I’ve had a complicated relationship with the Borderlands series, and I’ll never pretend to be an expert on Gearbox’s rambunctious loot-shooter RPG franchise. I’ll admit it: I’m a Borderlands casual. I couldn’t get into the first entry on Xbox 360, which had a slow start and didn’t feel balanced for solo play. I enjoyed Borderlands 2 more, but it’s been years since I touched a game in the series. If you’re like me: interested, but a bit cautious about checking out the latest entry in the series, don’t be. Borderlands 3 is good at introducing newcomers while easing returning veterans back into its addictive loop. And, most importantly, this game is an absolute blast to play. It has issues, and sometimes manages to get in the way of its own fun, but Borderlands 3 is worth checking out for anyone who enjoys thrilling first-person gun-toting action.
The shooting in this game is wonderful. Movement and responsiveness are a big upgrade over Borderlands 2, and Gearbox haven’t been ashamed about cribbing movement options and gameplay elements from other successful shooters. The fantastic slide move and ping system are lifted from Apex Legends, while combat has much of the visceral heft of 2016’s Doom. Everything feels so much faster and more fluid. The speed and dynamic nature of the movement is what really hooked me into this gameplay loop from the start. And while the level design isn’t as wide as players might expect in each area I’ve experienced so far, levels feel like tight, well-crafted battle arenas. Don’t expect this to be an open-world game, though. These are very much individual levels with their own load screens.
The loot meta here is incredibly addictive. One thing I love about Borderlands is that it forces players to abandon any sentimental attachment to their current gear. You need to keep picking up and experimenting with new weapons, mods, shields, and grenade load-outs or you will fall behind. And the weapon variety is overwhelming in all the right ways: I’ve fallen in love with weapons that can inflict the corrosion status effect, chipping away at enemies health and shields while they scream and flail around the battlefield. Or try inflicting radiation, or shock. There’s so much content here that it’s hard to take in. But in a good way.
And on the setting: one of the best decisions made in Borderlands 3 is leaving Pandora behind. While the game’s first section takes place on that arid planet, players soon find themselves taking to the stars in a spaceship called Sanctuary III, the game’s new hub. This is a brilliant choice: the bright, cyberpunk city streets of Promethea and the zen vistas of Athenas contrast wonderfully with the low-gravity playground of asteroid cluster Skywell-27. There’s so much more variety in settings here, and it really helps to keep the game feeling fresh and dynamic.
Borderlands 3 is a real treat to look at, too. Don’t let anyone tell you it hasn’t been upgraded much from 2012’s Borderlands 2: they don’t know what they’re talking about. Lighting, particles, texture quality, and reflections are all massively improved with the move from Unreal Engine 3 to 4. The game looks great.
Unfortunately, it also comes with a host of technical issues that can seriously encroach on the fun. Playing on PC, I’ve had the game crash several times, and even once force a hard reboot of my PC after I turned on Atmos for Headphones and tried to relaunch the game. These crashes are annoying but uncommon. More frequent are the game’s strange stutters and frame drops. Playing at 1440p on a PC running a Ryzen 1800x, RTX 2070, and a high-speed NVMe SSD, performance was all over the place.
The game’s highest settings are unnecessarily taxing. For many settings, like the volumetric fog and lighting system, dropping to medium barely affects perceived image quality. I recommend a mix of medium and high settings to maintain the high frame rate the game’s breakneck action demands. In the opening sequence on Pandora, and some later indoor scenes, I was logging over 100fps. But in some later areas, especially when driving vehicles, performance even dipped under 60fps momentarily.
And this can happen seemingly at random: sometimes going indoors would reduce the frame rate, and a strange stutter would occasionally introduce itself during exploration, only to disappear during battle. Or it would pop up during battle and disappear during exploration. It’s hard to replicate these performance issues to know exactly what’s going on, but there’s no reason the game should be dropping like this. Hopefully, Gearbox is working on a performance fix for all platforms, as console reports of uneven frame rates and atrocious split-screen performance don’t inspire confidence in those versions. Even with the performance issues and crashes, this is one to pick up on PC if you can run it.
One of the most divisive elements of the Borderlands franchise is its writing. The series is known for its over the top, crude sense of humor, and the dialogue hasn’t really changed much in the third mainline entry. Maybe you’ll like it! I found it to be very hit and miss. The story of Borderlands 3 sees a new set of vault hunters leave Pandora and take to the stars after being recruited by the Crimson Raiders. Accompanied by a newly power-drained Lilith, they hunt fragments of a new vault key with the potential to open a long-lost vault sought by the (literally) flamboyant antagonists Children of the Vault (COV).
There are some interesting ideas here: at one point, antagonist Tyreen radios your character to ask if they would consider stretching out the fight with the COV, as it’s producing sensational ratings on their intergalactic streaming platform. There’s lots of self-aware commentary on the state of the medium, with a fair share of jabs at obnoxious shouty streamers, brand influencers, and the social media metric obsessions of the day. That’s all fine, but many of the game’s quips and one-liners are more obnoxious than funny, and some of the characters, like Ellie, who returns from Borderlands 2 in a more central role, feel like lifeless stereotypes at times. I understand that Gearbox is parodying streaming culture, but when you’re shouting in my ears to parody something, you’re still actually shouting in my ears. It’s annoying.
But new characters, like the charming Lorelai, make the experience feel more grounded, and actually made me laugh a few times. And I found my chosen vault hunter, the robot FL4K whose dialogue and backstory plays with concepts of gender identity and artificial intelligence, to be incredibly charming and relatable. As I’ve approached the midway point of the campaign, I’ve gradually become more drawn into this story, and it does a good job of throwing references at returning players without isolating newcomers.
But whether you like or dislike the writing (and it’s not all that bad, really) isn’t that relevant to the core experience that makes Borderlands 3 so worth playing: the fantastic gameplay. I could spend even more time talking about the game’s SHiFT social system, golden keys, the proper LAN support, or a variety of co-op options that make playing on the same team feel more (or less) competitive. But the headline news is that I’ve had just as much fun playing solo as with a friend, or matchmade into a random party.
While I haven’t played enough of Borderlands 3 to give a proper, full review, there’s a lot to praise here. But there’s a fair share of frustrations, too. For how much emphasis there is on putting players into the thick of the action, I found my time with this game too often interrupted by crashes and strange technical issues. Hopefully, Gearbox can patch those soon.
But be in no doubt: this game is really fun. Whatever issues it does have, they’re not enough to prevent me from recommending this game to anyone who enjoys high-octane, absurd first-person action, and can put up with the uneven writing and characterization. Borderlands 3 is like a big bag of junk food: no one will claim it’s the most nutritious treat, and it may not be a meal that sticks with you for years to come, but it’s incredibly addictive and enjoyable while it lasts.