Borderlands 3 "Review" (See note at beginning of article)

Note: I am publishing this complete "review" on August 12th, 2019, over a month before Borderlands 3 is released on September 13, 2019.  The date on the article is August 6th, but I completed it on the 12th.  I have not played the game or seen it played live, I have no inside information from 2K or Gearbox, and I have only seen and read the same videos and articles everyone else has.  I'm doing this an exercise to see how close I can get to writing a professional-sounding game review without actually having played the game and based only on officially-released press materials, videos, and streams. Will I love all the things I say here that I do about the game?  Will I still find even mild disappointment in the few things I predicted I would?  Will my overall score be any different after having completed the game? Let's find out - see my notes at the end as a footnote.

It's been 84 years since Borderlands 2 was released - oh, fine, it's only been 7, but it feels a lot longer - and finally, what many have called the king of the looter shooter genre has returned with a sequel. Gearbox Software seems to have pulled out all the stops for Borderlands 3, delivering a larger world (worlds, in fact) with more characters, more customization and choices, vastly more guns, and a more compelling endgame built right in compared to its predecessors. And, in taking notes from how other companies found only mild success at best as they kept trying to pile in lootbox-type mechanics and shaky "live service" content schedules into their online-only shooter games, BL3 tosses nearly all of that out and delivers an experience that is very 2012 in how you actually play it - online with friends if you want, offline if you want, and with a DLC plan that is similar, with cosmetics and story content available for purchase with no surprises.

The Setup

The end of BL2 made it pretty clear what the next game, were it ever to materialize, was going to be about: the Warrior's vault key opened up and showed that there were vaults throughout at least several other planets with untold riches and/or horrors to unlock. The final DLC for BL2, released only just recently, set up our Vault Hunters' exodus from Pandora along with some mild preparation for which characters will likely to return, and which ones won't.
Your new villains, Troy and Tyreen Calypso.

In BL3, a new Children of the Vault cult has formed with the twins Tyreen and Troy Calypso acting as their Instagram-influencer-style leaders. These two are just as sinister as you'd expect, and they're certainly Chaotic Evil if you put them on a D&D alignment scale, but they seem to lack the dark humor of Handsome Jack, the excellent villain portrayed by Dameon Clarke in BL2 - and that's a shame. They lack any nuance in sarcasm, seething tone, nihilism like Jack did, and come off more as annoying young millennials who had too much screen time and not enough parental attention as children. While I welcome that kind of social commentary, the villains have a big part in this game, and unfortunately the welcome wears out quickly.


The real star of nearly any first-person shooter is the gun at the bottom of the screen, and Gearbox knows this very well. The Borderlands games construct their weapons via a semi-randomized system with an interesting set of rules.  That system picks out a receiver from one of several manufacturers, each with its own properties, then chooses the ammo/reload mechanism (revolver chamber, magazine, battery, etc) and then combines it with a variety of grips, barrels, sights, stocks, and accessories to complete the weapon. The above manufacturers are the sources of these parts, and each can be matched with parts by other manufacturers, so even if you get the same "unique" gun a dozen times, you will very likely notice substantial differences in things like reload speed, fire rate, stability, scope, handling, and more for each iteration. 

Each manufacturer has their own quirks and vast numbers of new gun parts are available.

This has been a staple throughout the series, and with BL3, the knob has been cranked to 11 - now there is a massive range of different mechanisms for building guns, giving the character more ways to reload guns (for example, pistols having magazines while revolvers now have both manual loading or speedloaders, depending on the gun), additional optional fire modes, new mechanics like the Children of the Vault guns that require actively cooling them down (including with amusing animations like using water-filled squirt guns in the left hand) or they will start to hurt you, multiple firing types, switchable elements like fire or shock to douse enemies with, underbarrel attachments, Tediore weapons that when tossed out during a reload will turn into crazy stuff like turrets or drones, and more. While we all thought the same of BL2's gun variety when that game came out, over the years we noticed that there was a common pattern that could be followed very easily - now it pales in comparison to the latest. Gearbox has successfully pioneered an amazing system here with huge implications for a core part of its gameplay and for a decade now, no other studios have even started to try to copy or improve upon it.  

With that said, one of the most fun things to me about this system is nerding out on what parts a gun is made out of, and while other games offer customizations for guns that allow players to change out parts, so far Gearbox has not brought the players into their cool kids' club of doing any designing themselves just yet. Instead they keep the curtain closed on their amazing gun generation system and focus on just throwing out huge varieties of weapons and letting the luck of the draw be the deciding factor on players getting something good. Considering that even Diablo III allows players to customize their gear with replacing one stat and such, I feel like Gearbox is missing an opportunity to connect with players on an entirely new level here. 

Zane adds trickery with his drone that he can swap places with, and damage and utility from his drone. 

I get that as a fast-action, cooperative shooter intended for solo or online play, allowing people to spend vast amounts of time mucking around in workbenches or sifting through barrels and stocks and such may bring down the pace a bit much, but considering how much time I've seen or heard of streamers and fans spending farming up just the right version of some legendary gun or shield or whatever, it's clear that there's an interest here, so I'm sure there's a way to streamline things to add some kind of functional re-configuration of guns, even if it's just replacing one property with a random replacement like Diablo III. Oh well - maybe we can see that in the next game.

Keeping things moving

Back when BL2 was released in 2012, FPS games largely weren't doing much in the way of innovating player movement.  Climbing up onto something required simply jumping high enough to get your entire body above it, like we did way back in in the mid-90s with Duke Nukem 3D or Quake, and rarely did we see things like mantling and climbing animations, much less dives (I mean, except for the groundbreaking Max Payne and its copies). Many game studios in the last several years have added slick movement options beyond the basics to their games, and BL3 does at least some of this too, allowing quick climbing of waist- and chest-high surfaces, and a new slide move that allows you to quickly close the distance to an enemy or to behind cover while making yourself a smaller target for enemy fire. It's not a huge change - we're not getting Titanfall- or Dying Light-levels of parkour movement - but it's still a step in the right direction.

Players can create and close distance with the slide move, which might be useful to get out of the way of a guy like this.

Your Vault Hunters

Just like with BL2, this third major game in the series introduces a set of four new Vault Hunters, with previous characters returning as NPCs.  This time around, we get Zane the Operative who has a decoy he can trade places with and a surveyor-style drone to fly around and augment his damage, Amara the Siren with more of a focus on physical strength and purely offensive melee- and ranged-based Siren attacks than her blue-tattooed cousins from past games, Moze the Gunner with a powerful mech she can pilot or that can fight on its own, and finally FL4K the Beastmaster, a robot with huge damage potential through critical hits and permanently available pets that he can command to attack or disable his enemies.  Some favorite skills and abilities from previous games will return, often with new names and twists, and players can now pick one or two (depending on the character) from a selection of several action skills to use, instead of just being stuck with the one per character as in past games.  You'll find these characters also talk more than the Vault Hunters did in BL2, contributing and reacting to the story significantly. All in all, the new characters fit in well and are all fun to play with their own unique styles complementing each other well.  

Amara the Siren brings in some of the phaselock-style abilities of Maya with her own toughness-oriented melee focus.

New Features

BL3 includes a laundry list of little features that make this game more fun and your experience more customizable. For example, you can hijack multiple new enemy vehicles like Master Chief could in the Halo games and then drive them back to a Catch-a-Ride so you can digistruct them yourself. Vehicles now have parts you can collect, and then you can configure them on your own vehicles. There are now cosmetic gun skins you can apply to existing guns, you have a room on board the ship Sanctuary 3 that allows you to place guns on display and take them down when you want, you can melee attack explosive barrels to send them at enemies and then shoot the barrels to blow them up in mid-air, you can play together with other people of vastly different levels and still get loot that's your level (and for that matter, even if you're the same level, you can also set a mode so that each player gets their own instancing of loot as you play alongside them), and there's a larger range of gun manufacturers than before, including all your favorites from past games. Radiation replaces the slag element and makes it so that it's a smoother debuff and not something that's basically a requirement to apply to all enemies like it was in BL2's higher difficulties. So even if you're not hyped about every single one of the game's little tweaks, there's still something for just about every Borderlands veteran here that will put a little smile on their face. 

You can hijack enemy vehicles and summon your own versions, including with parts you customize for each.

Taking M-Rated further

The Borderlands series has always been plenty gory, yet it only occasionally dabbled in the profane. So far the series has specifically avoided f-bombs, and instead either censored them (sometimes used as a joke, like how Mister Torgue has his censorship bleeps come from a forced surgical implant) or always substituted other words in. Additionally, while this series has certainly earned its M rating through the use of gun violence, it also made most of its gore a bit less graphic and more cartoon-like, and instead used very, uh, "wet" splatter sound effects to enhance the effect. 

While BL3 continues to try and keep away from the most filthy language, this game is still loud, it's got its share of antagonistic speech, and the violence is more heavy-hitting than past releases as well. Even just during a gunfight, the impact of a close-up shotgun blast will put an enemy on its back now, and a follow-up shot on the ground is often a quick way to a finish - this gives the feel of weapons, especially shotgun and explosive weapons, more weight even before the dismemberment begins. Gore during an enemy's death is also now more detailed than before, with things other than the head now separating from the body, and while other games in the past have gone way more severe (anyone remember Raven Software's Soldier of Fortune games a couple decades back?), this is up there now for modern big-budget games. More than ever, you might not want to let the kids watch if you can avoid it. 

One major subplot is with a couple of the game's major manufacturer corps in a war with each other.

That unique style

Gearbox president Randy Pitchford has told the story about how his art team "mutinied" in a way during the development of the first Borderlands to create what is now its signature art style, and ever since it was instituted it's been the norm for the series, and Gearbox has not messed with success here. Instead, they just applied it to a wider range of environments, then combined it with more detailed textures along with the new lighting and special effects of Unreal Engine 4 that layers on more fancy effects. With the added horsepower of the Xbox One and PS4 consoles, this means that the "lowest common denominator" version of this game runs with more overall world and texture detail than even the recent "4K" updates and reworks of the first two games, so now even PC players are seeing more polygons, higher texture quality, and finer detail than any of Gearbox Software's past games. 

With that said, does all of this add up to the most astounding visual experience PC or console gamers have seen yet? Unfortunately it doesn't, but it does still maintain Gearbox's unique style that very few studios have even attempted to mimic, meaning that even though BL3 is not the best graphically, it's still got that unique look and still stands as a big step up from the prior games. 

Classic enemies like the Psycho return with more variety, and multiple planets offer more locations with many new enemies.


Even a story-oriented first person shooter can keep players coming back after completing the campaign, and not just by adding new story content - pouring in new loot and other progression systems can do just as much as new DLC, if not more.  BL1 had almost nothing to do beyond a New Game Plus-style extra playthrough until the DLCs came along, whereas BL2 had a functional but barebones endgame on launch that only got better with new paid DLCs that unlocked new characters, zones, bosses, loot, and quite a bit more.  There was also the Badass Ranks system as part of BL2's base game to allow constant, small improvements to all of your characters' stats no matter what you're doing, but it wasn't ever going to be enough to keep people playing just on its own. Luckily, everything else they were doing covered gamers' desire for more loot and explosions.

In BL3, the endgame is more ambitious and forward-thinking right out of the box. Vault Hunters now face multiple endgame bosses with several phases, similar to what we'd see in something like World of Warcraft or the Destiny games, and the new Guardian Ranks system (replacing Badass Ranks) gives those extra little stats like before, but it also unlocks new separate skills to use and even new character skins. Meanwhile, there's also Mayhem Mode mixes things up with added buffs for the player while sending tougher enemies. All of this is certainly a more substantive and useful way to progress than getting something like 3.6% more Gun Damage. It's tough to really judge this in a release-timeframe review as the forthcoming DLC will be a big part of the endgame system's success, but considering that BL2 is still going strong for a lot of Youtubers and streamers out there and the foundation laid here is even more solid, I'd say that so far we're on the right track.

Moze's mech can be piloted by her or can run on its own, and a coop buddy can optionally fire an extra turret from its back.

Not a "Live Service" Game

In what seems like a direct snub of what many online-oriented loot/shoot games have done recently, Borderlands 3 is going without extensive live service features or fancy "roadmaps" of additional content that never seem to be fulfilled as originally planned. Instead, Gearbox is going old school, with offline and split-screen (on consoles) play allowed, along with "we'll release it when it's done"-type paid story and cosmetic DLC with no lootboxes or similar mechanics. The idea here is to sidestep the controversy being generated by these games' systems and to the promises rarely kept by some studios when releasing a game and then promising to deliver finishing touches after the release date. I don't expect publisher 2K to release DLC that's entirely free - they will want to charge for everything they can, and they got w4ll3taway with that in BL2 - but at this point, the only studio really doing that regularly is CD Projekt, and those folks are more the exception than the rule.

The DLC plan for now is some launch-day cosmetics and silly things for the game's various Deluxe and Collectors' editions (no plans on releasing those separately just yet) along with four story-based DLCs in the future and while Gearbox hasn't committed to releasing new playable characters or level-cap increase DLC, I think it's fair to speculate that something like that will be released eventually.  Either way, the DLC plan so far will very likely be accepted by the vast majority of gamers and will probably wind up being a big hit.

Lilith returns as the Commander of the Crimson Raiders.

With all of that said, I still feel like there's some balance that can be struck here, somewhere between the decade-old publisher-driven method of all content coming through paid DLC and the often-frustrating "live service" model of free content that never seems to fulfill expectations for satisfaction or timeliness.  How about selling like the DLC like originally planned, plus some little changes through online-delivered tweaks through the Gearbox SHiFT system?  Even without secure online modes and no lootboxes like how BL3 does it, there's still room for a game to do this and even deliver Diablo III-like season play (or even simple weekly challenges or changes) without the expensive server infrastructure. By stepping entirely around the controversy of online services, Gearbox admittedly avoided lootboxes and other frustrating mechanics, but they also leave behind any possible positives of it too. Luckily, they can add this when and if they want, and if the community requests it, we may see that still.


It seems that no major game's development escapes controversy anymore, and this title is no exception.  The decision that Gearbox Software and publisher 2K made to go with Epic Games Store exclusivity over Steam for the PC release of Borderlands 3 in order to get a bigger cut of the revenue has raised the ire of many hardcore PC gamers, and unforced errors by Gearbox president Randy Pitchford (especially his Twitter account) and the aggressiveness of 2K's legal team towards the fanbase's more fervent information seekers may not necessarily damage them heavily, but it's a sign of more trouble to come in the industry.

FL4K's pets don't need to be summoned like we've seen in past games - these ones are always available.
Luckily, none of this has affected the quality of Borderlands 3. Over on PC, the Epic Store is certainly not my first choice for a game launcher, seeing that it's still missing features that I've been using on Steam for years, but this game is certainly Epic's biggest one since their store was launched and I have to admit that the launch went well enough. Going with Epic exclusivity for this PC version gets 2K some short term monetary gains that may not be worth the damage to the long-term bottom lines for gamer confidence, but I could be wrong on that. For now I'm playing along and using Epic since I'm a huge fan of this series - although I completely respect anyone who doesn't want to.

The biggest and best looter shooter

Borderlands is one of my very favorite game series, and for years I thought about what I wanted out of a sequel. I am happy to report that BL3 generally satisfies most of what I had hoped for, with both expected expansions to the variety of guns and enemies and new features I either never thought of or didn't think would be here in this sequel. It's tough making a game for a fairly rabid fanbase, as you have to innovate while still keeping things familiar, and Gearbox has done that well here.  The idea of what gamers do and do not want out of a loot-filled shooter has flipped and then flopped back a couple of times in the last several years too, and so far this game lands maybe a tad more on the side of yesteryear's gaming than I'd like, but I'm still happy with the result. And most importantly, our old friends are back and bigger and badder than ever along with many fitting new acquaintances, in the biggest and most ambitious game in the series yet.


Post-report, October 29th, 2019: was this experiment a success? I think it was, and I think it shows that it's likely possible for a developer to tell players maybe a bit too much about their game before releasing it. Just about the only things I really got wrong was how the various endgame (anything to be done after the story is completed) elements come together, along with some frustrations over a few unforeseen technical issues (although not too many) and how about half of the game's legendary loot is on generic drop lists, making it hard to farm that gear from any one boss or enemy. The gun variety is technically as was described, although I find that the variances don't matter quite as much as I expected, meaning that it doesn't really matter that much whether my Vladof assault rifle has a grenade launcher attachment vs. a rocket or something else.  

I'm disappointed that Gearbox spent weeks nerfing specific skills and guns through their online micropatching, all while FL4K's pets and Moze's Iron Bear became too weak to be useful by level 50, although it seems like the nerfing has slowed for now. Still, I'd have preferred the Diablo 3 approach of buffing other stuff rather than consistently nerfing strong things. 

Finally, I correctly predicted that the Calypso twins would be annoying but I'm frustrated with how the player's Vault Hunter, despite carrying the team as far as the story goes, has basically no input or any agency into where that story goes, even as the story plays out right in front of our character with no reason (not even a bad one) why we wouldn't be unloading our guns right into the villains' skulls during these non-interactive cutscenes. Our Vault Hunters, more than once, did the equivalent of standing there frozen in terror as the game's villains did terrible things and we were given no way to retaliate. I don't hate the ending like some do, but I feel like we are all probably more annoyed with how things played out because we had no actual role in deciding how those things played out. 

The rest, I'm happy with, and Gearbox has committed to fleshing out proper loot drop tables, improving Mayhem mode to not just be randomly wild percentage throw-arounds, and performance fixes when in menus, along with free DLC and bigger paid story DLC. I've got a couple hundred hours in the game at this point with tons of loot farmed, 3 characters to 50 and a fourth nearly there, and while I've taken a break from the game, I'll almost certainly be back when new story DLC is nearing release.



The next step is to get a black t-shirt and turn it inside out. Wear the t-shirt over your head and peek through the neck hole. Kinetic Ninja Warrior