Hands on: Borderlands 3 review

More guns, more gags, more competition

What is a hands on review?
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Early Verdict

Borderlands 3 looks set to show the pretenders to its loot-shooter crown how it's done.

For

  • Vibrant art style
  • Insane weapons
  • Strong character classes

Against

  • Inventory management is still a pain
What is a hands-on gaming review?

'Hands on gaming reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a new game based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to try it out ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to play, even if it's only an embryonic view. 

With Borderlands 3, we spent 90 minutes going hands-on with pre-release code and specific sections of the game, courtesy of the developers. We were also treated to an hour-long hands-off presentation that showcased other features of the game, set to be included in the final release.

For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.

With two full games and a handful of spin-off titles under its belt, you'd be forgiven if you were wondering what’s left to be said in the Borderlands universe. But with Borderlands 3, developers Gearbox seem to have a point to make – with the likes of Destiny, The Division and Anthem all fighting for the looter-shooter crown, it’s back to prove why the original is still the best. 

Setting the mould for the “shoot-loot-repeat” sub genre nearly 10 years ago with the original Borderlands game, Gearbox and Borderlands 3 aren’t setting out to revolutionise the category, but to refine the mechanics that so many rival development studios have set out to copy.

Much then remains familiar – you’ve the cell-shaded comic book look, the “gazillion” different guns to collect and try out, the mad-cap humour and the co-op, class-based gameplay. But the devil is in the details.

Familiar but fresh

That art-style is firing on all cylinders in Borderlands 3. Like a hyper-violent comic book in full motion, it’s as if someone’s taken a neon paintball gun and aimed it directly at your eyeballs. Using the Unreal Engine 4, while the Mad Max roots remain, the game’s now drawing inspiration from a much wider pool, with cyberpunk cityscapes flooded with B-movie monsters.

“The goal is to create an image that’s both fresh and familiar,” said Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford at a hands-on gameplay reveal event that TechRadar attended.

“We wanted to look forward and take full advantage of today’s technology in a way that also respects the one-of-a-kind art direction that’s now known throughout the video game world as the Borderlands art style.”

The gameplay loop remains unchanged too – as a fabled Vault Hunter, you’ll head out into large (but not-quite open world) environments, eyeing hordes of enemies down the barrel of your gun. Take them out, loot their corpses and level up your class-based character, possibly with a few co-op buddies along for the ride.

And what fantastic loot that is, too. Whereas Destiny sticks to its sci-fi boomsticks, The Division focusses on military-inspired machinery of war and Anthem centers on… well, whatever sparse few guns it can manage to spawn, Borderlands 3 throws everything it can think of at the wall. And, remarkably, lots of it sticks. 

Run out of ammo and you toss the gun away, only for it to grow mechanical spider legs and and run off after the nearest enemy, detonating a goo-filled brain bomb that sits on top of it. It’s insane.

Yes, picking up new weapons, be they shotguns, handguns, miniguns or other, is still an exercise in cross-referencing numbered damage and fire rate stats, with the addition of secondary firing modes included. But, when it comes to the more rare, high-powered loot, they’re less like weapons and more like characters in their own right. Whether you’re charging up a cryogenic ice blast and turning foes into an avalanche of icicles, or throwing a pistol away after every reload only to see it become its own autonomous laser-sighted turret, there’s not just variety to the weaponry, but imagination too.

One boss fight during our gameplay demo seemed to epitomise everything that Borderlands 3 gets right. GigaMind is simply ridiculous – about the size of a toddler, he’s essentially a disembodied brain in a space suit, complete with fishbowl helmet and two googly eyes on stems the wrong side of the glass. Firing off neon projectiles that he can bounce across, defeating him awards you with a unique rifle that shoots out toxic bullets. Run out of ammo and you toss the gun away, only for it to grow mechanical spider legs and and run off after the nearest enemy, detonating a goo-filled brain bomb that sits on top of it. It’s insane, and with more boss fights than ever before teased for Borderlands 3, the mind boggles at what else could be in store for players.

Refining the old, in with the new

It’s refinement-by-steroid injection, but it’s still the same Borderlands you’ve grown to love. If that’s the core Borderlands gameplay dialled up to 11, then what’s completely different, and/or all-new then?

Well for starters there’s a new focus on fluid movement. Players will be able to slide into cover, and mantle up into higher vantage points, giving the game a more kinetic sense of motion and verticality. It’s not quite as game-changing as Respawn’s wall-running in Titanfall or Apex Legends, or even the jetpacks of Anthem (that game’s saving grace), but you’ll find yourself less tied to terra firma than you would have been before. It plays into some of the game’s environmental challenges too – returning fan-favourite character Moxxi tasks you with taking down enemy propaganda speaker systems, which often require some light platforming prowess to reach.

Multiplayer gets some smart improvements too. Allies can now revive each other (as well as friendly NPCs), while more effort has been made to make it useful for two players to use the same class of character.

“We worked hard to ensure each of our four characters is completely unique,” said Pitchford.

“But even within each character there are literally hundreds of meaningful options. So if two people want to team up and play as the same character, they will likely have completely different capabilities.”

Perhaps the most meaningful change of all though is the introduction of what Gearbox is calling ‘Loot Instancing’. Borderlands has always been best when played with friends, but it can be frustrating when one buddy puts a few extra hours in between sessions and becomes overpowered compared to the group. With Borderlands 3, Loot Instancing will mean that not only will players of different levels see enemies scale in ferocity for a fair challenge when paired with lower-powered allies, but that loot will be generated for individuals too. 

In other words, a level 5 player gunning alongside a level 20 player will see weapons with different stats drop from the same enemy, meaning that all players get worthwhile rewards based on their character levels, which they can then take away and enjoy for solo play. The new mechanic also does away with the ‘Loot Ninja’ play-style (sweeping in to steal another player’s hard-earned high-powered weapon drop), though Gearbox is leaving in a “Classic” mode if you prefer asymmetrical levelling and finders-keepers loot tactics.

Four new Vault Hunters are being introduced, each with their own unique techniques and abilities to separate them. Gearbox has shown off two in depth so far – Amara is a ‘Siren’ with abilities that include a powerful force push and a mystical multi-armed grab that immobilises enemies and ‘Operative’ Zane Flynt, a mouthy Scot who can create shot-firing holographic body doubles with which to create ambushes, and commands deadly armed drones too. We spent most of our demo session with the latter. He can have more than the default one active ability at a time, at the expense of losing the ability to throw grenades. There’s the opportunity for these abilities to work as combos with a supporting character too – Zane also has the ability to set up a static shield on the battlefield, which can add elemental buffs to the projectiles of allied players if they shoot through it.

A space odyssey?

Finally, there’s the addition of a new hub area… in space. Yep, in Borderlands 3, you get your very own spaceship, the Sanctuary 3. It’s here’s where the scale of what Gearbox is trying to achieve with Borderlands 3 comes into focus – from the Sanctuary 3 you’ll be able to access whole new planets, each with their own distinctive feel, art style and collection of enemies, from the wastelands of Pandora to the neon-lit metropolis of Promethea.

The Sanctuary 3 will be filled with familiar faces, and will change as you progress through the story too. A large space in its own right, it’s overflowing with shops and a rogues gallery of familiar NPCs from Borderlands history. You’ll be able to gamble on slot machines at Mad Moxxi’s bar, and see the heads of your toughest beastly foes adorn the walls of Hammerlock’s hunting lodge.

It seems Gearbox really wants you to feel part of its world this time around, rather than a mere vacuum cleaner for loot. It’s comfortable with its mechanics, and comfortable with the lore it has now established. With the likes of Lillith and Zero returning to guide your all new vault hunter, there’s finally a sense of history to the series’ universe, which gives the new cult-leading bad guy duo, the Calypso Twins, added bite. The stakes are higher, whereas previous Borderlands games have perhaps felt devoid of stakes at all beyond those which the player has defined.

We’ve made a commitment to what Borderlands is supposed to be. We’ve made a commitment to the story, the style and design that our fans have told us loud and clear that they cherish and want us to preserve

Randy Pitchford, Gearbox CEO

There are still some hangovers from previous Borderlands games that annoy. The inventory and loot comparison UI elements are still clunky, especially when compared to the similarly-loot-obsessed Diablo 3 for consoles, which makes on-the-fly treasure and weapon comparisons an absolute breeze. And some enemy types feel dumb, charging into your fire with no sense of self preservation. This could, admittedly, be by design – nihilistic psychos are not beyond Borderlands’ vocabulary, and there’s otherwise a good variety of nasties to lay waste to.

“I don’t think we’ve ever shown this much of one of our games so soon after we’ve announced it,” said Pitchford at the close of the event’s presentation. 

“But the fact is that we’ve never had this much time to finish and polish it off before. We’re feeling really great about the position we’re in and excited to bring Borderlands 3 to the world.

“We’ve made a commitment to what Borderlands is supposed to be. We’ve made a commitment to the story, the style and design that our fans have told us loud and clear that they cherish and want us to preserve. We’re supporting offline play, couch and online co-op play, if you want to get DLC later we’re working on that, skins and other things. But there’s no micro transactions or free to play kind of stuff. We’re drilling down into what Borderlands 3 is supposed to be.”

Even several months away from release though Borderlands 3 feels assured, confident and charming. It’s not just the five-year development cycle it benefits from, but the heritage of a loot-shooter franchise that was mining the genre before its name was even coined. While the competition finds its feet, Borderlands 3 already looks set to soar.

All image credits: 2K / Gearbox

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.