Borderlands 3 Review: A Lootin’ Shootin’ Good Time
"I'm Moze. I kill people for loot. And fun." After a short pause and in a more subdued tone Moze continues, "And justice and stuff." More than anything else I could come up with on my own, that line from Moze (my badass mech driving, grenade throwing favorite character) describes why I have enjoyed playing Borderlands 3. And just like the quote above, we have to acknowledge that there is more to Borderlands 3 than just looting and shooting even if it's not the primary reason we are here.
Last week I wrote about my first impressions of Borderlands 3 during my first 20 hours of gameplay. I covered the visual style and core gameplay as well as touching on the beginning of the story. After completing the main story, most everything I mentioned at that time still holds true. Today we are going to wrap up our review of Borderlands 3 as we go beyond the surface and dig deeper into the good and bad of Borderlands 3.
Writing: Gearbox’s Split Personality
The writing in Borderlands 3 suffers from an identity crisis tug of war. On one hand, Gearbox Software wants to be inoffensive and even makes a move to be a little progressive. Gearbox have tried to create an inclusive cast for Borderlands 3, and the numerous female characters are a testament to their attempt. They even have non-binary characters, something rarely addressed in video games in general, let alone the often weak story lines in the looter shooter genre.
On the other hand, Borderlands 3 still tries to stick to the toilet humor and rude behavior the franchise was built on. I like a good fart joke as much as the next guy but, unless your audience is a bunch of five year olds, just walking into the room and yelling, "Poopy farty pants" isn't enough to get a large applause (well, maybe) and doing it over and over again like Borderlands 3 does becomes a little tiresome. If neutering the jokes down to this level was required to keep them in the game I would posit Borderlands 3 would have been better without them. To keep the franchise's trademark humor the writers merely needed to use a little wit and nuance to replace the blatantly offensive innuendos of the past with a more structured joke and punchline delivery.
Fortunately, the lame jokes don't really impact the story. Along the way I met a lot of interesting characters in both the main story and side quests. The annoying banter by Claptrap takes a back seat (thankfully) to the obnoxious interactions with the protagonists of the story, Troy and Tyreel Calypso. These live streaming psychotic twins were there to consistently deliver every evil villain trope you could imagine. It made for a rather predictable back and forth but it was enough to encourage me to stick with the story to the end. There wasn't a skip button during these scenes so I couldn't have avoided the story even if I wanted to.
Gunplay: Smooth Like Butter, Hard Like Scotch
To the uninitiated, Borderlands 3 gunplay is exactly the same as we had in its predecessors. While there may not be any revolutionary changes there are some obvious upgrades. The most notable is just how smooth gunplay feels. Transitioning from hip fire to aiming down scope is a fluid motion as is reloading and switching to an alternate fire mode on weapons that offer it. Recoil on automatic and burst fire weapons feels good and matches the bullet tracking on your target. Retraining your sights after firing a scoped sniper shot starts quickly and then slows as you near the initial firing point, effectively allowing you to make a follow-up shot without fully resetting your aim. The smooth movements go beyond just targeting. When you are sprinting and drop into a slide there is a weight and speed to the motion. The slope of the ground changes the length of the slide, and you even come out of the slide at a slow walking speed, making you reinitiate a sprint. The same type of effects are used in leaps and wall climbs.
Suns Out, Guns Out
Borderlands 3 has over one billion guns! Okay, we all know that most of those guns are just a bunch of random modifiers but the sheer number and type of weapons is amazing. All of those weapons fall into six categories: pistols, shotguns, SMGs, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and heavy weapons. We also have nine manufacturers, each one bringing their own distinct style to their weapons. Like whipped cream and a cherry on top of a sundae, Borderlands 3 tops off the arms race with Annointed weapons (attributes tied to Action Skills) and the unique Legendary weapons everyone spends their end game time farming for.
Even before you start hunting legendary weapons you are treated to a cornucopia of weapon designs. I'm not talking about stats here, but the actual weapon art itself. The gun designs are beautiful works of art whose form often matches function. On one end of the spectrum you have Jakobs weapons with their basic, even rustic, design paired with the simple formula of big bullets plus big damage equals giant fun. At the other end you have futuristic Maliwan weapons with the ability to charge up each shot to deliver massive elemental damage. No matter the manufacturer when you see a purple or orange glow in your loot pile you know you are in for a treat.
UI: Beauty Is Skin Deep
The gunplay may be fantastic and the guns themselves are a sight to behold, but I can't say the same about the UI. The UI is my least favorite part of Borderlands 3. No, least favorite is too kind. To start off, both the minimap and full map don't get the job done. Basics like zooming in and out are missing on the minimap. The whole purpose of a minimap is to allow you to get a glimpse of your surroundings and where you need to go, but the Borderlands 3 minimap is zoomed so far in you quickly lose track of you location and I constantly had to check the main map to get my bearings. Opening up the main map isn't much better. You are able to zoom in and out but navigating the map is slow and clunky. Even worse is its representation of the verticality of the world. There isn't any identifier to alert you to where ladders or other vertical transitions are positioned. Being able to rotate and angle the map helps but doesn't go far enough in helping you find your way.
The rest of the UI isn't any better. The achievement page, an important catalog for completionists, is hidden away in the galaxy map screen and I didn’t even realize it existed for four days. Other rudimentary functions I expect to see, such as comparing weapons, is cumbersome and, like the map, more difficult to navigate than need be. Most games will pop up a comparison window by hovering your mouse over an item in your inventory. In Borderlands 3, the only way to compare weapons is to first click the weapon you have equipped and then hovering over your inventory - very clunky and often results in accidentally swapping equipped weapons.
And don’t even get me started on quest tracking. With a game that is so focused on dishing out side quests on every map, how is it that you can only track a single quest at any given time? With the main story quest highlighted it is very easy to pass by side quests without even knowing you did so. The only options are to frequently swap from one quest to another or double back after completing the main mission on a map. The third option, and one I used way too often - was just to skip any side quests and save them for once the main story was completed.
The only glimmer of hope with the UI is the minimal screen space the HUD occupies. During gunfights the only elements on the screen are your health and shield bars in the lower left and your gun and ammo counter on the right. The typically useless minimap occupies the top right corner and during fights is actually a handy tool to help you find your next victim. The only thing anywhere near the middle of your screen are your crosshairs, leaving you a wide open screen to take in all the beautiful explosions and body parts sailing through the air.
The End Game And Beyond
With some gamers investing hundreds or thousands of hours in Borderlands 2, Gearbox Software has the daunting task of keeping Vault Hunters busy for years to come. I was able to complete the story mode in just under 40 hours, a decent amount of time for a looter shooter. It could have taken much longer if I didn’t skip as many side quests as I did, but at least I can go back and complete them in Mayhem mode where they will be boosted up to my level with equivalent loot to match.
Even though I hunted down all of the Typhon logs on my trek through the story I do have a few Claptrap pieces to find and radio towers to reach. Then there are the Eridian runes to revisit and decipher along with a huge amount of challenges to grind to level five. All of these leftovers will keep me busy for a while. These are all one and done items that I won’t try to replicate on the remaining three characters but Gearbox has given plenty of things to eat up my free time.
For anyone not wanting to level all of the other characters but still want to run through the story again there is True Vault Hunter Mode. Simply put, you keep all of your skill points and equipment and head back to the beginning of the game. There will be a higher chance of Badass enemies, and even regular grunts will have increased health and damage. The increased difficulty rewards you with better loot and increased XP gain.
As I mentioned above, you can also give Mayhem mode a try. All three Mayhem levels (unimaginatively named Mayhem 1, 2, and 3) are unlocked upon completing the story. Mayhem mode isn’t about just giving baddies more health and damage output like True Vault Hunter does. The real challenge here comes from modifiers added to each area. Mayhem mode adds a pool of buffs and debuffs which are applied to enemies and yourself. These include things such as nerfing or buffing certain weapon types or enemies having resistance to certain damage types. As you pop into a zone some of these modifiers will be applied randomly, making the ensuing fights less predictable and more difficult. Each level of Mayhem ratchets up the challenge but it also cranks up the rewards to astronomical levels. Be prepared to test the waters in Mayhem 1 for a while as you gear up with more powerful Legendaries and acquire your last few skill points as you climb to level 50.
Completing the story also opens up the Guardian Ranks, the Borderlands 3 version of the Badass Ranks of the past. Each time you fill your newly added Guardian XP bar you gain a token which can be spent in one of the three stat lines. Adding a point will add some bonus stats to your character and certain milestones (10 tokens spent in a tree, 15 spent, and so on) will grant additional rewards. It will take 225 tokens to completely fill out all three lines, giving yet another reason to grind for weeks or months to come.
You’re Not Alone
Just like my playthrough of Borderlands 3 I have waited here until the end to touch on multiplayer. While some Vault Hunters may prefer to run through the story mode with a group of friends, I took the solo route. The choice is your, but the main point is Gearbox Studios gave us the choice. Both solo and multiplayer modes work just fine throughout the story mode. Entering into Mayhem alone is doable as well, but the little time I have spent in Mayhem mode with others at my side has been a little more rewarding with the extra hands there to revive my sorry butt whenever I go down. In any event, multiplayer always adds some longevity to end game content, and whether that means getting help leveling more characters or grinding bosses for hours on end to get that one special Legendary item you need to complete your perfect build, Borderlands 3 has it covered.
Simply put, running through the story of Borderlands 3 was a blast. Sure, the writing was a little thin in some points and the UI could be better, but the improved gunplay more than makes up for it. I spent most of my time with Moze, have Fl4k about half way through the story, and played around on Amara and Zane, and each one brings their own flavor to the fight. There are some balance issues that need to be addressed, but a more urgent priority would be squashing bugs and fixing the nagging technical issues ASAP (start with the video problems on PC first, please).
I have also been pleased with the way Gearbox Studios has prepared for the long haul that is end game grinding by offering True Vault Hunter, Mayhem modes, and fun multiplayer action. Gearbox has already announced the first free DLC event, Bloody Harvest, set to come out in October, with another free content update and first paid DLC already planned. The seasonal content is a great way to keep me engaged with something new in between the larger persistent updates.