Borderlands 3 Preview: Our thoughts after a few hours with the game
The RPG shooter (or “shlooter”, as I’ve come to call it) formula has evolved massively since Borderlands 2 launched back in 2012. It has practically grown into its own genre with the likes of Destiny 2, The Division 2 and other mixed attempts such as Anthem trying to dominate the minds of players with oodles of content. Oh, and loot. Lots and lots of irresistible loot.
Gearbox Software might have helped pioneer the genre and its inner workings all those years ago, but it has plenty of ground to cover if it hopes to once again reign supreme among some genuinely stellar competition. Following a few hours of play, it appears Borderlands 3 is taking the right steps to engage players in a way the series simply hasn’t done before, and that’s definitely a good thing.
A shooter experience once considered archaic in the eyes of modern spectators is now fresh and filled with life, dripping with activities in which to partake that extend beyond the excellent main narrative. Combine that with plentiful character classes, a huge world and you’ve got an eclectic recipe for success.
However, it’s a shame the writing remains as a goofball and scattershot as it has always been, although that’s a matter of personal taste.
Related: Upcoming Xbox One gamesAmara is a force to be reckoned with and has some truly awesome powers at her disposal
I recently visiting the 2K offices in London and had a chance to play a few hours of Borderlands 3, delving into two distinct builds that allowed me to experiment with a variety of character classes. Having already played as Moze, an utterly badass gunner capable of calling down a mech from the heavens, I opted for a different slate of troublemakers this time around.
My heroine of choice was Amara, Borderlands 3’s spin on the ethereal Siren. Immediately, she usurps stereotypes by presenting herself as a strong buff women, adorned with countless muscles and the physical prowess to back them up. She’s both brains and brawn, capable of hurling bandits across the screen with exhilarating psychic abilities.
From the second I picked up the controller, she proved a treat to play as. This largely comes down to how Borderlands 3 has enhanced its movement system. Its predecessors came before the time of Titanfall, where mantling, wall-running and absurd feats of physicality became the norm in first-person shooters. Now, Gearbox is taking these lessons and applying them generously to everything in sight.
Upon jumping towards protruding ledges and higher vantage points, my character would hoist themselves up without issue, making the exploration of large, sprawling levels a chore instead of an exercise in frustration. It simply made the world feel like a living, breathing environment with enemies hiding in makeshift dens across a hostile stronghold, instead of copy-and-paste outposts like previous games.
Related: Best PS4 gamesEnemies come in different shapes and sizes, each requiring a new strategy to take down
This improved method of movement also helps gunplay come alive, making it a breeze to dart behind cover and across destructible environments. Firefights are dynamic and unpredictable, each one breaking out and descending into madness in a flurry of gorgeous explosions. Some foes are still obnoxious bullet sponges, though; my progress to certain areas gated until I’d reached the right level. My skills didn’t matter, since the difficulty was turned up in a way that would ensure I’d be mincemeat in seconds.
Now, let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of Amara. She’s undeniably badass, and comes with three unique powers from the outset: Phasegrasp, Phasecast and Phaseslam. Each is separated into its own distinct skill trees and upgrades in which you can specialise. I loved them, using Phasegrasp to hold enemies in place, while I filled them with bullets before finishing them off with a deadly slam. There’s a melodic dynamism to proceeding that works great playing solo, and perhaps even better with fellow Vault Hunters by your side.
Given you can play as any of the four unique personalities in Borderlands 3, I can see myself specialising in different builds for each of them, defining a playstyle that emphasises either offence, defence or a mixture of both, depending on the situation at hand. Gearbox Software has ensured that no matter your decision, every second of combat remains immensely engaging. Granted, firefights with the same mixture of foes can grow stale as you’re exploring the open world.
Beyond Amara, I also played an hour or so with Zane – who is probably the most generic fellow of the lot. This applies to both his Pierce Brosnan-esque appearance and selection of abilities. The gunslinger can summon a shield to protect himself from foes or even summon a doppelgänger to blow them away alongside him. He’s excellent fun in his own right, but during cut-scenes and while scouring the world, I simply didn’t connect with him as much. What I’m really saying is I’m a tad too smitten with Amara.
Related: Call of Duty – Modern WarfareMoze can summon her own personal mech to pilot or fight alongside her in the wastes of Pandora
Aside from the brief demo I played previously, but with different classes, I also experienced a wider, more ambitious section of Borderlands 3. For a couple of precious hours, I ventured through the brightly lit streets of Meridian. This sprawling metropolis is the battleground for warring factions, battling each other for the rights of its citizens and the spoils hidden amidst a planet ravaged by war. It also looks gorgeous, presenting a densely packed scale the series hasn’t really had before.
For the first time in a decade, Borderlands 3 will abandon the tried-and-true desert plains of Pandora for multiple different planets. Each will have its own unique aesthetic, quests and characters to encounter, which will contribute to the overall narrative in some fascinating ways. You’ll navigate to these new landmasses from the safety of Santuary III, a spaceship that lingers on the outskirts of planets just waiting to dive in.
As far as I’m aware, this ship is essentially the game’s base of operations. Here you’ll find Moxxi’s Bar alongside other familiar characters and shopkeepers ready and waiting to converse with you. It feels like the Greatest Hits of Borderlands, bringing everything players have come to love from Tales of the Borderlands and beyond. The dedication to the lore and its legacy is impressive, even if I myself don’t care too much about it.
The wacky plot is a snazzy background for the team-based shooting, although immensely fun in its own right. My disconnection is partly due to the game’s sense of humour, which manages to draw a few laughs, but feels far too juvenile and drenched in meme culture to feel genuinely original. But if you were a sucker for the writing in Borderlands 1 & 2, what’s on offer here will definitely appeal.
Related: Cyberpunk 2077 PreviewThe antagonists are deliberate parodies of streamer culture – ironic, given how many are going to play Borderlands 3
Meridian is a beautiful city, its ruined beauty made obvious by a flurry of neon lights that dominate the streets and sides of daunting skyscrapers. It gels wonderfully with the cel-shaded visuals, making my journey across it an unparalleled pleasure. You traverse it mostly by vehicle, spawning one of many from Catch-A-Ride stations located on most corners. They control well enough, reminiscent of Halo as you control with both sticks while firing turrets at oncoming foes.
I darted across the city performing quests from a number of NPCS; one such adventure involved restoring power to a robotic coffee shop to quench a revolutionary leader’s thirst for caffeine. It’s a great idea, and one that feels far more fledged out than the series’ past side activities. I don’t expect every optional activity in Borderlands 3 to be like this, but they really don’t need to be. So long as there’s enough charm and personality to stay consistent, I’ll be more than happy.
Borderlands 3 continues to impress, and has all the ingredients to be one of the 2019’s best shooters for many reasons. It plays well, offers ample variety and promises yet more surprises that are to be uncovered. Of the three Vault Hunters I’ve tried, they’re all incredibly fun and present a unique way to play.
I still don’t gel with the sense of humour and its over-the-top world building, but treated as little more than a stylish background for the shooter action, it’s a worthwhile sacrifice to enjoy one of the most robust team-based experiences I’ve seen in quite some time. Claptrap still sucks, though.