We see it time after time in the gaming industry. A new IP will gain an audience, grow a large, dedicated following, and generate substantial revenue for a developer. Over time, the need for change takes over the design methodology and a few titles later, the fans are left with a product far removed from the one they fell in love with. Many of us often ask how this continues to happen. The good news for Borderlands fans then, is that Borderlands 3 may very well be the greatest example yet of a developer truly knowing what its fans want.
Since its launch last week, I’ve spent nearly 60 hours with Gearbox’s latest entry into its incredibly popular series. After what feels like an eternity, Borderlands 3 is finally here. And it’s not only good, damn good as a matter of fact, but it has enlightened me as to the fact that a developer can retain what’s special about a franchise while simultaneously making improvements across the board.
Now it would be easy to suggest that Borderlands 2 is seven years old and thus Borderlands 3 simply adding features that are expected in 2019 doesn’t warrant praise. But that’s a surface level observation and the more time I spend with the game, the more I recognize the love and attention to detail that has gone into it.
I think it’s fair to say there are many things that make Borderlands special. The art style has been unique and striking since it was first introduced. The characters are memorable and now that the franchise is a decade old, players have come to identify with them. The writing stands out from most other games and can be silly, violent, absurd, and hilarious all within the span of a few seconds. And of course, the gunplay and loot collecting keeps players wanting to play endlessly. So how did Gearbox manage to not only retain all of that character, but improve it in nearly every aspect?
Let’s begin with the world design. Borderlands had a reputation for being rather one note which Gearbox rectified with Borderlands 2. With Borderlands 3 the move to Unreal Engine 4 provided the development team with far more advanced resources to build larger, more diverse worlds. In addition to visiting new planets, the size and scope of the playable areas has expanded as well with some truly photo mode worthy vistas. While the signature art style retains intact, it’s more beautiful than ever.
Movement and traversal received an overhaul as well and when combined with the new world design, have created new ways to combat enemies and explore. Climbing flows like water and being able to scale the environments to your heart’s content is downright delightful. Meanwhile sliding has added another trick up your sleeve while running and gunning and honestly, I’m not sure how I ever lived without it. After just a few hours, it becomes second nature.
All of the characters you know and love are here and new ones are introduced, in the proper Borderlands fashion, seamlessly during gameplay. Often times a quest will take you down a path you don’t foresee thus leading to a surprising fan-favorite character being re-introduced. It puts a smile on my face every time and once introduced, most have a key role in the story and are either referenced frequently or inhabit the Sanctuary 3 home base.
Of course it wouldn’t be Borderlands if you weren’t looting and shooting. The good news is that both are the best they’ve ever been. The shooting mechanics are incredibly well polished and when combined with the new physics engine for enemies, its easily one of the most enjoyable shooters I’ve ever played. I simply never tire of mowing down mob after mob of enemies particularly with the new weaponry. As usual, the weapons steal the show in Borderlands 3 and give players nearly endless ways to experiment with builds and simply…..have fun. The ability to send items to friends is a fantastic addition and receiving in-game packages from the gun manufacturers is a fun way to further your affinity for specific brands. Legendaries are more special than ever with returning favorites and many new ones with overly fantastical abilities.
One of my favorite aspects though, is how Gearbox managed to make Borderlands 3 a more social experience while not changing the core game design. Seeing live updates of your friends completing missions or finding rare loot is a great way to stay in touch with what they are up to without directly speaking to them at that moment. Drop-in/drop-out co-op is also in play and made easier by being able to see where in the game world your friends currently are. And as I mentioned, sending loot back and forth is sublime. For players who need to pause frequently or simply like to move at their own pace, the game does a tremendous job of still making you feel like part of a community.
On top of all the new additions, there are nearly countless quality of life updates; some of which you didn’t even realize you needed. Fast travel from anywhere? Done. Filling all of your ammo with a single button press? Done. Picking up ammo, health, and money automatically? Done. The ability to play with other players at any level and the option to either share or have your own level-scaled loot drops? Done. Everywhere you look, there have been updates that simply make the game more enjoyable while not being a detriment to the overall Borderlands experience.
It would have been rather easy for Gearbox to fall into the trap of trying to keep up with industry trends. They could have attempted to evolve it into more of an MMO. They could have introduced new modes or competitive multiplayer. They could have toned down the controversial humor or made it an always online, connected experience. But the fans weren’t asking for any of those things. What we wanted was a true Borderlands 3 that took everything we loved about the series and updated it into a finely refined and polished package, all while continuing the story we’ve invested in. Gearbox delivered that and then some. And the overall consensus is clear; we love them for it.
I have spent several hundred hours on Pandora and Borderlands has been an integral part of family time in my household. We’re glad to be back and I don’t see us leaving any time soon.