Ah, Borderlands 3. I’ve been meaning to write a review of this game well before Gearbox even got around to announcing it. It’s one of those behemoths: you know its happening and when it arrives, it’s no surprise at all. Borderlands 3 was inevitable. And now it’s here. Is it everything we ever expected? In a word, no. Is it the best Borderlands game yet? Absolutely. Let’s dive in and take a closer look.

The first thing you’ll notice when starting the game is just how much carries over from The Pre-Sequel and Borderlands 2. Whether it’s the art style, kinda-but-not-really openworld maps, the crass humor, or the bewildering selection of guns, it’s all here to stay. At a deeper, mechanical level, Gearbox adopted a “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” approach. Enemy units are as spongy as ever, though the additional particle effects, gibs, and micro-destruction lend combat an added degree of heft.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. If you’re a new player to the series or someone like me who’s dabbled a bit in the games from time to time, Borderlands 3 might just be what gets you off the fence. It is definitely a Borderlands game, but bigger and more refined than ever before. The flip side to this is that if you’re a returning player, the third outing in the series might induce more than a bit of series fatigue. Much like Assassin’s Creed: Revalations, Borderlands 3 is a fantastic game taken on its own, and it’s objectively better than its predecessors. But if you’ve already put in a few dozen hours into the series, it might not offer enough to make you stay.

This applies to all aspects of the game. Gunplay, as we mentioned, hasn’t been radically changed since the first game. The major difference here is the inclusion of new heroes to play as. Fl4K in particular offers something new with the always-present pet companion. The “robot beastmaster” always has one of three pet beasties in tow. My personal favorite is the Jabber, a monkey-like alien toting a gun. Your pet companions have an attack command that you can use strategically–to flank enemies, for instance. They have their own special abilities too: Jabber doubles in size and throws a barrel of radioactive…something at a targeted enemy. The other classes are easy for returning players to slip into. Zane and Maze, in particular, are ready standbys for Zero and Salvador. If you want a fresh experience, Amara and Fl4K are definitely the way to go.

The actual combat is a very close match for Borderlands 2 and this is an area where the lack of innovation works in Gearbox’s favor. Borderlands 2 had very good combat. The moment-to-moment action, together with the looting mechanic created that feedback loop which gets you to play the game for 30-plus hours.

Borderlands 3 doesn’t change things up in this respect. Enemies, especially higher-tier ones, are spongy. Unlike in twitch shooters, you’ll find that you’ll have to pump them full of bullets (or weird strings of plasma) before they go down. Shotguns have been tweaked, though. Most shotguns now cause enemies to ragdoll before they’re dead. This can be used to great tactical advantage: Pump a tougher enemy with a shotgun blast, then switch out guns and take out another two before he/she gets up. And that right there is another subtle tweak. There are female bandits this time around. It is just a simple cosmetic change. However, it’s interesting to see Gearbox get on-message with inclusivity. Even if that means equal-opportunity brain relocation.

Micro-destruction changes combat in a subtle, yet important way. One of my biggest pet peeves with Borderlands 2 was just how rigid the environment was. Apart from objects like Bullymong piles, virtually everything in the game was rigid. This made combat entirely reliant on the fixed lay of the cover. In Borderlands 3, Gearbox has added in partly-destructible cover surfaces. These aren’t found everywhere and there’s nothing about an object that telegraphs whether it’s destructible or not. Still, in some situations, this can inject addition dynamism to combat: is a Maliwan trooper hiding behind a concrete bench? Shoot the bench, watch it crumble and get your headshot in.

The storyline and writing have also remained relatively unchanged and very, very Borderlands. Other reviews out in the wild have been quick to criticize Gearbox for creating a story that’s too immature. I think they’re completely missing the point. Borderlands has never taken itself seriously. Off-color cultural references are exactly what I expect to hear when I fire up a Borderlands game. My favorite line? When Claptrap gets stuck…somewhere and proudly proclaims “My ass saved all your asses!” You’ll get a good laugh from the story and it’s easy enough to follow. It’s not a narrative masterpiece, and neither does it need to be one. Comparisons to the Tales from the Borderlands Telltale series are unfair, too. Telltale games are built on narrative and literally nothing else. While Tales from the Borderlands is a great standalone experience, I’m quite happy that Gearbox didn’t take that path. By sticking to its (5 quintillion) guns, it’s crafted a more authentic Borderlands narrative here.

And that story definitely takes you places. That’s the other big change. Whereas Borderlands 2 was set solely on Pandora, the third game gives you multiple planets to explore. Initially, I was a bit wary about this proposition. Borderlands features a very distinct style and I found it hard to see how Gearbox could craft meaningfully different spaces. Turns out those fears were unfounded. The new explorable planets are distinct environments all their own. Nowhere is this more evident than in Promethea. Considering that the very name of the series evokes the Wild West, urban spaces weren’t what I expected to find in a Borderlands game. But the Coruscant-ripoff that is Atlas Corporation’s capital has a character all of its own. Urban combat in tighter environs changes things up just as Pandora was getting stale. As always with Borderlands, you get drip-fed just enough variety to keep things fresh in the long-run.

So far, so good. But how does the game run? This is where we have some less than pleasant things to say. To put it shortly, Borderlands 3 is an unoptimized mess. Performance sucks, there’s no two ways about it. 2016’s Doom and successive id titles have spoiled us in this regard: there’s now the expectation that decent looking first-person shooters should perform well at 1440p, at least on highend hardware. Borderlands 2 begs to differ. It looks worse than the competition and runs worse, too.

Here are some performance metrics from my PC, sporting a Ryzen 5 1600 and an RTX 2070 Super, overclocked to 1980 MHz. (There’s 16 GB of RAM and an SSD, too).

borderlands 3 techquila

As you can see, performance is, in a word, unacceptable. The 2070 Super delivers 1080-Ti levels of performance. This is a card built with 4K in mind. 1440p gaming should be a breeze, much less 1080p. Most comparable shooters run at 100 FPS or more at 1080p while looking much better. Here, at the badass preset, Borderlands 3 doesn’t even crack the 60 FPS barrier. Granted, much of this is down to the pesky volumetric fog option. Drop just that down to medium and leave everything maxed out and you’ll have a consistent 1440p/60 experience. This isn’t quite what I had in mind though. I’ve overclocked my monitor to 80 Hz and I’m used to playing twitch shooters and Borderlands at an 80 FPS lock. If there were any 2019 games I’d have made a bet would allow this, it would’ve been Doom Eternal and Borderlands 3. I’ve got plenty of faith in id and I think they’ll deliver another stunner that performs great. But the unmissable conclusion here is that I’m only able to reach 60 FPS in Borderlands 3 through brute force. Not everyone has a $500 graphics card. And most people playing Borderlands 2 are on entry-level hardware that’s orders of magnitude weaker. I expect that Gearbox will get its act together and fix performance but, right now, it’s just a mess.

All in all, Borderlands 3 was very much what I expected, and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s more Borderlands, and there’s no such thing as too much Borderlands. But in a looter shooter landscape that Destiny and Anthem now call home, Borderlands 3 leans just a bit too much on the past to really differentiate itself. It’s definitely the best Borderlands game. But is it the best shooter in 2019? Is it even the best looter shooter–a genre Borderlands helped invent? That’s harder to answer.

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