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Borderlands 3 review: superb loot shooting smothered by painful humour

I have this really cool gun in Borderlands 3. Handily, the gun is also a metaphor for Borderlands 3.

This particular blaster fires four different bullets at once and melts armour better than xenomorph blood. It’s a Tediore weapon so I reload it by tossing it away as a new one materialises into my hands, the discarded gun acting like a grenade. Some Tediore firearms sprout legs and run around on killing sprees. Others turn into drones when reloaded. Mine? It’s like a miniature nuke.

The only problem is, you take damage from your own explosives in Borderlands 3. The reload button, which throws my really cool gun, is also the same button you use to open chests and containers. You can see where I’m going with this...

The gun is Borderlands 3: satisfying, well-crafted, and one of the best in its class. The explosions that keep hammering me when I try to open a chest are Borderlands 3’s crass, unfunny script.

Looking for good humour in Borderlands 3 is like panning for gold in a urinal. Here is a list of every kind of joke in Borderlands 3: we’ve changed the first letters of pop culture icons; this person has mental health issues; here is an adult acting like a baby; this frat bro is loud; moustache; poop.

One side mission tells me mother wants me to kill Borman Nates. Borman Nates. Like Norman Bates. Haha. Hehe. Huehue. I wish to die. Another asks me to murder Wick and Worty. “Everyone knows games are for simpletons and impudent children,” one NPC says to me during the story. It feels like this line is delivered directly from the writers to you, the idiot playing the game. It’s the Ready Player One of video games, if Ready Player One had recurring poop jokes.

I wouldn’t mind so much, but this is rated 18+. It is a game for adults who have not, in fact, been lobotomised. The thing is, it’s not really an 18. There’s sexual references and hyper violence - enemies often turn into a red mist - but Borderlands 3 censors most of its bigger swears. It also swaps out swears for fictional swears, so some characters say “slappin” instead of “f**king”. It feels like this is an acknowledgement that the game isn’t actually aimed at adults - it’s edgy entertainment for teens.

The thing that gets me the most about the writing, though, is that it’s designed to be ignored. This is a game you can play with three friends, all of you chatting s**t over voice comms as you bound through the Borderlands. The in-game dialogue is just background noise to this mayhem. But if the dialogue is designed in such a way that it can safely be ignored - characters barely ever say anything vital to your objective - then why, for the love of f**k, does it never shut up? It’s relentless.

It’s so relentless, in fact, that there’s sometimes people speaking over each other, or dialogue cutting out mid-sentence because you moved between areas. Sometimes you’ll head off while someone is talking and they will send you back to where you just came from when they’re done. This was once back over a series of annoying car jumps I was forced to renavigate. It’s word and meme soup. It feels like more of the jokes would land if it paced itself a little. Plus, the constant noise undermines the fact that, despite it all, Borderlands 3 is brilliant. I know!

This is a loot shooter where every piece of equipment you wear and every stat point pumped into your character feels vital. The ability to respec whenever you want only highlights what a robust system Gearbox has created here. I played through as Moze, just one of the four available characters, and she feels like she has at least four playstyles alone. I started by focusing on ammo regeneration and big machine guns - I never wanted to stop firing, basically. Towards the midpoint, I respecced to a build that focused on explosives and splash damage buffs. Most of my critical hits convert my rounds to explosive damage now, and my mech has swapped out its gatling guns for grenade launchers and a mini nuke. Kills keep my mech topped up with fuel, it has a bubble shield, and it even carries on autonomously for a bit when I eject.

Borderlands 3, like most loot shooters, scales the challenge to your level. But somehow, it still manages to make you feel overpowered when you spec your character in a smart way, or when you grab a swish new gun. You can still die if you get caught out, but you feel like an all-powerful god by the endgame. If you want to pump the challenge up, there are three toggles after the credits to add modifiers to combat in exchange for better loot drop rates. It’s smart stuff.

Mission variety is another thing Borderlands 3 has over the competition. Most missions are your usual ‘go there, shoot thing’ template, but there’s the odd outlier that keeps things fresh, and vehicle missions add some much-needed variety, too. One of my personal highlights sees my character visiting this robotic quack doctor. He asks me to lay down on a couch, which obviously my character can’t do - there’s only a crouch button. Then I’m asked to paint a wall, which I can only do by stabbing some paint and stabbing a wall. Apparently I have issues with violent tendencies. A main story mission contains a nice homage to Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands, which is unfortunately slightly undermined by the fact that Gearbox didn’t ask Troy Baker to reprise the role of Rhys. I guess casting Ice-T as a teddy bear hoovered up a good chunk of the talent budget.

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One place where Gearbox hasn’t scrimped, however, is in the art department. The new lighting tech makes this comic book-style pop off the screen, and Borderlands 3 has vistas that rival even Destiny 2’s. One mission set on a planetoid housing an orbital cannon stands out in particular, but each of the planets you visit has its own vibe and they’re all breathtaking. Flying between planets from your starfaring mobile base, Sanctuary, is such a great addition. The transitions between these worlds lend a sense of epic scale that’s unrivalled in the genre. The only thing that lets this down is performance, which often struggles to stick to a smooth frame rate even on PS4 Pro’s performance mode. Outside of those stutters, however, bugs are relatively rare. In one instance an NPC got stuck in a loop, and in another I fell through the world. Neither were much of an inconvenience, thanks to the game’s infinite respawn system, but the lack of fall damage did make that trip through the void a long one.

Speaking of which, more games should adopt no fall damage. There’s something thrilling about dropping into a huge chasm, hitting the ground running and twisting straight into some murder ballet. This is a shooter where constant movement is more important than ducking behind cover. I adore how most projectiles can be dodged and anticipated - it makes smooth movement more vital than sharp aiming, with the best players becoming masters of shooting on the move, repositioning, spinning, turning, and firing mid-jump. Firing an explosive shotgun round at an enemy’s feet and finishing them off by skeet shooting them as they barrel through the air never gets old.

Enemy variety keeps encounters interesting as well, with a good mix of enemy types dictating the flow of a battle and forcing you to prioritise targets. Every weak enemy is a potential extra life, since you can recover from a downed state by quickly finishing an enemy off. This mechanic, called Second Wind, works well for the most part, but it unfortunately falls apart in boss encounters, particularly in solo, where you’re often at the whims of fodder spawn rates.

Elsewhere, those endless amounts of different guns keep things fresh. I’ve had pistols that fire projectiles that split off like a firework display upon impact. I’ve had LMGs that seemingly fire forever before overheating. I’ve had revolvers powered by dying stars. There are powerful guns that force you to judge distance to connect three curling explosives. There are even guns that blow you up when you open chests. Did I mention that?

The only downside to this abundance of weapon choice is constant inventory management. You’re very limited with what you can carry, even when you upgrade your capacity, which means you spend a lot of time in menus throwing guns onto the floor. If Borderlands 3’s inventory management was a meme, it would be the guy holding far too many limes. And because there’s so many guns, it’s rare that any of them feel as iconic as some of Destiny’s greatest.

Still, despite the fact Borderlands 3 seemingly wants me to hate it, I really, really like it. Like, a lot. I say this as someone who’s become a bit disenfranchised with the loot shooter. The moronic, sophomoric (sophomoronic?) dialogue masks over one of the most thoughtful, satisfying shooters you can play right now. You just have to learn to tune out the white noise, and to swap your weapon before you open a chest, you idiot.

Version tested: PS4 Pro. A review copy was provided by 2K.

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