"...since the enemies grow stronger as I grow stronger, these miniscule increases in stats only keep me afloat, and never add anything interesting to how I approach enemies."
In terms of the PC release of Borderlands 3, Gearbox's latest hit has been met with mixed reception from the community. Sure, sales are high because it's a long, pretty cooperative shooter with dopamine-infused RPG elements; however, out of the box, not only are batteries not included, but a lot of assembly is required. Framy and riddled with crashes, Gearbox has made some attempts in the weeks after release to remedy the issues, but the lack of urgency to properly optimize its flagship series before release or shortly thereafter is a tired representation of what the gaming industry has become amongst big names like Square Enix, Bethesda, and Gearbox, to name a few.
Despite surpassing the recommended specs, I endured frequent crashes at all levels of graphical settings, as well as frame skips after the "hotfix." Other technical issues include NPCs blocking doorways permanently until reloading the game, NPCs going idle when I was tasked to follow them through dungeons, and vehicles mysteriously getting stuck in mid-air. Of course, I understand that some of these issues may be fixed in the weeks and months after this review goes live, and that some people on PC don't experience any problems, but Borderlands 3's problems run deeper than technical inadequacy alone.
As everyone probably knows going into Borderlands 3, the plot has little going on aside from hunting MacGuffins and killing psychopaths. Essentially, a no-name Vault Hunter (that's you) gets involved with Lilith to help protect the galaxy from a pair of siblings who have nefarious plans. Bwahaha, etc. The only certainties here are a constant stream of jokes and an endless barrage of guns that look incredibly similar to one another functionally and aesthetically.
Borderlands 3's jokes are one of its sterling qualities. Any comedian and writer will tell you that it's impossible to make every joke land, but what's accomplished here is a reliable air of levity and humor. When I wasn't laughing out loud, I was internally smiling at the wacky personalities, wordplay, and relational chemistry. Some folks will say the jokes vary between authentic laughter and annoyance, and I can definitely understand that; however, I found myself having more fun when I accepted the good with the bad in terms of the jokes, since a bad joke only lasts so long. Fortunately, Gearbox had exceptional voice actors to go along with their jokebook.
The sense of humor is what kept me going. I didn't dare venture too far into the mindless sidequests that either required fetching a nonsense item or killing a flood of foes. Wanting to get a feel for what Borderlands 3's sidequests had to offer, I sampled here and there, and found that, once again, the jokes and crazy characters kept the quests interesting. In several RPGs, sidequests falter because they rely on the player's desire for improved equipment or spells to whet the palate. This is a tried-and-true method, but it grows stale. Borderlands 3 offers something unique: more fun characters to encounter. Sure, the gameplay blurs together, but I found myself eager to hear the next bit of dialogue every time I sampled a sidequest.
I have complex feelings about the combat. On one hand, if you've played one FPS, you've played them all, but on the other hand, Gearbox has actually done a pretty good job of keeping it addicting enough to maintain my attention. Thanks to my conviction toward the central plot, I never felt like Borderlands 3 got too easy, so I was able to maintain a semblance of satisfaction in each encounter. Unfortunately, the lack of enemy variety and scenario objectives left the whole thing a tad tedious. The flow of the game goes something like this: get quest, go to location, gun way through to blue diamond icon on the map, listen to dialogue, gun way to next blue diamond, repeat until objective cleared. Most of the time, the environment is a wide-open area with some odd terrain or environmental cover. I would have enjoyed some different objectives, like capturing points or actually protecting an NPC. As addicting as this formula somehow was, I groaned every time a dreaded boss encounter happened.
Each boss in Borderlands 3 is a bullet sponge with slow but awfully powerful attacks. No matter how strong you may be, rest assured that two or three attacks will down you pretty quickly. The only saving grace in most encounters is to rely on the infrequent small enemy to get a second wind while bleeding out or to memorize the simple pattern. Yeah, memorizing attack patterns to kill a boss is something we've learned to do over the past few decades, but the problem here is that the bosses take so long to kill that I had actually flawlessly executed my assault until the last 20% or so of health, only to get hit by a couple attacks and lose it all. I was probably daydreaming about doing something more interesting during the fight and lost my focus.
Variety lies in one's class of character, because the guns certainly don't deliver. Having four authentically unique classes at the start, one can feel like they have something to offer a team if cooperative gameplay is an interest. Unfortunately, that's where the compelling decisions end in Borderlands 3's character assignment. Initially, an assortment of options lie in wait: three core skill trees just waiting to be spec'd. Within each tier, five points must be allotted before continuing onto the next, better tier. Two or three options are typically available; however, these are almost always number increases. For example, increasing crit damage, increase damage, share a percent of damage with the pet, and so on. At no point did Borderlands 3 offer a unique playstyle or augment to enhance my experience. This is a cardinal sin of skill trees because what ends up happening is I don't feel any stronger than before. Increasing crit damage by some percent doesn't give me the perception that I'm doing anything significantly better. In fact, since the enemies grow stronger as I grow stronger, these miniscule increases in stats only keep me afloat, and never add anything interesting to how I approach enemies. Oh, my rakks do ice damage instead of fire? Gee whiz, that changed everything.
I had this odd experience while playing Borderlands 3. My rig's pretty good, and I have played some demanding titles on the highest or nearly the highest settings. Visually, my gaming experience has been pretty close to top-notch. So, when my game chugged and froze, I actually started to wonder if Borderlands 3 looked better than I thought it did. I came to my senses, of course, and realized that, no, Borderlands 3 doesn't look that much better than any of its previous iterations. The art is wonderful, and I dig the style Gearbox brings, but for how unimpressive the graphics are, I still have no idea how the game runs so poorly. One thing I would like to commend the designers on is the amount of detail that goes into the world. In the hub, specifically, an exhausting level of detail and hidden easter eggs lie about all over the place.
The music is entirely forgettable. In fact, halfway through the game, I found the music getting in the way of the important part, that being the dialogue. So, I turned the music volume all the way down to enjoy the dialogue more easily. When the game wasn't stuttering, I felt the controls were pretty good, and the hitboxes were decent enough. I take no issue with the presentation, though some better compositions would have been nice, as well as Gearbox offering a way to turn the music and other sound effects down during dialogue.
If I were to over-simplify and equate most video games to desserts, I'd put them in two camps: you have your rich chocolate mousse slice of cake and the super-sized bag of salty, greasy potato chips. Some games don't have a lot on the plate, but that labored over mousse screams quality. Other games are meant to make you mindlessly go from the top of that bag of chips to the bottom without even realizing it, relying heavily on quantity of good enough content. Borderlands 3 is certainly the latter, and just like eating that bag of chips, I feel awful afterwards, regretting what I'd done.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.