It might not be it in the grand scheme of things, but seven years feels like a very long time. To think, it was seven years ago when a surprising number of people seemingly believed a Mayan prophesy might end us all or that Cern's large hadron collider might open a black hole under everyone's feet. Perhaps there was something in the water at the time provoking some strange thoughts. It was also seven years ago that Borderlands 2 arrived to truly refine everything it's predecessor brought to the unsuspecting FPS genre and the public lapped up it's combination of solid FPS gameplay, relentless memes, pop culture references and dubstep. As said, perhaps there was something in the water at the time...
That seven year wait is worth noting, as it was a mere three years between the middling first entry and the brilliantly improved second game in the Borderlands franchise. So you might be wondering, has a whopping seven year wait resulted in a similar evolution and step forward for Borderlands as a franchise? The short answer is an ever so slightly disappointing "no", but that's not to say that fans wont find the Borderlands brand fun they're expecting.
So what's changed about Borderlands since the last time we were invited to wander the wastes of Pandora? Firstly and most obviously, the visuals have improved. Scenery is more complex and particle effects rain from anything and everything that could logically dispense them and even some things that absolutely wouldn't. At a glance, and mostly thanks to the cartoon styling that Borderlands uses, it's perhaps hard to see the step up from the previous game, but the shading and shadows add a lot to each location, giving a distinct tone to the areas you'll travel to, beyond the textures themselves. If you've a 4K or HDR enabled TV, brace your eyes for a stream of colourful chaos once you've loaded the game.
The way you get around has also evolved thanks to the addition of sliding and climbing. Running full pace and pressing crouch launches your character into quick slide across the ground with full access to their gun so as to quickly unload a slew of hot lead into the unlucky shins of the nearest psycho. Climbing comes into play either on ground level, with your character hurdling waist height obstacles, or when reaching for elevation, with increasingly popular "bright yellow paint on the edge of a ledge means you can climb it" overtones.
In the heat of the moment, it's great to be able to quickly run for a road block and slide behind it to escape a hail of bullets or leap up a radio tower to hamper the enemy's line of sight. That said, perhaps I'm in a minority of people who truly enjoyed The Pre-Sequel, but a lack of low gravity sections, double jumps and boost pads to launch myself into the sky with were the only things I'd have liked more of. Just one low gravity area exists and it's short lived and those jump pads don't make an appearance till very late in the game and even then it's not during combat. Beyond this lack of old mechanics to complement the new, the ability to climb at times betrays the rough edges of the game's maps, as I found myself clipping into scenery here any there where I'd managed to jump up to an unintentionally accessible rooftop area or cliff face.
The guns of the Borderlands have become more complex, with many now sporting dual functions- be it switching from burst fire to full auto, changing elemental damage types or even switching from firing bullets to launching mini-rockets. Those dual purpose guns open up more options for your character's loadout, allowing players to more easily keep each damage type at hand and switch tactics on the fly. The only slight step back for some might be the loss of Borderlands The Pre-Sequel's laser weapons, though if you're lucky you might stumble across a particular legendary pistol that fires a beam of energy so as to sate any Ghostbuster-y urge to cross the streams.
A selection of quality of life improvements do a lot to remedy Borderlands 3's predecessor's minor irritations elegantly. Ammo, cash and eridium are pulled to nearby players, reducing the time it takes to stock up and loot after a round of combat. Better yet, missed loot of rare quality and above is transported to a locker aboard your starship, provided you've got the space to fit it, so there's no more crying over guns that fall into bottomless pits.
The way you acquire loot can also be chosen, with the addition of a friendlier cooperation mode where each player gets their own unique loot drops that only they can see and collect. Enemies are also scaled to each player in this mode, allowing characters with varying levels to play together without balance being broken. Alternatively, those looking for the classic Borderlands scramble for loot can choose coompetition mode and keep the rush for the golden guns alive, though in either case you can only make this choice once and can't switch modes with a character once you've picked a path. It's a perfect way to keep everyone happy, be it because cooperation mode precludes any arguments over loot, or because the purists can play as they expected to.
The characters available to you have skill sets that have clearly been influenced by the various ways people approach the franchise. Each of the foursome can be specialized toward playing in teams by sharing stat buffs and health restoration or playing alone by focusing on survivability, improving your action skills or dishing out pure firepower. The characters stand out from each other wonderfully as player avatars, each with distinct skills and leanings toward play styles, but it's their characterization and lack of input to the plot at hand that takes something away from each of them and leaves them feeling strangely detached from the events you supposedly influence.
So, to the plot itself and the driving reason for you to give a damn about the who, what, where, when and why of Borderlands 3. A cult is out in the wastes, gathering a veritable horde of psychos for unknown but undoubtedly nefarious purposes. Lilith, powerful siren and leader to Pandora's only gang of morally sound wastelanders, The Crimson Raiders, is on the path toward hunting the vaults teased at the end of Borderlands 2. It doesn't take long for your freshly arrived vault hunters to find themselves leading the charge and in no time at all it becomes apparent that this new gang naming themselves The Children of the Vault is set to get in her way at every turn, lead by the big baddies of Borderlands 3.
As you might well have seen from the numerous adverts and promotional material currently pulling attention to Borderlands 3, a pair of twins are our primary antagonists and I'd be lying if I said they came remotely close to the smarmy, constantly goading and often amusingly arch Handsome Jack. The twin's vague, streamer style personalities just don't amount to much over the course of the game and they don't often weigh in with more than a "haha, you're playing into our hands" focused mockery session at the end of each major plot point. I wont spoil anything about where the plot goes of course, but I can't say I found myself taken with a late attempt to humanize the pair and explain why they're doing what they're doing. They're just not evil, pointlessly malicious or snarky enough to hold a candle to their much loved predecessor and shutting them down just doesn't provide the same strange kick that ending Jack's awful reign provided.
Supporting the plot are a cast of characters that franchise fans will be pleased to see, though you'll be disappointed if you arrive expecting proper follow ups for a few of Borderlands 2's cast and if The Pre-Sequel holds a place in your heart then brace yourself for a stunning dismissal of almost everyone living up on Elpis. The likes of Axton and Salvador the gunzerker are straight up missing, while franchise favourites like Brick and Mordecai only take part in a brief section of the plot. It's a real mixed bag when it comes to returning characters actually bringing the fun too, with many of them doing little more than reference jokes and moments from previous games rather than bringing some fresh laughs. I'm looking at you Vaughn...
All this isn't to say that there aren't some stand out moments in Borderlands 3's main campaign. Be it the return of the Hammerlock family and a rising sibling rivalry, stumbling across a crazed psycho who has somehow managed to acquire Handsome Jack's mask or battling the CEO of Maliwan so as to stop his aggressive takeover of Atlas while smooth, electro-tinged jazz plays - there are a lot of moments that land perfectly. That last battle with the Maliwan CEO in particular made me stop and consider just how excellent the music had been throughout the game and certainly had me anticipating each new track. The dubstep of yore is still present from time to time, but Borderlands 3's audio aesthetic is far more diverse than it once was.
I played Borderlands 3 on PS4 and, as you might well have seen elsewhere, it's been a bit of a rough launch as far as performance goes. When the action heats up, frame drops also rear their head. In the time since release, this irritation has been remedied somewhat, but there's a lasting problem when it comes to the menus. In short, the weapons menu lags and switching between the map or character stats to your weapon screen provokes a half second hitch. This has improved ever so slightly thanks to some patches since release and in single player it's really not much of an issue, but in split screen mode it's awful. If one player stats a fight, the other had better be sure not to hit the menu button, as the dropped frames it provokes can take the fighter from unloading bullets to fighting for their life before they see an enemy fire back. Post battle inventory management is a must for now if you're playing with a friend on a single console.
In all, Borderlands 3 is a solid, if safe, step forward for the franchise, addressing some issues with past games but losing a little of what could have been learned from the best bits of The Pre-Sequel. If you're coming to the game expecting to pick up a controller and get right back to the gameplay you've come to love and expect and don't mind a few overly familiar jokes, you're in for a treat and a heck of a lot of content.