Seven years after the last proper Borderlands adventure, this latest entry in the saga proves Gearbox is as committed to FPS action as RPG mechanics.
Back in 2009, Gearbox first unleashed Borderlands upon an unsuspecting public. An unprecedented mix of Diablo-style RPG progression, frantic co-op FPS action, and a cel-shaded art style best described as "Mad Max as a Saturday morning cartoon on LSD." The game was a critical and commercial success, and expansions, sequels, and spinoffs turned the scrappy genre mashup into one of 2K Games most venerated franchises.
Seven years after Borderlands 2 (and five years after the frequently overlooked The Pre-Sequel), a new numbered sequel is finally here, though the game itself has been unfairly overshadowed by the numerous controversies involving behind-the-scenes antics going down at Gearbox. In the months leading up to release, Borderlands 3 earned memetic status for its background drama, including 2K Games' refusal to send out review copies to most outlets until the day of release. A narrative was being painted, in large part by the creators themselves, and it wasn't shaping up to be a pretty picture.
In hindsight, it's disappointing that Gearbox found themselves so frequently in proverbial hot water, since Randy Pitchford would have been much better off allowing Borderlands 3 to speak for itself. The final result is a triumph in iterative game design, with numerous quality-of-life improvements over its predecessors, stellar production values, and a cast of colorful and creatively versatile playable characters. The promise of Borderlands has always been the marriage of first person shooting and role playing progression, and Borderlands 3 finally brings the former up to date with the latter without watering down any of the complex RPG elements that give the series its long-term depth.
As in every game in the series, Borderlands 3 stars a quartet of Vault Hunters, freelance mercenaries who aim to shoot their way to fortune and glory over the course of a 30 hour story mode, before doing it all again in New Game Plus, known here as True Vault Hunter Mode. Again, like in the past, these Hunters invariably find themselves caught up in the corporate espionage between the massive (and massively unhinged) titans of industry. The new antagonists in Borderlands 3, twin Sirens Tyree and Troy, don't hold up to the legendary Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2, but they certainly have their moments, but their "Streamer/Influencer" shtick can grow tiresome at times, much as it does for real life streamers and influencers. Many characters return from past Borderlands games, including Rhys and Vaughn from Telltale's acclaimed Tales from the Borderlands, but most of these returning champions are distilled to their base personalities, serving more as one-liner fodder and jolly cameos than adding anything truly meaningful to the plot.
The story gains momentum and improves as the adventure continues, but the writing ranges from laugh-out-loud hilarious at its best to eye-rolling and cringe-inducing at its worst. At the very least, Borderlands 3 tries to be funny at nearly every turn, and there is virtue in that ambition. Even simple side quests are given a layer of added flavor via the inclusion of jokes, quirks, and other assorted silliness.
The core gameplay loop of Borderlands 3 should feel familiar to fans of the series. Either alone or with up to three co-op friends, Vault Hunters must complete missions, kill monsters and psychotic bandits, and level up to improve their skills, customizing their character to fit their play style. The secret sauce of Borderlands, so to speak, has always been the sublime combination of RPG and FPS. Essentially, it's like Doom meets Diablo, though the shooting has often been criticized for feeling slow and a bit clunky, especially in solo play. This time around, the team at Gearbox has made a considerable effort to improve the core shooting and movement. Borderlands is still as much of an RPG as it's ever been, but the moment-to-moment gameplay has finally caught up to the other side of the experience. Vault Hunters can now climb objects and mantle over waist-high objects, and gunplay has been tuned to keep combat flowing at a more kinetic pace. Borderlands 3 finally feels like a legitimate shooter, but at no cost to the RPG elements so beloved by hardcore fans.
The aesthetic of Borderlands 3 is as colorful as ever. It doesn't look leaps and bounds better than The Handsome Collection on PlayStation 4, but the subtle differences are nonetheless evident in motion. Animations are less robotic than before, and enemies can be knocked off their feet by shotgun blasts, adding extra dynamics to gun battles, and additional utility to the shotguns themselves. Lighting, in particular, is hugely improved, giving explosive kills an extra punch. These improvements come courtesy of the switch to Unreal Engine 4, though they come at a cost. On PlayStation 4 Pro, there are two modes: a "high performance" mode that targets 60 FPS, and a "high resolution" mode that targets 30. Neither of these modes hit their target frame rates, but the resolution mode is nearly unplayable at most times, leaving the performance mode (which is always above 30 FPS, but rarely ever a full 60) the only truly viable option. Base PS4 users are stuck with a 30 FPS mode, but at least it sticks much more closely to its target.
Split screen play returns in Borderlands 3, but it only supports two players per console. After being spoiled by glorious four-player local play in the PS4 ports of the older games, it's a shame to see the number of players halved. At least local sessions can still play online with others. Still, considering the numerous visual improvements made to the game over its predecessors, it's an understandable concession. Unfortunately, local play on PS4 Pro, even on the performance mode, is far from optimal, to the point where it negatively impacts gameplay. Trying to snipe a bandit at 100 meters is exceedingly difficult when the frame rate frequently drops to the mid teens or below.
The problem hurts Borderlands 3 especially bad because it's a game best played with friends. If one aims to play Borderlands 3 with friends, playing online is the best option. The more bullet-spongy enemies are easier to take down with a friend or three, and the ability to revive allies is a game-changer, especially in boss fights that can become more frustrating than fun when tackled alone. A team of Vault Hunters working together can handle almost any situation. There are few joys more satisfying than having one player provide covering fire with a Jakobs sniper rifle while another player runs deep into the fray with a Cryo weapon, freezing enemies so the sniper can line up unimpeded headshots. There aren't many co-op games that truly fulfill their objective of allowing players to bounce off each other, using skills to enhance the team and conquer the enemy, but Borderlands 3 absolutely nails it.
In the lead up to Borderlands 3, there was concern this sequel would be mildly iterative, essentially more of the same fans had already enjoyed with the older Borderlands games. At the end of the day, Borderlands remains a singular experience without peer. It doesn't feel like The Division, Destiny, or even Shadow Warrior 2, fellow entries in the so-called "looter shooter" genre. Seven years have passed since the last numbered entry in the series, but Borderlands hasn't lost any of its luster. Borderlands 3 does not reinvent the wheel, and it's not competing with those aforementioned games. It's running its own race. Borderlands 3 doesn't make leaps to modernize the franchise, but the multitude of tiny improvements go a long way towards making Borderlands 3 the absolute best experience it can possibly be.
Borderlands 3 is out now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. A PlayStation 4 digital code was provided to Screen Rant for the purposes of this review. Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.