It has been five years since the last two Borderlands games – the one-two punch of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and the Telltale Games spinoff, Tales From the Borderlands. Five years is a healthy amount of time for something to be gone but, for Gearbox Software, developers of the first two games (The Pre-Sequel was developed by 2K Australia, with assistance from Gearbox), it’s been even longer. The 2012 release of Borderlands 2 might as well have been a lifetime ago.
One of the weirder things about our Extremely Online Times is that you don’t really have to wait that long to be nostalgic for something. If you’re regularly logged on, checking out streams and posts and the like, months can feel like years, and years like entire decades. That might be why Borderlands 3 feels like such a throwback. Or maybe it’s because, in all that time, Gearbox does not appear to have changed the Borderlands formula much. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
At a preview event last week, I spent about five hours with Borderlands 3, playing through the game’s prologue at my own pace (a leisurely 3-4 hours) and then through a section midway through the game with a character at level 22. It’s a healthy slice of a near-finished game, one that feels a lot like Borderlands has never really left.
Consistent with the previous games, its shooting is fine, but the main draw is the sheer variety of guns and the effects they can potentially have. The experience of actually shooting them still feels somewhat ephemeral and light in your digital hands, but the guns themselves? Wonderfully varied in ways that makes you want to toy with them all. Pistols that also fire rockets, guns that you throw instead of reloading (and which subsequently become bouncing grenades or walking turrets), or a wicked chain gun with a second barrel you can toggle on or off.
The game gets with the times, but only a little bit. You can now mantle and slide; the latter feels nicer to do than the former. In a lot of ways, though, Borderlands 3 feels a lot like the exact same kind of game the previous three were. From the hefty five-hour slice I played, the most noticeable difference in Borderlands 3 is in each character’s special abilities, called action skills.
In previous games, characters had one action skill that, as you levelled up, could be tweaked and improved by passive upgrades and interesting buffs based on the skill tree of your choosing. In Borderlands 3, characters have three action skills you can swap between, and each can be upgraded in unique ways. Moze, for example, summons a mech as her action skill, but what weapons it has equipped are completely up to you. As you upgrade her skill trees, you can choose to add a minigun, a rail gun, or a grenade launcher, and modify or upgrade those as you see fit.
If you pick FL4K, the robot Beastmaster, those skill trees look entirely different: you unlock new pets and special abilities independently, which you can then mix and match. So you can choose from having a Spiderant, Skag, or Jabber pet following you around, and also pick your accompanying skill, be it invisibility, or summoning rakks to dive-bomb a target.
This wildly diverse set of customisation options shores up the one thing Borderlands games have been pretty lousy at for a long time: The “role-playing” part of “action role-playing game.” These changes make me feel like it will be much easier to sink many hours into Borderlands 3, especially around the fifteen-hour mark, where previous games left me feeling like my options were pretty thin.
Yet there are a considerable number of things that might make it much harder to play Borderlands 3. Let’s start with that distinctive tone. The Borderlands house style is brash, irreverent schlock, delivered in a way that will strike some as obnoxious. It’s been ten years since the first Borderlands, and if you played that game, you have probably changed a lot in the last ten years, and yet here is Borderlands 3, behaving like the same old high school cut-up even though it’s middle-aged.
There’s reason to believe that this tone might be in the service of a satisfying story. Borderlands 2 was acclaimed for its surprisingly involved, character-driven plot, and the story of Borderlands 3 appears to have some potential meat on its bones. Its villains are a couple of streamers – twin siblings Troy and Tyreen Calypso – who have united the series’ disparate groups of ludicrously armed bandits and goons under the banner of their fandom.
From what I’ve played, the Calypso Twins – while being loud, confrontational characters in the Borderlands vein – aren’t merely vapid parody. I had the opportunity to ask Borderlands 3 co-lead writers Sam Winkler and Danny Homan about this, and I’ve been thinking about their answer ever since.
“We thought it would be really interesting to deal with villains that built their way up and had this crowd-sourced, grassroots Psycho army. It’s so much fun to see these twins have to be ‘on’ all the time: simultaneously they’re insulting us and entertaining their viewers and egging them on into increasingly horrifying acts,” Winkler said. “In order to be a streamer, you have to have something special to you, and you have to be always ‘on.’ And there’s a slippery slope aspect of like, ‘Oh no, I gotta do bigger and better things.’”
There are also real-world concerns about some of the people involved in the production of this game, which are less easily assuaged. Most disconcerting and relevant to my time spent with the game is the presence of Chris Hardwick, reprising his voice acting role as Tales From the Borderlands character Vaughn, despite allegations of emotional abuse that came to light last year.
I asked Homan and Winkler about Hardwick, and this is what they said: “I’d be lying if said, if it wasn’t a conversation when it first came up,” Winkler said. “But those decisions end up getting made at a higher level. Working with Vaughn, the character, is extremely fun. We had a really great time writing him.”
It is also impossible to write about Borderlands 3 and not also consider things like the sensational allegations made against Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford on the part of a former Gearbox lawyer, who claims that Pitchford has received a substantial advance against Borderlands 3 profits that would otherwise go towards developer royalties (among more salacious claims). All of these allegations have been categorically denied by Gearbox and legal proceedings have been underway since January, but it’s another complicating factor that has many fans feeling uncertain about Borderlands 3.
It’s been ten years since the first Borderlands game came out. A lot has changed, but it seems like Borderlands the video game series has not. That sounds like great news if you’re a Borderlands fan – but also, maybe Borderlands fans have changed, too. Sometimes nostalgia is just fine. Sometimes it’s nowhere near enough.
Borderlands 3 is out September 13, 2019.