Borderlands is one of FBT’s favourite games. Here we go again.
To say I was excited about BL3 would be an understatement. BL1 is one of my favourite games, not just to play but it’s entire attitude, the way it shook up a somnambulant shooter genre and created shoot n loot, where we could play RPGs like it was a frat party. The in-it-for-themselves leads, the out-there NPCs, the insane weapons, the unfair number of nasties … And of course, Moxxi. This time I promise not to just take screengrabs of her.
Thing is, in the decade since the original’s shake up of shooters, that brashness, the insanity has become the norm for free-range shooters - Rage 2 for example - while even its sequels and ‘pre-sequels’, as good as they were, started to feel a little mainstream compared to the hand-to-mouth original. So, does BL3 reassert the original’s commitment to mayhem or is it just another loot n shoot? Well … put it this way, not even Moxxi can save it for me.
Some years after BL2, a new group of Vault Hunters answer Lilith’s call to aid her Crimson Raiders in opening new Vaults. Unfortunately, a new force has arisen; the Children of the Vault, led by Tyreen Calypso, a Siren who has the ability to drain other Sirens of their power. She and her twin brother Troy steal our Vault Map so Tyreen can absorb the powers within and become Queen of the Universe. Or something, wasn’t really listening.
I picked ‘FL4K’ as my Vault Hunter, who is a hipster Legion. It has an amusing bloodlust and a good line in putdowns (It even got a Harlan Ellison joke in - “I have no mouth and I must vomit”), and a choice of three sidekick beasts – a Skag, a Spiderant or the Jabber, an ape-like creature which hilariously flings dung at opponents. BL3 loves poo, it features throughout; we search through it, step in it, blow it up and it even forms part of the plot. At one stage we get called ‘Turd farmer’ as an insult. It’s appropriate given how shit this is.
The other Vault Hunters are the standard load-outs; one can encase herself in a huge mech, there’s a Siren who can sprout multiple arms, and an aging crim who has tech on his side. They’re a mash-mess of previous Hunters and it would have been more interesting to gather every (surviving) merc for this supposed final vault run, and let us pick or continue previous ones. Turns out they’re all busy elsewhere.
Throughout the missions, you’ll get sent to meet a contact, find a missing person or rescue someone and they always turn out to be an ex-Vault Hunter. They’re woefully underused, appearing then disappearing or becoming redundant. While some mill about on Sanctuary III, our not-Normandy, no one really gets involved. At one point it appears an ex-vault hunter had betrayed us but no, they’re not even that interesting.
The nuclear family of Brick, Mordecai and (no longer ‘tiny’) Tina are a fun diversion, and Zer0 and Maya feature, but others are nowhere to be found – Anthea (out) for example should be here, and only hearing Kreig on recordings is sacrilege; we need him for this, and BL2 made much of his relationship with Maya which seems a missed opportunity – most of BL3 is like that, missed chances. One of the few surviving playables from Pre-Sequel rocks up as a boss which is good, and BL was never a game that really had any character investment, but I’d rather this go cartoon Mass Effect 2 than this Andromeda-like halfbake. BL’s considerable Pantheon deserved more than this. And so do we.
One of the reasons for this ‘meh’ness is the Calypso twins. Utterly infuriating, they’re supposed to be a satire of Social Media Influencers, their peppy ‘it’s fun to be evil’ posts inspiring bandit clans to worship them. It’s nowhere near biting enough and they’re not threatening or dangerous, just intolerable and the joke wears thin instantly. They feel like they were written by a bloke who comments ‘who?’ on a Kardashian article - and the plot is as over-done as the Kardashians.
We go from planet to planet looking for vaults but of course the Calypso Twins got there first, or turn up once we’ve killed the mini-boss; it’s that join the dots plot we’ve played too many times. BL’s plot was simply ‘get rich’ – now we’re a universe saviour? Additionally, the planets we visit all feel like self-contained, half-baked DLCs that we rinse and never return to. Plus, for all its finality (we are hunting for the final, Great Vault) we don’t explore the Sirens or Eridians’ backstory let alone the larger mythos. I don’t care, I’m a Vault Hunter, but the game makes out like I should, especially given Tyreen’s abilities and backstory.
It’s oddly disconnected, even flat at times, that wading into a huge fight with raiders, creatures, Children of the Vault etc. feels perfunctory – nothing much has changed in the scrapping stakes; shooting folks is never not fun, but there’s nothing new like Pre-Sequel’s zero-g gunfights. We can slam, mantle and slide but it feels a bit been here, done that and it’s the plot’s fault for draining any desire to push through for vast rewards and loot. Once you remove that focus, Borderlands becomes any other shooter; the original separated the men from the boys; I have a hard time separating this from any other non-linear shooter. Even dying isn’t as much fun as it used to be.
One fun element of BL was the sheer amount of money you gained – money was so cheap it was like Zimbabwe’s 100 trillion dollar note; it was all so gleefully worthless, but the economics of BL3 are Subprime Mortgage, Austerity levels. I loved maxing out the $9,999,999 counter in the original, but here I struggle to reach $9. Gone are the days of saving a damaged Claptrap in return for a backpack slot. Now those have to be bought, at an eye-watering cost. Second Wind becomes a much bigger threat if you wanted more space, or more ammo, or more anything. Being cautious in Borderlands?
BL3 has clearly taken some sensitivity training - Midgets are now ‘tinks’, Hammerlock has a new boyfriend and there’s female Raiders – but it’s still a wildly immature and ill-considered game; poo is not funny, but when it’s not making poo jokes it’s saying something equally crass or childish. The original was hardly Shakespeare but it had wit, it winked at the gamer. Not BL3. And the worst victim is my beloved Moxxi, who used to be a master of insinuation is reduced to lines like “try one of my slots sugar” – it’s even a mission requirement to pick one of her slots (you’re missing the word ‘machine’), and they repeat the ‘joke’ later. Plus, Moxxi’s outfit this time looks like someone they found on Chaturbate.
It’s not just witless, it’s lame; there’s a quest giver based on Tommy Wiseau – The Room was released six years before the original Borderlands; Gearbox piggybacked The Disaster Artist? Way to capture the zeitgeist guys. There’s an entire mission dedicated to a single joke about VR and one parodies micro-transactions but there’s zero satire, like they forgot to make a comment. Here’s a comment; don’t parody publishers scamming money when you made BL3 an Epic exclusive at 50 quid for the vanilla version then 40 quid for the Season Pass. 90 quid for BL3? That is funny.
It even suffers from bugs and bad coding we left behind before the first BL came out. You can cause missions to break, mission-givers disappear and at one point I couldn’t kill a target because an unconcerned NPC was standing in front of them, blocking both our bullets; Followers also do that, causing you to get stuck in dead ends – once I was forced to exit and restart because Maya wouldn’t move, which is not a fun option in Borderlands.
Still, for all this raging I put 65 hours into this. That’s got to count for something, it wasn’t all tortuous. I overhear Brick and Mordecai grumbling about a mission requirement and realise they’re doing side missions from BL1, Ice-T plays a hilarious navigation unit who was stuffed into a robot teddy bear after splitting up with his Security AI girlfriend, and some of the new creatures such as the velociraptor-things, including a big momma are great. We have different vehicles types, which you can steal from raiders and upgrade, and occasionally there’s a clever little scene such as brokering a fight between a T-Rex-thing and the Jabber-King. Fights are always pure BL and Guns continue to be amazingly demented; a fave is a Tediore machine gun which sprouts legs and scuttles off to find targets while another mutters lines from Tron. There’s moments, but it’s buried deep.
The ending, where we inevitably face off against an oversized creature is a huge disappointment though. Yes, it’s what we were expecting but we already fought 4 or 5 of them opening other vaults; after all the seething resentment aimed at Tyreen, a one-on-one with her and all her Siren powers would have been way more interesting. It’s a huge, but not unexpected let down. But by then I was used to BL3 letting me down. Of those 65 hours, I’d say 20 were great and that’s not good enough. Not for the series that rewrote gaming mayhem and created a sub-genre. So much of BL3 is dependent on you pushing forward, instead of the game dragging you along, kicking and screaming like BL1 did.
The thing is, BL2 was BL1 on steroids, but slowly a genuine plot emerged, with some surprising (for BL) pathos and loss, all perfectly summed up in the somehow moving Assault on Dragon Keep DLC – Why BL3 didn’t build on that instead of devolving into this I’ll never know. Pre-Sequel wasn’t even made by Gearbox and they got BL better than this. Out of curiosity, I booted up the original (yet) again, and despite knowing every pixel, I had a rocking good time. It wasn’t familiarity, it was timing, it was balance, it was sheer energy. BL3 is lacking that; it doesn’t feel like it’s here to show us a good time. It’s just here.
I hate to be negative about a Borderlands game. Well, clearly, I had a whale of a time bitching about it, but I understand the quandary of building a sequel to a game that relies on loot n shoot – I think they just took the wrong route; my original Vault Hunter wouldn’t have cared about saving the universe, unless there was money in it. Here, we’re supposed to want to save the universe, but this one is too samey to care.
Borderlands is now a billion-dollar franchise, so it’s inevitable there’s a BL4 on the horizon. For once though, I’m not thrilled about a new BL game. I’m not even bothering with replaying on True Vault Hunter mode, and that’s a first. Unlike Pre-Sequel, which improved on True Vault Hunter mode, BL3 is a tired game and bigger guns isn’t going to fix it. The original was The Sex Pistols, this is the Pistols’ reunion tour. Borderlands needs a Second Wind.