It was at some point after Katagawa destroyed the frogurt stand with a Death Star-style laser blast that I decided I didn’t like any of these people. I was on Promethea, a planet of long highways and tower blocks made of concrete and steel. This was the home of Atlas and Maliwan, two mega-corporation arms dealers in the silly yet bleak future of Borderlands 3.
Maliwan was trying to merge with Atlas by force, and its ruthless leader Katagawa was conducting the siege from a pleasure yacht, firing a planet-destroying superweapon at restaurants enjoyed by Atlas’ CEO. It’s supposed to be funny, but I wasn’t laughing. As the Atlas CEO cried about frogurt, dropships delivered Maliwan troops into the courtyard, and I got to the real work of Borderlands 3, the stuff that makes the game’s terrible writing worth cringing through: shooting bizarre weapons at cartoonish enemies.
Borderlands 3, out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, is a first-person loot-shooter with RPG elements from developer Gearbox Software. Players are vault hunters in a whacky cyberpunk dystopia. The Borderlands sit at the edge of the galaxy, teeming with danger and treasure, and it’s the hunters’ job to collect the treasure and kill the danger.
Players choose from four classes. Zane, the Operative, uses gadgets like a drone and a digital decoy to distract enemies. FL4K, the Beastmaster is a robot who tames the monsters of the Borderlands and deals damage from afar. Amara, the Siren, uses magic to increase her physical strength and dish out melee damage. Moze, the Gunner, summons a giant mech to dominate the battlefield.
I spent the most time playing as FL4K, and trained a Jabber (a monkey-like creature) to wield a shotgun and rocket launcher. I earned experience from eliminating enemies, completing missions, and finding collectibles in Borderlands 3’s semi-open world. Leveling up granted access to stronger weapons, increased my health, and allowed me to pick talents to customize my character.
At level 25, my FL4K could turn invisible and deliver impressive burst damage with a sniper rifle while my Jabber laid down cover fire. At any time, I could re-spend my points to try a different way to play. Each character has three separate tech trees, and each plays a little differently. I could, for example, trade in my Jabber for a radioactive teleporting dog-like beast called a Skag.
What sets Borderlands 3 apart from its predecessors (and peers like The Division 2) is the variety and strangeness of its weapons. Games like Borderlands 3 deliver a constant stream of loot in the form of weapons, shields, and character customization pieces. The game randomly generates these items, and in previous titles the gear began to feel generic and set apart by only minor differences. One shotgun would do 20 damage and hold 5 shells, while the next would do 25 damage and hold 4 shells.
This still happens in Borderlands 3. But many of the weapons feel more carefully designed, and I’d often get a weapon that was downright strange. I once used a pistol that I had to start like a lawnmower. I never had to reload it, but it’d overheat and I’d pull out a spray bottle to cool it down. A friend used a submachine gun he could toss to the ground and turn into a turret. He later found another submachine gun that, when reloaded, dropped a mine that attracted enemies with a bright sign reading “shoot me.” When the enemies inevitably did, the mine exploded, coating them in a green corrosive substance.
Like the weapons, Borderlands 3’s enemies are varied enough to support long hours working your way through them. I took down authoritarian outer world prison guards, strange cultists, a wide variety of robots, and strange teleporting aliens. Missions often end in well-designed boss encounters that required me to pay attention, learn the bosses’ attack patterns, and wait for an opening to score critical hits.
Even while it’s fun to play, Borderlands 3’s story and characters fall flat. The series has always been crass, dumb, and self-aware. But that juvenile humor used to feel silly and fun. The world of Borderlands is day-glo and over the top. It’s not meant to be taken seriously. But some of the dialogue, quests, and characters are strikingly awful this time around. “You killed a succulent skag with the big suck! That’s good sucking!,” an NPC cheerily yelled at me at the end of a quest, and I cringed.
The story follows the vault hunters as they race across the galaxy to open vaults — alien tombs containing powerful monsters and vast wealth. Along the way, they’re taunted by Tyreen and Troy Calypso, twin YouTubers who use their popularity to start a cult. They want to open the vaults and absorb the power of the monsters for reasons that, after a dozen hours of gameplay, still weren’t clear. Add to this the fact that many of the players’ allies are weapons manufacturers and you’ve got a story it’s best to ignore.
Thankfully, Borderlands 3 makes that easy. A loot-shooter needs to do two things: deliver loot and feel good to shoot. In Borderlands 3, every weapon is a joy to use, and it delivers a constant stream of them. It takes too long to get going, though. My suggestion to you: ignore the side quests in the opening area and burn through the story. Once you’re on a spaceship and exploring new planets, Borderlands 3 starts to show its charm.
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