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A First Look at Borderlands 3

Damien Gula Posted:
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Five years.

It has been five years since we have seen a main franchise Borderlands game and only one month since the official trailer reveal. 2K Games invited MMORPG.com to be among the world’s first to jump back into the next installment of their over-the-top looter shooter franchise. Within this article, we will be outlining what we know of the story so far, some of the things that are new, and some thoughts on the experience as a whole.

Let’s dive in.

What We Experienced

The event began with a presentation from Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford and Borderlands 3 Creative Director Paul Sage. The two showed off the introductory mission with the help of some testers while highlighting what is new about the game. Both expressed their desire for this Borderlands 3 to serve as both an entry point for new players into the franchise (it have been ten years since the release of Borderlands 1, after all) and a point of reconnection for seasoned players returning to the series.

Within this demo, we got to see two of the four new Vault Hunters in action: Amara and Zane. Amara is a Siren with an area of effect ability called Phaseslam while Zane is an operative with a few extra tricks up his sleeves. In place of Zane’s grenade slot, he can opt to equip an extra special ability. More on that later.

For play testing, we had around ninety minutes with the game, loaded into a specific level with a modicum of freedom to explore that particular segment. This took us to the planet Promethea, headquarters of the Atlas Corporation and in the midst of an attempted hostile takeover by rival manufacturer Maliwan.

All of this was experience on PC platforms equipped with AMD’s Ryzen 7 2700X CPUs and RX Vega64 GPUs.

The Story So Far

A charismatic pair of twins, Troy and Tyreen Calypso, have gathered a following all across Pandora and are calling their faithful followers the Children of the Vault. This literal cult of personality is dedicated to the ascension of the Calypso Twins, heralding Tyreen as god-queen for her ability to syphon the life from her enemies. In describing their personalities, Pitchford said that the Calypso Twins are like “douchy live streamers” who are all about building their audience through the consolidation of power from the vaults to themselves.

Not to be left unchecked, Lilith and the Crimson Raiders have put out an all-call to any willing to pick up a gun for profit on Pandora to deal with this problem sweeping the planet. This is where you come in. Your first mission has the newly minted Vault Hunters invading a propaganda center and taking out their leadership.

What you will soon discover is that more than Pandora is at stake. You’re gunna need to catch a ride… to space! Enter the Sanctuary III, an aptly names vessel that serves as your home base and transportation between star systems.

With this stage set, let’s dive deeper.

What’s the Same?

Both Randy Pitchford and Paul Sage emphasized is that the team wanted to keep the spirit of Borderlands while leveraging modern technology. Using the Unreal 4 engine, Gearbox has kept the aesthetic which has become the calling card of Borderlands while bringing it into current graphics standards - and it worked! The environments have that Borderlands cell-shading quality to them with deeper depths of color.

Returning to this latest installment are some familiar faces. Aboard the Sanctuary III and throughout your journey, you will run into characters from across the franchise, including both main titles and Tales From the Borderlands. With those characters, the same mix of over-the-top humor you would come to expect from a sequel exists right alongside the dire circumstances.

Here is was a great example that we got to experience: One mission involved reopening a coffee bar with a hipster robo-barista (projected mustache and all) and banter about killing people before the first morning brew, but couched within this humor was a very grounded moment about what the coffee represented: a small token of normalcy from a time before things started going sideways.

There are still tons of guns, over the top action, and the scope of the game is being pitched as massive - something that Borderlands games do not tend to need much help with. Borderlands 3 will also still be playable offline either solo or with split-screen couch co-op as well as local network multiplayer and play over the internet.

What’s New?

In the midst of the familiar that are a number of updates that Gearbox is baking into Borderlands 3.

While some guns behave as they have historically (i.e. Maliwan guns and their elemental damage), there have been some updates and new tricks. Some guns now have an alternate fire mode involving grenades or two different elemental damage types. Some guns turn into enemy-seeking micro robots of doom when you reload them. These alternate modes help guns feel like they serve multiple purposes, which, alongside some general retooling, brings significant improved to gunplay from previous installments.

As hinted at earlier about the skills tree, each Vault Hunter has three skill trees (which is nothing new), but each tree has its own action skill associated with it. When asked about the mindset behind this redesign, Production Lead Anthony Nicholson said that the team wanted players to be able to find a play style that fit them and that felt familiar to gameplay mechanics that they may have experienced in other games. That familiarity was important to the player experience while offering (and encouraging) players to discover the best fit for them.

This is where characters like Zane can be incredibly diverse. As mentioned earlier, you can opt to forego your grenade slot in favor of a second action skill. You could choose a more defensive posture by taking Zane’s Barrier skill - a defensive energy shield which can be moved and modified by talents - or you can choose to play offensively tricking enemies with Digiclone or harassing them with the autonomous Sentinel drone.

Alongside of new abilities and creative ways to play, there are some new mobility options. While on foot, you can now take a running slide to get behind cover - which can be destructible, by the way. There are also new vehicles, including the Outrider - a mechanic donut of doom equipped with a pair of machine guns. The ability to ground pound also sees a return from Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.

Multiplayer mode is back with a major quality of life update: the option to turn on Instanced Loot. This feature allows each player to have their own loot tables, scaled to the player, without worried about falling victim to perpetual or “accidental” loot-grabbers while affording you the opportunity to find gear at your level, no matter who you are playing alongside. Again, this is an option and you can opt to play in the classic version of loot sharing. Damage also scales in these cooperative situations as well, so you can always play on the same level as your friends, even if they skipped a few days of work to get ahead!

Speaking of loot, Pitchford assured attendees of the preview event that there would not be any “pay-to-win” micro-transactions with Borderlands 3, but that there would likely be DLC and there might be some cosmetic items for sale.

Initial Thoughts

Ninety minutes with a game is way too short to give a thorough assessment of the whole Borderlands 3 experience. On the whole, what I experience was quite enjoyable and felt familiar enough to my previous experiences with the franchise while providing some new methods of play. Much of what I enjoy about the series has made a return - the quirky characters, the humor mixed with moments of grounded humanity, the glorious, glorious guns - but along of all of these wonderful things, I have some fears.

The Borderlands series has always been sprawling. With tons of side quests and stories to explore, I am concerned that the ability to leave Pandora in exploration of other planets may cause players to suffer from a heightened sense of choice paralysis that already existed in the series from the sheer volume of gear to sift through and things to do. This is the double-edged sword of many modern looter shooters: one edge creates vast worlds of discovery, the other stifles through amount of choice, causing players to feel as though they are not progressing.

My other concern is the rate of progression. In previous titles, leveling felt rather slow. During the gameplay session, I put on a single level. That being said, I did a fair amount of exploration and took time with both playable characters. Progression may be something the team is still tailoring to the launch experience, but will be largely important to player engagement.

These fears could be moot if the narrative, rate of progression, and gameplay combined can keep players engaged enough to see it through. To that end, the major questions that I am left with are these:

  1. Can the Calypso Twins break the series away from the shadow of Handsome Jack - a character deeply entrenched in three Borderlands stories AND who was charismatically smarmy to begin with?
  2. Will the cult motif work as a major plot device in Borderlands 3 where we have already seen a form of religious zealotry on full display through the psychos and those seeking the vaults?
  3. Are the quality of life features, updated mechanics, unique ability trees, and the narrative going to capture the attention of the player to make them want to progress and will that rate of progression feel satisfying?

We don’t have those answers right now, but the Gearbox team has a few more months' worth of major gaming events to show off more than what we got to experience this week. If we don’t find out through one of them, we certainly will after September 13th.

We will be sharing more information on Borderlands 3 as it becomes available.

Note: All travel and event accommodation were provided by 2K Games.


Damien Gula

Born in the heyday of mullets and the El Camino to a tech-foward family, Damien joined the MMORPG.com team back in 2017 to review hardware and games as well as provide coverage for press preview events. He has participated in a number of MMOs over the years, including World of Warcraft, RIFT, Guild Wars 2, and the Destiny series. When he isn't writing for MMORPG.com, Damien is a pastor by trade who loves talking with anyone interested about life, God, and video games (in no particular order). He also co-hosts a podcast dedicated to these conversation with fellow MMORPG writer Matt Keith called Roll The Level.