Borderlands 3 preview – Gearbox has something to prove

By Kirk McKeand
14 August 2019 14:59 GMT

Borderlands 3 is fucking ridiculous.

It’s ridiculous in scale, its characters are ridiculous, everything they say is ridiculous, the guns are ridiculous, and there’s even a friendly bandit who runs around in his boxer shorts, complete with simulated cock jiggle physics. Ridiculous!

This is a first-person shooter that lets you use a shotgun that’s also a sniper rifle. There are guns that fire other guns that sprout legs and murder everything like those terrifying dog robots in that one good Black Mirror episode. Some guns fire out brains. Brains! There are grenades that create a vortex, sucking in gas mask-wearing bandits before spitting them back out as bloody chunks. Like I say, it’s extremely far-fetched.

The new bad guys are a pair of twin influencers, for god’s sake. These famous, egomaniac streamers leech power from their followers and turn their viewers into lifeless husks. Ridic… Oh wait, that’s actually spot on.

“So, it’s funny, as we have a gajillion influencers at all these things,” multiplayer producer Chris Brock says as he gestures at the preview event happening around us. “We love streamers. I think there’s this parody of a streamer, that you can imagine, who’s like an egotistical… the idea was like, ‘Well, what if instead of having 1.5 million subscribers, they had 1.5 million cultists? And they were militarised? That would be pretty scary actually.’

“It’s kind of tough to develop that villain, because they’re streamers, right? So they have to have some amount of charisma and likeability. But at the same time they’re our villain, so they have to be really sinister. That’s kind of been a tough rope to walk. I guess we’ll see how we did, but I feel okay about it.”

Borderlands has always tapped into current affairs, blending them with a dubstep approach to humour – lots of random noises and every instrument imaginable. Borderlands 3 is mostly the same here. It tries very hard to make you laugh, even though I played it for four hours and I could have had my passport photo taken at any point – my face was deadpan, the same kind of face you have when you type “lol” into a chat box. Still, the constant mad shit going on around you manages to keep you engaged, in the same way you somehow manage to watch whatever daytime telly bollocks is on when you can’t find your remote control.

Borderlands 3 seems to have toned it down a bit, however – it’s not as focused on the memes this time, for one thing. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t a mission where, for example, you have to gun down 30-50 feral hogs in three-to-five minutes. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single boss called Harambe. None of the guns are called Gunny McGunFace. Its humour comes from the setting, which is a far better approach than a playable representation of the “I understand that reference” Captain America meme the first two games were.

“It dates it almost immediately,” Brock replies when I ask him about toning down the memes. “Especially with the speed of memes these days. I mean, jeez, by the time we’d finished developing the game, we’d all just feel old by then. It was absolutely a conscious decision. But Borderlands 1 and 2 are actually pretty different in tone. And the mantra back at the office is, ‘The game is funny, it is not a joke.’ It needs to have a serious thread. You need to have characters with motivation, and they can’t just be jokes. There are jokes in it, but it’s not necessarily about the jokes.”

One mission sees me rescuing a head in a jar, whose mind is trapped in a virtual reality torture chamber. Another sees me finding a new antenna for annoying robot companion Claptrap, with me ultimately choosing which one he wears – I went for a tinfoil hat that I stole from a bandit who was convinced radars were reading his mind. Wacky stuff! It’s still about as funny as an electricity bill, but it’s a definite improvement over constantly referencing internet culture. Just don’t expect Tales from the Borderlands levels of funny.

That’s to be expected, though. Telltale’s take on Gearbox’s series was all about the stories and character interactions. Here it’s just background noise to the guns that shoot guns that shoot guns (that’s probably a thing). I didn’t bat an eyelid when Ice-T turned up as an AI trapped in a cuddly toy. I wasn’t even surprised when he ended up attached to a mech’s crotch like a teddy bear strap-on. There’s just so much stuff happening all of the time and you’re always busy shooting stuff in the head while it is happening.

When it comes to the action, Borderlands 3 has something to prove. The first two games released in a world before Destiny and The Division. It was the only game of its kind. Nowadays, loads of the big publishers have had a pop at the loot shooter. Before, it didn’t matter if the shooting wasn’t as good as a standard FPS. Now it is all that matters. The promise of 6 quintillion guns isn’t enough anymore. Fortunately, it doesn’t disappoint. All the guns I use – probably at least 30 of them – feel satisfying and distinct. Enemies react to your shots, masking over the fact you’re simply whittling down a health bar. Movement and powers feel important, and different enemy types force you to approach fights in various ways.

“We’ve looked at, obviously, all the other looter shooters,” Brock explains. “It would be insane if we didn’t look at, like, Destiny, The Division, and Anthem, and all those games, right? We also tend to look at other shooters that are not looter shooters. We looked at Doom, Titanfall, Apex. The company’s pedigree is really about genre mashing. So we really do still look at a lot of stuff that’s not shooters at all. In 2005, Borderlands was very lucky to release at that time when [having an endgame] was not as much an expectation. I think we’ve seen, now, that people expect that. Just the actual moving and shooting mechanics, the really basic fundamentals of, like, ‘I’m shooting my gun, and I’m running around.’ That is a higher bar now than it was when Borderlands 2 came out, by a lot.

“So we’ve looked around at some of these other games that we’ve mentioned by name, like, ‘Man, they really brought their A-game, right? We’ve got to bring our A-game too.’ So understanding that that’s a thing we’ve got to do. And then at the same time, understanding what we are not. Borderlands still needs to be Borderlands. We don’t want to merge into all the other looter shooters, because that would be like losing our identity. I’m kind of surprised sometimes that some of the other guys haven’t done more stuff like us. It’s not a zero-sum game, you can like Destiny and Borderlands, it’s fine.”

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You feel much more mobile this time, thanks to a sprinting slide and the ability to mantle. Then there’s how Gearbox has opened up more tactical considerations by tweaking an age-old game mechanic: hazard barrels. There are different elemental barrels dotted all around each of the – more than four – planets you can visit. Not only can you wait for the right moment and set them off with a bullet, you can also melee attack the barrels to knock them into groups of enemies. During one fight, I manage to draw enemies into an oil slick and punt an explosive barrel at them at the perfect moment, damaging them all and setting them on fire in the process. It’s a moment that blends a bunch of the best things about shooters.

Only a portion of what makes a good shooter resides in the actual shooting, which is functionally identical between games: you move a cursor and you click on a head. Shooters are actually more about movement – think of how you’ve ever wiped an enemy squad out in a multiplayer shooter and, nine times out of ten, I bet it’s because you repositioned in a clever way. By simply adding in the ability to melee these barrels and combining it with the extra mobility, Borderlands 3’s combat is more consistently engaging, even when the novelty of firing a burger out of a sniper rifle wears off.

“That was a relatively late addition,” Brock says of the hazard barrel melee mechanic. “We wanted to have more stuff like that, so that there was a bit more depth to the combat in how you approached it.”

Playing as Fl4k, a beastmaster who specialises in powering up via kills, I’m constantly on the offensive. Swapping between three different pets all with different ranges and specialities, I feel deadly, even as a solo player. Then there’s the flock of birds I can unleash with a tap of the shoulder button, swarming from my hands and turning enemies in front of me into a gooey mess.

Outside of combat, Borderlands 3 retains its compulsive looting, where you just have to check every goddamn locker before you move on, even though you’re sure most of them will contain a bunch of old shite. It’s very good at drawing your eye to every chest and container with the faint neon glow of a latch or a pop of colour. Look, co-op buddy, I’m sorry I jumped over your head and opened a chest before reviving you – I literally can’t help myself.

While Borderlands 3 is releasing in a new industry – one where everyone is muscling in on its territory – there’s still something distinct about it, and it’s not just the vibrant, comic book art style. It’s not just the fact that this is one of those increasingly rare games that you can, you know, play with a friend in split-screen. Playing with a friend! With two pads! In 2019! But no, it’s not even that – Borderlands 3 feels like an excellent shooter in its own right and I can’t wait to get stuck in on September 13.

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