Borderlands 3 is on the horizon, but the world’s moved on since 2012. What can we expect from Gearbox’s threequel?
What we want from Borderlands 3
Borderlands was revolutionary, marrying action FPS with RPG systems and doubling down on online co-op years ahead of its rivals and imitators. Its sequel, Borderlands 2, turned good ideas into great ones.
Inevitably, there will be more; Borderlands 3 will go into development after Battleborn. This comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to Gearbox’s flagship property. The core series has sold over 26 million copies worldwide and Borderlands 2 is 2K’s best-selling game. This is no mean feat when your stablemates include perennial chart topper NBA 2K.
We know very little about the project, which is likely in pre-production to occupy the Gearbox staff no longer required for Battleborn, except that it is being built specifically for this generation of consoles – a statement that means a lot less now that the end is in sight for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 than it did when everything was cross-generational.
We suspect it’s going to shake things up, though: Pitchford has said that Gearbox needs to embrace new frontiers to move forward, and that some of its ideas for the inevitable sequel were daunting enough to intimidate the team a little.
It’s an exciting prospect. So what do we want from Borderlands 3?
A true open world
This is something we know has been on Gearbox’s own Borderlands 3 wishlist: a proper open world without those annoying travel gates.
Past Borderlands games split environments off from each other, but this was a technology constraint rather than a design choice; Gearbox is clearly capable of building interlocking locations hemmed in by geometry, and it wouldn’t take much to turn a gate into a connecting canyon.
It’s not just about getting rid of loading times when traveling between areas, although that’s always welcome. It’s also a matter of immersion and feeling embedded in a real place; it’s hard to think of Pandora as a real place when it’s so clearly divided into “the fire level” and “the ice level” and you can’t imagine real life taking place in it.
Believe it or not, the Borderlands franchise has a pretty interesting setting and ongoing story. Unfortunately, it hasn’t done a very good job of showing that off.
Not all of this is Gearbox’s fault; it’s difficult to tell good stories in a co-op shooter without resorting to un-skippable cutscenes and disabled voice chat, a technique which runs counter to Gearbox’s gameplay-driven designs. Players can’t be trusted to listen to dialogue, let alone remember it, and the need to stretch a campaign out over how many hours and environments are currently de riguer on the $60 scene has a painful effect on narrative.
Plenty of it is Gearbox’s fault, though. The first game had an absolute asshole of an ending, and the decision to keep protagonists mostly silent and bury their back stories in well-hidden collectibles did the colourful cast no favours. Gearbox’s fondness for low hanging fruit and zaniness overshadows its best writing; there really is some very funny stuff, compelling characters and emotional story lines buried under all that nonsense.
The greatly under-appreciated Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel made great strides in giving characters personality and making the player feel like a part of proceedings, and Tales from the Borderlands showed plenty of naysayers that the setting can support interesting storytelling. We want to see more of that, even if Gearbox isn’t keen on branching storylines and dialogue choices.
Gearbox is one of the few developers willing to make major changes to its universe, as we saw with the fall of Hyperion in Borderlands 2. We’re really looking forward to seeing how it advances the setting’s timeline in the future – something it’s been planning since just after Borderlands 2’s launch.
The playable characters of Borderlands are great, but with the exception of The Pre-Sequel they’ve been very badly presented. Maybe Gearbox should embrace that and just give players the chance to create their own characters.
Creating a character can lend an extra sense of investment, but it would also add another layer to one of the shining strengths of Borderlands: customisation. Putting together a unique, powerful solo or co-op build from Borderlands’ interlocking RPG systems is already awesome. Imagine how rad it would be to have the looks to match, with more to differentiate your toon than a haircut and colour scheme.
Even from a business perspective it makes a lot of sense; we just can’t seem to keep our paws off vanity items, can we? Many players will balk at power-boosting micro-transactions but willingly drop $5 in the hat if it gives them a new wardrobe – especially if they can change it whenever they like.
Unique characters are particularly appealing because Gearbox’s artists are so talented. There are plenty of modern games that front player-created characters and still manage to present interesting stories and fully voiced characters – but very few of them can boast the personality and aesthetic of Borderlands. Leverage that, Gearbox.
Take it online – really online
As much as we love Destiny and The Division, we don’t want Borderlands 3 to be another RNG-based loot cycle kept alive by PvP. But there’s definitely room for Borderlands 3 to front an online world populated by other players and tread the MMO-lite path that’s becoming increasingly popular.
Borderlands already feels primed to support a persistent universe. The Badass system allows players to earn points and unlock small, stacking upgrades which apply across all their characters – and even across multiple games in the case of The Handsome Collection. Although this isn’t unique to Borderlands, it’s especially well-implemented and feels worthwhile, whereas Destiny’s Grimoire system (for example) is barely worth the effort – many players don’t even realise they can or have unlocked various bonuses.
It would also just be super awesome. At present getting a co-op game going in Borderlands is a bit of a pain unless you already have pals lined up (and sometimes even then; when Pat and I tried to play the first game some years ago, we had to dig out our Gamespy passwords, or all things). It would be awesome to be able to pause at the entrance to a dungeon and look for like-minded players, as in The Division – or make friends bouncing around the environment, just like Destiny.
No Gjallarhorns and Gear Levels though Gearbox. Seriously.
Play to its strengths
However Borderlands 3 evolves, we hope Gearbox has the sense to stay true to those features that make the core concept so very, very good.
The randomly-generated guns in Borderlands 3 are fantastic. It’s rare that you’ll get something really good, but when you do it lasts for ages and ages because Gearbox isn’t afraid to explore extremes. This makes every drop exciting, but the sheer variety and frequency of loot drops means you’ve always get a viable option even if you have to buy it.
The weapons also synergise beautifully with the RPG mechanics. Borderlands is a fantastic shooter but those who look into the upgrade trees discover a world of fabulous hurt to unleash, either on their own or in a co-op partnership. Re-speccing your entire build around a new, rad weapon is easy and hugely profitable, and the enormous of flexibility of Gearbox’s interlocking systems is something the developer must retain.
Shout out to Gearbox’s level designers for their complex, branching, multi-levelled arenas; you never see an A-to-B corridor in a Borderlands dungeon. More of that, please – and also of enemies that use cover, move unpredictably, travel around arenas to flank, pop up to surprise you from above and below, and generally do more than line up to be mowed down.
What do you want to see in Borderlands 3? What lessons should Gearbox learn from past entries?