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Borderlands 3 preview: maybe bigger is better

Picture the scene: you’re pinned down by enemy fire and your best friend is bleeding out. You’d love to help, of course, but there’s a chest right there. If you could just pop it open, anything could be inside.

Borderlands, the original looter shooter, knows how to hook you in with the promise of something shiny.

Games in the genre need to nail that core concept, the loot, and Borderlands 3 manages it. It’s been a long time since the last one, but it’s easy to forget how much of a spectacle the series makes of guns, presenting each one like a birthday present.

Multi-coloured weapons spill out of bosses. Chests unfurl to reveal their spoils. Every little item comes with its own fanfare, revealing itself with a tap of X.

Borderlands 3 is unmistakably Borderlands, but it’s doubling down on what you’ve always loved. There's more vehicles, more guns, and far more choice in how you choose to spec out the four characters you can play as. It’s very unlikely, based on the number of possibilities, that you’ll have the exact same build as any of your friends, even if you decide to play as the same class,.

Playing as Zane, I poured all of my skill points into my drone and movement abilities. Every kill gave me health, and every kill I performed while moving stacked on top of its damage output. I was like the Predator, but instead of sporting shoulder rockets I’m firing an assault rifle that turns into a brain with spider legs every time I reload.

It’s everything you’re expecting, just cranked right up. Loot is still abundant, shooting still feels impactful, you can tear around the open world in a larger range of vehicles, and Claptrap is still a massive dickhead. But this Borderlands has learned from Bungie and wants to make your journey just as epic as that studio’s spacefaring adventure.

Just like in Destiny, Borderlands 3 has you flying between planets, each with their own flavour. So far, we’ve only seen Pandora, the planet from the first two games, and Promethea, a sprawling metropolis full of high rises and people to shoot. The trailer suggests there will be at least a couple more worlds to visit on your travels.

There’s also the Sanctuary 3, a spaceship that acts as your sole hub between missions. Here you can walk around and chat to your companions, you can test out your guns or nip to the shops. Borderlands 3’s signature humour is everywhere, from the little character moments to how there’s a “heatant” tube above the ship’s coolant system.

“I think Borderlands, the way we do looting and shooting is strong in itself,” lead boss designer Matt Cox tells me. “Obviously we recognise that there are way more entries into the looter shooter genre that decided to do their own twist. I think the best decision we made is to remain Borderlands and double down on the things we do so well. I think people are ready for more Borderlands, but bigger and better. Sticking to our guns is the best strategy.”

It’s all about keeping the core the same while making small innovations that make the game more accessible. For example, if you don’t want to compete for loot, you can now turn on loot instancing, which loads in different loot for both players, scaled to their level and only visible in their version of the world. That should stop your pal hopping over your head to open a chest as you bleed out on the cel-shaded plains. At least until you switch it back to classic mode.

As always, it’s the guns that steal the show though. There’s more than ever now, and each is unique, with different weapon manufacturers boasting different parts. Some of the guns even sport an alternate fire now, so your sniper rifle that fires grenades might also have a tagging bullet that turns it into a flesh-seeking smart rifle.

Outside of the guns, three vehicle options allow you to explore how you wish. Do you want to tear across the world in a 4x4, or would you rather pilot a sphere with guns strapped to the side? Steal enemy vehicles and you can unlock parts to create whatever weird hybrid suits your playstyle. Bang some hover wheels on for maximum cool points.

During the gameplay demo, it all seemed to work well together. The enemies feel distinct, the battlefield offers plenty of opportunities for status inflicting, and the guns - most importantly - feel great to fire. The sense of feedback and enemy reactions to gunfire does a great job of setting Borderlands 3 apart from the looter shooter competition. One of my main issues with the genre is how bullet spongey enemies can be, but Borderlands 3 knows how to do shooting things while numbers pop up.

Between missions, you’re free to explore your space ship, chat with companions, mount trophies from your victories, and even deck out your base with guns. I just hope Gearbox tweaks ammo drops between now and release, because for a game about guns you sure do run out of ammo a lot.

Otherwise, Borderlands 3 appears to be more of the same. Handsome Jack might be dead (though I’m convinced he’ll still turn up here in some form), but you’ll still spend most of the game being mocked by the new antagonists, a pair of influencer twins. You’ll still spend a ridiculous amount of time speccing out your character and fiddling with your firearms. Claptrap will still make you want to punch a wall.

If you’re expecting a big update, you could be disappointed, but Borderlands 3 clearly recognises what made the first two games so popular in the first place: guns and daft humour. Now we’re getting it across multiple planets.

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