Threequels are notoriously hit-or-miss. While some series’ third instalations go beyond expectations and breath new life into a franchise, others can fall seriously short of the bar. It’s all about striking that sweet balance between fresh new content and the formula that fans originally gravitated to - and it’s a balance that Gearbox does beautifully with Borderlands 3.
It has been seven years since the release of the critically acclaimed Borderlands 2, the second core game in Gearbox Software’s Borderlands series, and fans are salivating at the prospect of sinking their boots into Pandora’s soil once more. But with that anticipation, also comes apprehension. How can the developer build on what we’ve seen before? What if it changes too much?
“It's actually really, really hard to balance that on any sequel,” Chris Brock, Borderlands 3’s multiplayer producer tells TechRadar. “The more successful the game is, the harder it is. And the longer you've been away, the harder it is.
“You don't want to change too much because you don't want it to deviate from the game they fell in love with but, at the same time it's a numbered sequel, it needs to be new enough to where there's a reason for it having come out.”
This is a value that runs rampant through Borderlands 3’s veins. Stepping into Pandora once more feels like you’ve never been away: old friends have returned, bandits still rule the wastelands and you won’t be able to decide if you love or hate Claptrap.
Though, while familiar, there’s no denying that things are aesthetically more pleasant and playability is generally much smoother. It’s like finally getting that pair of glasses you’ve needed for years, it’s just an extra bit of sharpness that elevates the experience to meet what you had remembered in your mind’s eye.
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While the chaotic heart of Borderlands remains, there are plenty of new features in Borderlands 3 that set it apart from its predecessors. For a start, we’ve got four new playable characters to get to know: FL4K the Beastmaster, Amara the Siren, Zane the Operative and Moze the Hunter.
Perhaps our favorite character from the new roster is FL4K the Beastmaster, whose pet skills allow him to summon a companion in the form of a Jabber, Spiderant or Guard Skag. FL4K can then select an ability alongside this pet, allowing for a more dynamic playstyle that can see you combining your own combat techniques with that of your (mostly ugly) companions. For example you could harness a tank pet while taking a personally stealthy approach - almost like having a less cognizant player two. They’re also particularly useful for earning an easy second wind.
But if you’re not one for companionship then you may gravitate to the classic, assault-style of Zane, the mech-wielding tankishness of Moze or the familiarity of Amara.
While you be be lamenting the characters of Borderlands past, don’t fret, as the likes of Zero and Axton will be making appearances in Borderlands 3 - and there is apparently a method to Gearbox’s roster-changing madness.
“If we were to bring Zero, Axton, Maya and Salvadore into Borderlands 3 - if we were to change them - then the fans of those characters would be like 'why did you change my character',” Brock explains to TechRadar. “If we don't change them at all, then people ask why we didn't bother.
“We really preferred to start fresh with new vault hunters, and then we want to keep the old characters around. We keep them around in NPC capacity, but that way they're present but not taking over the while franchise.
“Making a suite of four new characters, while that is difficult, is not necessarily difficult enough to not do it. “
What’s more, these new characters actually have personalities. Rather than the occasional word here and there, your character has a voice and will engage with other characters rather than standing there smouldering with nobility. Playable characters quip as good as any comedic-action hero, but the real showcase of this is in co-op when all the characters are bouncing off each other. But it’s never done in a way that’s annoying, it’s just enough for comedic value and effect.
Not only do characters in co-op bounce off each other through voice interactions but you can now combine different characters’ combat abilities to your advantage. For example, when we played co-op as Zane, we teamed up with someone playing as Moze. Moze has an ability that allows her to spawn a big ol’ mech (a bit like Overwatch’s D.Va), and atop this mech is a turret gun. As Zane, I was able to clamber onto the turret gun and mow down bandits while Moze controlled the mechs full body. Teamwork makes the dreamwork.
It's the little things
While there are some notable big changes, the devil is in the details when it comes to Borderlands 3 and the game’s true crown and glory is its new quality-of-life features. It can be hard to notice how many small features have been implemented in Borderlands 3, as most are the kind of things you wouldn’t notice until they weren’t there. For example, you can now simply hit one button at a vending machine to refill all your ammo or you can see the item of the day without ever having to go into the store.
While some of these features were feedback-driven, Gearbox is not afraid to admit that others were a result of taking a leaf out the playbooks of other studios.
Perhaps the most obvious similarities have been drawn between Borderlands 3 and BioWare’s Apex Legends. It’s not particularly surprising considering Gearbox has implemented mantling and sliding in Borderlands 3, alongside a handy new ping system.
“We've been seeing the evolution of shooters over the past five years or so and player movement is a thing that's become much more robust - we start to expect it now,” Brock tells TechRadar. “I think Apex and Titanfall have kind of done that.”
“So it's funny, because with Apex, when that came out we were as surprised as anyone. By that point we already had sliding and mantling in the game but with the player ping we were like 'man that is elegant’. That's a simple elegant system that works so well. Sometimes someone does something, and they do it so well, that's just the way you do it. I think pinging was like that for us.”
Formula for funny
Borderlands 3 somehow manages to take everything that made its predecessors spectacular and amp it up. The little tweaks and additions are carefully deliberate, with every change arguing its purpose and earning its spot.
However the lifeblood of Borderlands 3 is its tongue-in-cheek humor which majestically walks the line between dark satire and utter silliness - self deprecating jokes and burger launchers. It’s something that could easily grow old but there’s no worry of that in the latest addition to the series - in fact, we found it funnier than ever.
“Internally the mantra is 'it's funny but it's not a joke',” Brock explains. “There are jokes but there's also that very serious thread. The tone is weird but, within the universe, it all kind of makes sense.”