of my demo as FL4K, a nihilistic robot beastmaster who can summon a pet to help sow death and destruction. I went with the SpiderAnt, but a Skag and Jabber are also available. It proved to be a worthy companion, only dying a few times and mostly holding its own with little supervision. My initial concern was a pet would be too OP on top of the firepower and run-and-gun strategy employed in Borderlands. But I was pleasantly surprised by how challenging combat turned out to be.
For perspective, I recently demoed Outer Worlds. On paper it bears a lot of similarities to Borderlands 3. It's a dystopian sci fi adventure spread across multiple planets with a diverse cast of characters, sardonic sense of humor and lots to shoot. But a shoot-heavy demo in Outer Worlds made me long for the game's dialogue trees instead. I thought maybe I was falling out of love with FPS mechanics. Borderlands 3 made me love again.
I had an absolute blast tearing my way through mission after mission. Combat is exquisite. I love when a game takes me to my limit time and again, whether it be with barely enough health or needing every single last bullet in my arsenal. I rarely felt like I had the upper hand for long, but when I did I felt like a god. A rich god too, as Borderlands 3 does not skimp on the "looter" part. There's even a nice new feature that sends some of your lost loot back to Sanctuary, a massive spaceship that serves as the hub for your interstellar adventures. Most of your series' stalwarts, like Marcus and Ellie and Crazy Earl, are there to do business. And business is booming like dynamite.
Gameplay balance is about more than DPS and drop rates, and Borderlands 3 also succeeds at delivering on the tone fans expect. Because the action can be so phrenetic, the dialogue and character work need to cut quick and cut hard. Sharp writing and strong design bolster the Futurama-meets-Mad Max tone that made the franchise famous.
For example, a breach in Sanctuary's hull is plugged when Claptrap gets stuck in it, prompting someone to shout "Keep your ass on that hole Claptrap!" A side mission saw me rescue Vic, a nice enough goon whose severed head in a jar was used to fuel her own virtual reality torture. Saving Vic meant recreating her in the real world, and then sitting back and enjoying the conversation between new Vic and her own decapitated head.
Perhaps no character is more Borderlands than Balex, an AI program offloaded into a robotic teddy bear and voiced by Ice-T. His unique vocal stylings juxtaposed on a stuffed pink toy perfectly captures the zany weirdness that defines Borderlands. At one point I installed him on the crotch of a massive mech, and Ice-T voicing the teddy bear phallus stuck on a death machine is every bit as funny as it sounds.
Borderlands 3 aims to go big or go home. There will be multiple worlds to explore, an unholy amount of loot to collect and a hefty campaign that clocks in around 50 hrs. Couch co-op is still there too, an endangered feature in gaming these days. It's possible the game may come up short. The jokes could wear thin. The combat could get repetitive. The grind could become a chore. It could launch with game-breaking bugs and problems. I hope it doesn't.
My experience was, admittedly, only a brief slice of the total Borderlands 3 experience. The recipe was working though; now it's just a question of how much is enough. I'm ready to binge, and look forward to overindulging when Borderlands 3 launches on September 13.