Borderlands 3 will be one of the biggest releases of 2019. Developer Gearbox Software and publisher 2K Games certainly think so — the livestream presentation that just wrapped up in Los Angeles is evidence of that. Between the return of the beloved Claptrap and the showcase of brand new player abilities, there's a lot to be excited about in the first glimpse we've had of Borderlands 3's gameplay since the game was announced at PAX East 2019 a month ago.
Watching the game get played the way the developers intended is one thing, but actually getting a feel for what Borderlands 3's experience is like from a player perspective is crucial. Borderlands 3 looks great, and its tone is clearly in tact, but what about the gameplay? Luckily, we were able to attend a Borderlands 3 hands-on preview event in LA that let us play over an hour on one of the game's new worlds, Promethea.
Obviously, just over an hour of gameplay isn't enough to accurately determine how an entire game will be received. It's a good start, though, and it helps identify things that need work or elements that are functioning in a way that's exciting. In the case of Borderlands 3, nearly everything we experienced was either a return of a feature fans already loved or an innovation that makes the game more dynamic. It's too early to call, but if the rest of Borderlands 3 is anything like the hands-on we experienced, then it's going to be the best iteration of the franchise yet and a serious Game of the Year contender on top of that.
What Are Borderlands 3's Skills Like?
We played as Zane, the Operative class Vault Hunter who has already made headlines for his ability to create a digicopy of himself during combat. Zane feels a lot like he's meant to be the jack-of-all-trades character, with abilities that allow him to be a versatile defender or attacker. Zane has a drone that can be pointed at enemies to take them out at a distance, or a shield that can be deployed (and picked up) to defend himself from fire. On top of that, the digiclone is one of the most flexible skills we've seen in Borderlands, equal parts strong offense and slippery evasiveness that makes Zane a joy to play.
Something we didn't get to try during the build but was featured in preview content was Zane's ability to swap places with his digiclone, which is obviously a powerful tool in a game that has enemies with critical weakpoints and environments that were meant to be exploited. Make no mistake, either — Borderlands 3 is one of the most situationally aware versions of a loot shooter we've played, with environments that are screaming at players to get creative in order to defeat enemies. Run-and-gun remains a viable strategy, but so does launching barrels at enemy mobs and getting them to explode in mid-air. That variety will greatly assist the game, helping mitigate the chance it becomes the kind of bullet-sponge slog that other iterations of loot-based shooters can become as the gameplay progresses.
Is Borderlands 3's Combat As Good As It Looks?
Another early takeaway is the smoothness of the combat experience in general. Sliding, crouching, jumping, and dynamic movement all feel the best they've ever been. The UI is also efficient and pleasant, with enemy health melting away producing a satisfying aesthetic that's tough to put a finger on but nevertheless remains one of the best minor sources of joy within the preview. One change that's immediately noticeable is the inclusion of item scores on weapons that help identify which will be upgrades. While simply looking at a weapon on the ground will bring up data on it, instead of parsing through all of the numbers, players looking to move quickly can simply check a score and see if its an upgrade.
Flexibility is a big thing in Borderlands 3. The game's presentation earlier today showed off instanced loot, level balancing, skill modifications, and deeper skill trees. Everything is crafted to give players the chance to play the game they'd like to. Although our build of Zane wasn't high level enough to really offer the kind of customization the trees hint at, it's just enough of a taste to know that there will be options — for the player who simply wants to play the way they like and for the min-maxers who want to completely crush enemies in the most efficient way possible.
Borderlands 3's Story Continues To Sell
From a story perspective, the introduction of the Calypso Twins feels like a big moment in the series. They're immediately different from Handsome Jack while still possessing the iconic villain's charisma. Their riff on livestream culture is a nice touch — Borderlands 3's Twitch extension is already pairing it with those platforms, so why not offer a bit of a critique on them on top of playing nice? It's the kind of irreverent yet genuine behavior that has made Borderlands such a beloved franchise, and it continues within Borderlands 3.
There's also the inclusion of characters like Rhys from Tales From The Borderlands. These nods to some of the series' more niche content will be sure to please long-time fans, and they're introduced in a way that won't alienate new players, too. The return of Zero, Lilith, and more also feel like the right kind of nostalgic hits, and even during our brief playthrough, each character's introduction feels meaningful and exciting.
Borderlands 3 Space Exploration
The biggest innovation that's been made to Borderlands 3 is the introduction of Sanctuary 3, a spaceship that serves as the home base for Borderlands 3 while also allowing them to move between worlds for the first time in the game's history. In our hands-on gameplay, we were only able to explore Promethea, the homeworld of the Atlas Corporation. Even then, it was immediately obvious how much the ability to change between settings has impacted Borderlands 3's game design — there's just more that the developers can do, and it shows.
Promethea is a cityscape that's entirely foreign to the environments players experienced in Borderlands and Borderlands 2, and it's a breath of fresh air. The siege of the Atlas Corporation by Maliwan is a story beat that wasn't really available either. Now, though, the Vault Hunter becomes embroiled in a hostile takeover of one of the most recognizable corporations in the game, and it feels like a new story that's still familiar enough to feel like Borderlands. Other worlds shown in the presentation look even more different than Promethea, and we're confident world exploration will be a huge boon to the otherwise very similar Borderlands formula that courses through Borderlands 3's veins.
Will Borderlands 3 Be Different Enough?
If there's a concern to be had with Borderlands 3, we suppose it would have to be the sense that nothing about its core gameplay feels like it has changed or been innovated outside of the interplanetary exploration. Skills are cooler, weapons are more fun, and the humor remains a strong selling point — but these are all glamor on top of the game's core values, which have always been about the pursuit of loot and having fun while chasing it. Borderlands 3 is still a completely raucous time, full of wild battles and exploding enemies. It's fun, and the skills and weapons feel fresh after an hour with them. But if nothing else changes — and that's not a guarantee, just a possibility — then it may serve as the first real test about the long-term viability of the game's formula.
Can a game that simply perfects what it has already done continue to develop a bigger following and sell better with each iteration? Perhaps innovation is over-stated, because we think so. Borderlands 3 is the natural progression of a series that, early in its life, discovered exactly what fans wanted out of it. That Gearbox Software has decided to ramp that up and improve it rather than make a dramatic change is likely going to pay off, because what has changed is a near-universal improvement on the Borderlands experience, and what's remained is the same addictive, exhilarating gameplay that made the series such a brilliant presence in the industry in the first place.