Bob Dunn | Game On: Review: Borderlands 3 fresh, relevant and beautiful
Based on the first few hours of Borderlands 3, it appears that developer Gearbox Software has taken years of fan feedback and applied it in a way that makes its latest achievement feel both fresh and familiar.
When the first Borderlands was released in 2009, it seemingly dropped in out of nowhere and immediately hooked players with its unique Mad-Max-meets-animated-graphic-novel aesthetic, compelling and often hilarious characters, solid first-person shooter mechanics and a Diablo-like loot system that could seemingly conjure up a virtually limitless array of weapons and gear.
The franchise has generated countless fans and inspired a legion of cosplayers who've become ubiquitous at any number of video game and geek-culture conventions.
The game's aesthetic has even inspired a line of clothing designed and produced by Easthampton-based Volante Design.
I've always felt much of that fan support comes from the franchise's subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle subversiveness when it comes to its strong female leads, supporting characters and their sometimes non-conforming and fluid sexual identities, an inclusiveness that isn't always present in mass-market games.
It's been seven years since Gearbox released a Borderlands game (the "Pre-sequel," which was released in 2014 and filled in the story gap between the first and second game, was developed by 2K Austrailia) and, expectations for BL3, to say the least, were high.
It didn't help matters that Gearbox drew some frustration and ire from segments of its fanbase by releasing the character-based arena shooter, Battleborn.
That game, which received a lukewarm reception, was seen by some as not only a misstep by the studio trying to enter a new game into an already crowded genre, already populated by free-to-play options, but as an unneeded distraction from working on releasing the presumably forthcoming BL3.
The fans needn't have worried.
It should be no surprise that Gearbox acknowledged what worked in the previous games, as well as its shortcomings and shaved off some of those rough edges; after all, the studio has made a habit of addressing fan complaints through clever bits of story subtext and background dialogue.
In BL2, for example, Gearbox copped to the lackluster final encounter of the first game by having the narrator refer to it as nothing but "tentacles and disappointment," which, to be kind, is a pretty accurate summation.
Gearbox continued to support BL2 over the last seven years with new content released as recently as this summer, which bridges the gap in the narrative between BL2 and BL3.
BL2 players who didn't play through that last piece of content before starting BL3 may feel a bit of momentary confusion as they learn the fates of some of the characters from the previous games and the new roles others have taken on without some of that context, but it's nothing that is so distracting that it should interfere with the enjoyment of the game.
Where Gearbox's attention to detail shows is in the many "quality of life," changes apparent even in the game's opening hours.
Small things like needed items from chests automatically hop into your inventory instead of having to manually hold down a controller button to collect them and now having the option to buy enough ammunition for all of your weapons with one keystroke, instead of having to buy each type in pre-set increments, add up to a far more streamlined experience.
Everything, including the user interface and menus feels like it's been given a more modern sleek upgrade, while still looking and feeling very much like a classic Borderlands game.
For me, the biggest and most welcome change to the UI is the vastly-improved map.
Navigating through the previous games using the only marginally helpful and non-intuitive map was sometimes a controller-flinging, rage-inducing exercise in frustration that almost always ended with a Google search in hopes of finding a solution.
Now, a more detailed and user-friendly three-dimensional map that far better displays the terrain between you and your next goal will likely cumulatively save geographically-challenged players like myself hours of game time.
BL3 starts as previous entries have; players take on the role of one of four "vault hunters," each with their own set of skills and abilities players flesh out while progressing through the game.
Each character has three separate skill trees, allowing the player to augment their abilities as they progress through increasingly challenging encounters.
In the last two iterations of the game, players went up against fan-favorite foil Handsome Jack but, at Gearbox's announcement of the game's upcoming release at PAX East in Boston this past March, fans who were hoping to go up against him again had those hopes dashed quickly by Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford.
"Handsome Jack is dead," Pitchford told the crowd. "You killed him."
Instead, this time, players will take on the Calypso Twins, whose motivations remain unclear in the opening portion of the game, apart from the usual compulsions toward wealth, power, fame, etc.
The game is beautiful. This is the first Borderlands game that was created from the ground-up for the current generation of consoles and PC and the colors (even when mired in the earth-tones of the desertscape of Pandora, the game's opening location) pop off the screen like the best of traditional cel animation.
In a departure for the series, BL3 expands beyond the bounds of having one planet with multiple areas to explore and now incorporates at least three other planets to explore as you progress through the game.
The player's skill trees are more elaborate this time, with players having new options to augment their play style including one option unique to Zane (the one I've chosen to use as my main character) which allows the use of two different "action skills" at once by sacrificing the ability to use grenades.
Making that character choice can be a somewhat daunting task. Looking through multiple branching options of potential character development can be intimidating and, at least for me, there's always the lingering anxiety of choosing "wrong" somehow.
It's a concern in the sense that, considering the amount of time one can sink into the main game along with the promise of more content throughout the year and Gearbox's track record for continuing to support its product, one can expect to be spending a LOT of time with their character of choice.
Thankfully, re-allocating one's skill points is a straightforward task that can be easily accomplished at any number of locations within the game world.
The franchise's stock in trade, however, has always been its ordinance and the promise of being able to create "a billion" guns in this latest round.
Previous games boasted similar claims with potential weapons, broken down by type and manufacturer and some that incorporate elemental damage like electricity, acid and fire, that affect different enemy types in different ways.
Part of the problem with so many guns and their largely random distribution is that none of them ever felt particularly special. You're just always on the hunt for a more powerful version of what you're using and you sometimes wind up carrying around a weapon that's far outlived its usefulness while you conduct that hunt.
BL3 promises far more customization options for those weapons that should allay at least some of that, but it didn't come into play during the few hours I was able to play following the game's release at midnight Friday.
And, those weapons will get used.
The mayhem the game promised in the publicity push up to Friday's release is in full effect, even in the early portions.
Gunplay feels fast and responsive, character movement is smooth and even low-level enemies, commensurate with your experience, aren't necessarily pushovers and can't be underestimated until you advance.
BL3 sets a new bar for how game franchises can stay fresh and relevant, address previous shortcomings and incorporate needed and requested improvements without alienating the existing fan base and managing to remain accessible to new players.
It's the best version of Borderlands yet and well worth your time.
See you on Pandora and beyond.
This review was based on a full retail copy of Borderlands 3 for the Playstation 4. It is also available for the Xbox One and PC.
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