Ever since the first Borderlands, the series has revolved around Pandora, a barren planet believed to be rich in mineral wealth. Megacorporations, such as the Atlas Corporation and the Dahl Corporation, have attempted to plumb and plunder its riches. But the game’s developer, Gearbox, got there first – drilling into the dirt and striking a deep vein of crude humour. Within 30 seconds of starting Borderlands 3, a character steps, with an overblown squelch, in a thick dollop of dung. It is my guess that such crusty jokes will divide players into two groups: those who snigger and those who sigh. If you reside in the latter group, like me, you will be accused of being a party pooper. But all I see is poop. Where’s the party?
The answer to that, if you’re a fan of these games, is: shooting things and lapping up the loot that drops from the dead. This is a perfectly noble cause, as video games go. It’s doubly strange, then, that the first words in Borderlands 3, spoken by a jolly narrator, are, ‘So, you want to hear a story, eh?’ To which my first thought was, ‘Well, no, not really.’ I mean, it seemed to run contrary to the entire enterprise. Nevertheless, here we go: a pair of twins, Troy and Tyreen Calypso – both possessing unwise hair and shadow-ringed eyes – lead a cult of followers, called the Children of the Vault (the baddies), into battle against the Crimson Raiders (the goodies) for the Vaults, an array of ancient alien technology caches, on Pandora and beyond.
You choose to control one of four Vault Hunters who answer the call of the Crimson Raiders’ leader, Lilith, to join battle against the twins. There is Amara, a woman known as a Siren, who conjures swirling fists of light to lend a helping hand in combat; Fl4k, a rusty-looking robot who totes a machine gun and tames beasts; Zane, a grey-haired hitman equipped with an Irish brogue, an aerial drone, and a holographic clone of himself; and Moze, a woman with battle in her blood who pilots a hulking robot, called Iron Bear. I opted for Zane, who, despite his name, looked the least zany and thus seemed more balanced and better suited for beginners. You are then let loose in the desert, free to follow the main story or the side missions, or to stray into the wastes, roaming and raiding at your own pace.
My own pace was hastened, in the early hours, by the urge to see new planets. This wasn’t born of any hunger for adventure but rather a thirst for variety. The tobacco-coloured cliffs and plains of Pandora, while splendid in their own right, are familiar; most post-apocalypses, from Fallout to Rage, are rich studies in brown. You get a sense, here, of the artists at Gearbox being given freer hands and more hues than with the previous games in the series. Check out Athenas, with its violet skies and its hills draped in vapour, or Eden-6, a belching bayou as green as a bottle of Gordon’s. My personal favourite is Promethea, upon which you first arrive at night, when the sky is plum-dark and crackling with laserfire; in the morning, a sandy smog hangs between the steel buildings.
It put me in mind of New Mombasa, first glimpsed in Halo 2, in the haze of a noonday battle, and again at night, lit by leaky neon, in Halo 3: ODST. There is more than a little of Halo hovering above Borderlands 3. Take the vehicles, for example, an assemblage of rugged buggies and jeeps, hovercraft, and single-wheel zoomers, all with weapons welded on and piloted with twin sticks. There is also the weight and sway of the gunplay and the energy shields that laminate you and your foes, which burst in bright flashes when they break. (I always think of those shields as locking in some vestige of video game essence, resisting the realism of a Call of Duty, with its discreet sprays of blood.) Nowhere else, however, can you find a strain of cheery madness quite like the one that infects Gearbox’s galaxy.
It’s possible that, beyond the belt of planets you peruse in the course of the game, lie the haywire worlds of Ratchet & Clank and Jak and Daxter. The weapons are certainly tuned to the same wacky frequency: rifles that shoot glowing globs of acid, a cannon that fires cheeseburgers, and guns that grow legs. Beyond simple silliness, there’s a breadth of strategy at play; corrosive blasts will chew through metal, for example, while radioactive rounds spew a cloud of seething gas in their wake – ideal for crowds. The shooting feels good, which is important in a shooter, and the whole thing has a pleasing punch of challenge. If Fallout 4 was an RPG that felt obligated to beef up its shooting for those averse to V.A.T.S. (its slow-motion, Active Time Battle mechanic), then Borderlands 3 skews the other way.
It’s concerned principally with the jolly business of blowing away raving lunatics, but there is a raft of role-playing flourishes in here too. Namely, numbers: each gun comes cluttered with digits, denoting accuracy, handling, fire rate, reload time, and an overall rating lurking in the top left. To which the only reasonable response, as far as I can see, is to go with the higher number, get blasting away, and try not to worry about it all too much. As you increase your character’s level, you’ll be given points to ply into various perks, souping up your special abilities as you see fit. I‘m sure there are ranks of devout fans who tweak and tailor their builds with fastidious devotion; I, on the other hand, spent my upgrades points in frivolous fashion – due in part to my desire to escape the menus, which move roughly at the speed of mud.
In truth, I spent most of Borderlands 3 at a breezy remove. This was due in part to the way that the story, along with the gameplay, is by the numbers. A few heroes are killed off in surprise fashion, but you would have an easier time mining the rumoured minerals from Pandora than you would warmth or connection from the dry crusts of these characters. I found it tough to care for heroes who say things like ‘bee-tee-dubs’ and insist on hammering jokes home as one would nails into a coffin. At one point, an ally instructed me to shoot someone in the face, following it up with, ‘And anywhere else you feel he’s so deserving, if you catch my drift.’ It would be rather a difficult drift to miss; even so, we get an addendum: ‘Shoot him in the dick. That’s the drift.’
The tone is that of a jumped-up kid’s cartoon that’s snuck a few swigs of vodka and wandered into a porno theatre, mistaking a foul mouth for maturity. PEGI has rated the game an ‘18’, which I would interpret as a warning to any persons over the age of 18. You may fear for your brain cells. My advice would be: don’t dwell on the plot, the writing, the strange snippets of FMV, which makes certain characters look like cut-price cosplayers, and try instead to focus on the fun to be had. There is a series of enormous world maps to unfurl and defog, and doing so teases out side missions and troves of XP. (Don’t do as I did, at first, and stick doggedly to the main missions, either; I was often a good three or four levels behind where I should have been.)
All the better if you can bring a friend – the game scales its scenarios to suit a solo run, but I couldn’t help but notice, in some of the more sweeping, crammed arenas, that two, three, or four friends would have a considerably better time of things than just the one. Good company – locally or online – compliments the game with a valuable dose of distraction, albeit with an attendant dip in framerate. If you’re going it alone, then it’s best picked at over the course of a Christmas break or some other series of idle weeks. To roll one’s eyes at its humour is hardly cutting it to the quick; it’s the sort of game that’s developed a dusty, thick hide, knowing it will get you with its gameplay. It certainly got me. If you’re in need of a sprawling shooter/RPG adventure, then you could do a lot worse than to set foot back on Pandora. Just bring a spare pair of shoes, if you catch my drift.
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: September 13, 2019
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