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Day 1 Review: Borderlands 3

The More Things Change, The More Things Stay The Same

Day One reviews showcase early thoughts of recently released games. At this point, I have played Borderlands 3 for approximately six hours, having arrived on the second planet, Promethea, about an hour ago.

The Borderlands series has come a long way since the first. Borderlands one featured no real antagonist and minimal storytelling, preferring to let the gameplay do the talking. From there, a bigger emphasis was put on storytelling. Borderlands 2 introduced a true villain in the form of Handsome Jack. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel added some context to the events of Borderlands 2. Tales from the Borderlands did away with the looting and shooting entirely to focus on the stories that the Borderlands world has to offer.

So why is Borderlands 3 trying so hard to convey the feeling of the first Borderlands?

From the get-go, I’m struck by how much imagery is taken from Borderlands. You have the skag stalking the psycho, a bloody vehicular death, and Marcus’ Vault Hunter bus. And the comparisons don’t end there.

scene from Borderlands 3 the character faces a beast in battle
I feel like I’ve seen this before.

The world feels larger and less populated that the past few Borderlands. The first few maps are vast, almost overwhelming, and largely empty. It takes a few seconds of feverous scrolling of the mouse wheel to pull far enough on the map to see the whole thing. And once you can see the whole thing, it becomes apparent how empty it is.

That’s not to say that Borderlands, as a series, hasn’t thrived with vast, open spaces. The first Borderlands loved them, and that has become a classic for fans of the looter-shooter. When you have minimal story, vast open spaces feel somewhat natural, an extension of the desert of the narrative. But then Borderlands 2 came along and filled in those spaces with a bevy of content. And even in 2, when you’re driving through the desert, you never feel far from a town, bandit encampment, or friendly voice screaming obscenities at you.

In 3, however, there are a multitude of long drives across the wastes of Pandora, with nothing but a beating timpani to keep you company. Sure, you can run over the occasional skag or shoot at a bandit technical, but why bother when it is equally feasible to just boost right past them? Encampments are few and far between, and when landmarks are hidden in the background, it often feels as though Pandora is inhabited only by you and your car.

A long zoom-out of the expanse of Borderlands 3
Its a long drive for people with nothing to shoot at.

But long drives aren’t why people play Borderlands, and there’s really only two reasons people play Borderlands: for the looting and shooting or if you’re a weirdo like me, the story and world-building.

The looting and shooting is undeniably still there, but it somehow feels lacking. Sure, I’m getting hundreds of guns, and the item score helps streamline the sorting process, but it’s the shooting that is kind of weak. There’s just not enough feedback. And honestly, I think the developers realized this and that’s why they added a ragdoll effect to enemies hit with the full blast of a shotgun.

And yet it still feels weak. Unlike DOOM (2016), where each shot felt powerful, full of energy and death, every time I pull the trigger in Borderlands 3 the only consequence is numbers. Even the ragdoll effect is underwhelming. Knowing that if the number isn’t high enough, the enemy will just get back up really dampens the effect. I want to shotgun a jumping enemy in the face, watch them fly across three zip codes and know they’re not getting back up. Seeing them fly then stand back up with a good chunk of their health remaining just doesn’t feel good.

A psycho gets blasted with a shotgun in Borderlands 3
I’m also six levels higher than this guy…

Of course, there’s always the story. The ever-looming threat of Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2 is what sold me on the game. He was psychotic and steadfast, positive he was the hero even as he gouged civilian eyes out with a spoon. He is immediately established as the villain, blowing up your train in the opening cinematic. The Calypso twins take a good long while to show up, and when they do, they’re met with a whiff.

Jack had an air around him; he took up space and demanded you notice him. The twins are simply a mockery of live streamers, operating in their own cult of personality. They haven’t shown the same delusions of grandeur that Jack has, nor the same amount of charisma. They just feel like cringy homages to gaming pop-culture figures rather than terrors in their own right.

The Calypso Twins from Borderlands 3
(image courtesy of 2K Games)

And yet, I can’t be entirely down on Borderlands 3’s storytelling. The world-building is still wonderful, giving backstories to the sheer awfulness that is Pandora and the universe at large. A war between gun manufacturers resulting in swaths of people abandoned, left to their own to go insane is just the type of ultra-capitalist fucked-up world-building I love.

You can feel it in the bones of Pandora, the vestiges of a war that devastated millions just to sell guns. Everyone is armed, even the poor souls who have nothing left but their weapons. Weaponry litters the world, found in piles of refuse and literal shit. And sure, this may be reading into the gameplay a bit, but when the narrative provides a reason for guns to be found inside rabid beasts, I’ll cop to it and say that’s some damn good world-building.

The biggest difference I’ve noticed between past entries and 3, though, is the optimization. Borderlands 2 could take a second for all the world details to sharpen when you spawn in, but I never felt any real frame rate drops. I’m playing Borderlands 3 on a beefy rig (i7, 2070 graphics card, 16 gigs of ram), and whenever I enter a new map, I see frame rate drops that slow the game to a crawl. And they’re not brief either, most lasting upwards of ten seconds. I’d honestly rather just let the game load for a bit longer than get teased with the game launching, only to find that I can barely move.

A huge frame rate dip upon loading into a cinematic in Borderlands 3.
I loaded into a cinematic. There’s no reason for it to be this choppy.

At the end of the day, though, it is still Borderlands. Still the same looting and shooting, the same weird and already-outdated references, the same cell-shaded stylings. I’m just worried that all the effort Borderlands 3 is going through to emulate the opening of Borderlands 1 is about expectation setting; lots of side quests, lots of guns, minimal story. Of course, there’s still a lot of time for the game to turn on its heels and do something spectacular with its characters, but for now, I’m left missing the raw maniacal charisma of Handsome Jack.

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Written by Sean Mekinda

Sean Mekinda is a fan of all things auteur and weird. He's currently one of the hosts of Beating a Dead Horse, a podcast all about death in media. The first movie he remembers loving is The Iron Giant. The first movie he remembers hating is Alien VS Predator Requiem. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with his girlfriend and two needy huskies.

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