When I sat my girlfriend down earlier this year to replay Borderlands 2, I made it a point to preface our time playing with a disclaimer that went something like this: “This game is a product of its time, the writing hasn’t aged well at all and the dialogue can be really annoying but I promise it’s super fun and we’re gonna have a blast.” She went on to quit playing a few hours in, leaving me to finish my wistfully reminiscent playthrough alone. For me, Borderlands 2 hearkens back to a simpler time of late nights and carefree innocence, when we all thought Handsome Jack was a well-written villain.
Times have changed and, assuming you’ve been keeping up with literally any other review of this game, Borderlands 3 has not. It’s still the corny, immature friend who you’ve known for so long you can’t help but bring them around — you just have to give a little warning to unsuspecting acquaintances before doing so.
On the bright side, my girlfriend stuck around for a full playthrough this time around. I think we both credited this to the much-improved gunplay and movement, although I think it was mostly out of endearment for FL4K’s tamed beast, who she named ‘Poopie.’ Whatever the reason, playing with others is thankfully seamless in Borderlands 3, at least when using two consoles (your split-screen mileage may vary).
Improved gameplay aside, it was almost immediately apparent that Borderlands 3 was entirely comfortable resting on the laurels of past success. The entire prologue of the game is essentially a trip down memory lane as you make your way across Pandora and meet up with familiar faces. It became easier to understand the masterful “growing up” other media properties have done alongside their aging fanbases (Toy Story comes to mind) because Borderlands 3 has made jarringly little effort to do so. But where Borderlands 3 does seek to improve itself — namely, the guns — it does so spectacularly.
During our time with the game, we came across some absolutely bonkers weapons. Gunplay feels much meatier and more fluid than in Borderlands 2, and while it isn’t as excellent as, say, Destiny 2, it goes a long way to making new guns feel fun to shoot. Some notable standouts are an assault rifle that transforms into a shotgun, an SMG that creates Spider Demon turrets, and a grenade launcher that shoots poop. Yeah, on that last note — the humor is terrible.
Around the time I would find myself really basking in a new location, such as the cyber-dystopian outskirts of a Maliwan-themed city or the Himalayan-inspired crags of Athenas, I would be assaulted by some of the most outwardly obnoxious writing I’ve encountered in a game. Whether it’s a stereotypically “British” character yelling nonsensically about her coffee obsession or a black character who’s an aspiring rap artist spewing slang written by a bunch of white guys in a boardroom, Borderlands 3 always finds a way to lower the bar when it comes to humor. If Borderlands 2 was the video game equivalent of ’90s era Adam Sandler films, then Borderlands 3 is everything post-Big Daddy: soulless, low-effort garbage.
At least the guns are fun to shoot. Oh, I almost forgot: the game performs atrociously on consoles and is littered with bugs. When I wasn’t dropping to around 40 frames per second during firefights or fighting off stutter-induced headaches, I was searching for quest items that fell through the ground or waiting on an NPC to finally pathfind to the objective. Once, a boss-battle theme played for twenty minutes after the fight ended. Loot windows will stick in place, obscuring view until the game is paused. The menus are some of the clunkiest, user-unfriendly pieces of garbage I’ve ever seen. The guns are cool, though.
Okay, the class design is also pretty cool. Talent trees carry much more weight this go-around, and how you spec them can drastically alter how your Vault Hunter is played. It adds to the ongoing sense of progression the series is known for: when you’re not finding great new guns, at least you’re working towards major overhauls to your class abilities. I also adore the cosmetics — skins can be either bought using a pretty reliably-earned currency or found out in the world, with none being locked behind microtransactions. This is a part of old-school game design I can really get behind, and that’s as depressing to write as it sounds.
Overall, this is a bummer. I was more excited for Borderlands 3 than anything else releasing this year. I was certain I wouldn’t be able to peel myself away from it, assuming it was what I expected. It turns out, when you strip away the nostalgia of Borderlands writing and come to terms with the new phoned-in script, the gunplay just isn’t great enough to carry the load. The constant sense of progression and class design are spectacular, but they’re also being flanked by busted performance and a lack of polish. I wanted to be playing Borderlands 3 well into next year, but until the kinks are worked out I’ll be waiting for Destiny 2’s Shadowkeep for my looter-shooter fix.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 Pro version of the game. A copy was provided by 2K Games.
Borderlands 3, besides being technically unsound, plays it a little too safe to stand out. While the gunplay is excellent and the weapons wild, cringeworthy writing weighs it down.