I Can’t Hate on Borderlands 3
It’s shunning new features in favor of a long-held triumph
Borderlands 3 isn’t following the expected sequel route for a 2019 video game that players have waited over half a decade for. Instead, it totally looks like a Borderlands game, again…and while at first I loathed this, I’ve realized that it’s probably the right move from a design perspective.
It had a big gameplay reveal event today, with tons of proper footage now out in the wild and so many previews that you can’t look at the gaming side of the internet without being inundated.
I originally planned to write about how I’m frustrated that the game still doesn’t have armor.
I was a massive fan of Borderlands 1 and 2…and it’s a great shame of mine that I’ve never fully finished The Pre-Sequel, but I’m going to blame that on my friends who promised me they’d play and then all bailed on buying it at launch.
I blew through the campaign of the first game in the first two days of release, and I’ve replayed it numerous times since then both alone and with friends. It was one of my most anticipated games even before the art style change, because in 2009, Gearbox made shooters that had the right feel, and I couldn’t wait to see their take on a sci-fi world.
When I fought the very first enemy in that game shortly after midnight on a cold Wednesday morning, I knew it was going to be magical.
Up until then, no one had so skillfully combined fun first person shooting and numbers-based RPG gameplay. It had just the right feel for both sides, and a whole genre was born. I was hooked from the moment damage numbers starting flying everywhere, and it’s a moment I still remember with strange specificity.
But that was 10 years ago, and the field of RPG loot-based shooters is now crowded to the gills. Two more Borderlands games. Two Destiny games. Two Divisions. Anthem. Warframe. Even Fallout 76, if you feel like drilling it down to its core.
You have a lot of choices in today’s game landscape if you want to shoot at things in a beautiful open world and collect loot while watching numbers go up. And even more than that if you expand your tastes out into looting action games that feature swords and bows.
Most of those other games have taken the basics of the loot genre and piled on complexity and quantity of content. To my loot-obsessed brain, from the outside, that seems like a reasonable thing to do. More is always better, right?
After finishing Borderlands 1, I wanted the second game to have armor. I imagined all the wacky armor types that could pop up using the same generation system that made the guns in the first game.
Borderlands 2 didn’t have armor. But it did expand the core shooting system and add all kinds of new weapon variations.
After finishing Borderlands 2, I wanted The Pre-Sequel to have armor.
But it didn’t. Instead, it added even more new weapon styles, gravity mechanics, an oxygen meter, and super fun laser beams. All fun things that enhanced the core of the gameplay.
I’m a silly person for having never finished it.
After not finishing The Pre-Sequel, I wanted Borderworlds (the once-trademarked name of Borderlands 3) to have, you guessed it, ARMOR.
I’m not really sure why I kept wanting this, except for the fact that the game industry has taught me to expect more of the things with each iteration, and I’ve always followed that blindly without thinking about it.
However, piling more into Borderlands just isn’t the right thing to do, because it would ignore what’s so special about the game. It’s a secret trick that no number of questionable Aliens or Duke Nukem games can destroy.
The strength of Borderlands has always been the way you get to interact with its loot. In many other loot games, the loot and the raising of numbers might as well be the same thing. Better weapons and armor make the numbers better, but you don’t always feel this in the actual gameplay outside of now being able to tackle harder enemies.
In Borderlands, the randomly generated guns are right in your face the whole time, and they have personality in both their visuals and their gameplay. They all have unique handling characteristics, rendered in detail by the statistical system. Different projectile types. Reload speeds. Aim wobble. Every single random attribute of each piece of loot is also directly relevant to the minute-to-minute gameplay.
This is so tough to get right in a loot game, to the point where most don’t try to do it on this same level. I’ve been loving Assassin’s Creed Odyssey to death, but every single sword feels more or less like every other sword.
Pistols in Borderlands vary wildly from one another, even right from the start of the game, with different handling and damage characteristics. And that same variety applies to all the other weapons, too.
The other ace Borderlands has up its sleeve is that it’s not afraid to be wacky. From the beginning, it’s had shotguns that shoot rockets, guns that are better melee weapons that ranged weapons for no readily discernible reason other than fun, and guns with projectiles that fly in random directions. Among many other silly things.
Borderlands 3 is tripling down on gameplay variety within its random guns, rather than acquiescing to people like me that wanted it to have armor for reasons.
After I got over myself, I realized I’m so glad for this. I don’t know how Gearbox would bring the same gameplay variety to armor pieces that they’ve brought to their weapons system. I’m sure that they’ve tried prototypes internally, too.
So yes, I’m optimistic about Borderlands 3, even though it doesn’t have armor.
Sure, you’re going to see a lot of people offering thoughts about how the graphics aren’t super different, and the new voice actor for Claptrap isn’t nearly as good, and about how Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford is a…strange magician guy who may or may not have a messy legal battle ongoing with his former business lawyer.
I can’t really argue against any of those things.
But… Borderlands 3 is at least wisely leaning into its strength in a crowded genre: A secretly complex gameplay system that doesn’t get enough credit.
It also has new Unreal Engine 4-powered lighting, instanced loot, a spaceship for travel to other planets (something else I’ve been hoping for that isn’t armor), and a 30 hour campaign that I’ll probably blow through in one weekend instead of stretching out over years like most big games these days, just so I can experience the gameplay of all those fun weapons.
It might not have the visual flair of something like Rage 2, which I’m also really excited about and which looks amazing, but sometimes…having millions of unique gameplay options is enough. Right? Shouldn’t that be enough?
Who needs armor anyway?