After Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, a disappointing spin-off released in 2014, Borderlands 3 is a welcome return to form for the franchise. The game reunites fans with the core group of memorable main characters from the first two games and delivers the mayhem-heavy loot-shooter experience that the series is known for. Borderlands 3 carries forward many of the things that made the first two games special, but in doing so it also brings with it a few of the same stumbling blocks. There are noticeable improvements to the series formula, though, as Borderlands 3 provides additional freedom in how you want to play.
Set seven years after the events of Borderlands 2, Borderlands 3 wraps up most of the narratives established in the earlier games, while also teasing additional threads that could be explored in the future. Despite these hints, there’s a definite finality to Borderlands 3’s campaign, which satisfyingly wraps up the arcs of characters that fans have been following for 10 years.
As one of four fledgling Vault Hunters–Zane the operative, Amara the Siren, Moze the gunner, or FL4K the beastmaster–you are recruited into the Crimson Raiders, the militia that defends the only civilized pocket of society found on the bandit-filled wasteland planet of Pandora. Led by Lilith, a former Vault Hunter, the Crimson Raiders have gone to war with Tyreen Calypso and her twin brother Troy, who are using their influence as popular video streamers to convince their cult following to help them acquire the immense power found in secret vaults scattered throughout the universe. The story is a bit of a slow start, but it quickly picks up near the end of the first act and rarely slows down on its way to its grand finale. Looting and shooting are still the focus of Borderlands 3, but its campaign also delivers a fairly well-written story of sacrifice, the importance of family, and the responsibilities of heroes.
Borderlands 3 provides more flexibility than ever before to create the type of character you want. For the first time in the series, the Vault Hunters all have an active skill tied to each of their three respective skill trees. Amara, for example, can equip Phaseslam to deal immense close range damage, Phasecast to tear through enemies from afar, or Phasegrasp to crowd control or focus her elemental abilities on one target. Using perks from all three skill trees, you can evolve each of these skills in meaningful ways. For instance, if you want to make Amara’s area-of-effect Phaseslam ability into something more precise, you could change it with perks found in both the Brawl and Fist of the Elements skill trees so that the ability transforms Amara into a levitating spider-like creature that shoots a massive fire-based death ray before she careens to earth in a smaller slam. Phaseslam can evolve in other ways too, as can Phasecast and Phasegrasp–providing numerous options for how you want Amara to fight. The same can be said for Zane, Moze, and FL4K.
As a result, it’s pretty easy for both you and a friend to be playing as the same character but have completely different builds and roles on the battlefield. This added freedom also makes it far more feasible, and thus enjoyable, to play Borderlands 3’s campaign entirely solo in comparison to previous games in the franchise, as you’re not limited to established class restrictions based on your Vault Hunter choice. You obviously don’t have to go it alone–and Borderlands 3 actually makes co-op more rewarding thanks to an option that removes the need to compete for loot–but it’s nice knowing that if you want to, your experience will not be completely defined by the Vault Hunter you choose.
The freedom to build your ideal loadout extends beyond your Vault Hunter’s skill trees. Borderlands 3 makes clear-cut distinctions when it comes to the manufacturer of each gun. Before you even loot a new firearm, looking at which company made it will tell you most of what you need to know about what it can do. Maliwan guns are fairly weak but each one shoots elemental bullets, for instance, allowing you to more easily electrocute shields, melt armor, or burn through flesh, while a Hyperion firearm raises a forcefield in front of you while aiming down sights and becomes more accurate as you pull the trigger. They’re minor changes to further differentiate each type of gun, but these new manufacturer effects make it a lot easier to build specialized loadouts that can augment the perks you choose.
But, more than anything, the guns are just fun to shoot. It may come as little surprise given that distinctive firearms has been the bread and butter of the franchise since the beginning, but Borderlands 3 has quite a few unique guns that offer a wide variety of enjoyable effects. Some have actual gameplay-changing ramifications, like a sniper rifle that can transform into a shotgun. But Borderlands 3 also has guns that are just playfully quirky and weird–ones that insult and tease you for your performance or just shoot more guns, for example. And you acquire new firepower at a gratifying pace, with new loot regularly dropping from the tougher enemies in the groups you encounter and explosively erupting from bosses you defeat. Borderlands 3 never lets up on giving you new weapons to experiment with, progressively increasing the explosive potential and wacky effects of the weapons you find, which in turn serves as a satisfying visual representation of how much stronger you’re getting beyond the higher damage numbers.
Even without the loot, defeating enemies in combat is fulfilling. Shooting an unshielded enemy in the head rewards you with their cranium erupting in a satisfying blossom of blood and gore. When you don’t land that final headshot, enemies mostly go out with a final battle cry–ranging from pitiful cries for salvation to humorous insults–and the game doesn’t repeat lines often enough for them to grow stale. Combat is never dull as a result, with your chosen Vault Hunter shouting out funny or cool-sounding one-liners in the brief moments you’re reloading and making your way to your next victim.
As entertaining as Borderlands 3’s combat is, the fun that is found in the freedom to fight however you want is occasionally interrupted by the structure of boss battles, a traditional problem for the franchise. Many of the bosses look cool and have incredible theme music, but they all amount to the same strategy: shoot the weak spots, run from or jump over attacks, and repeat. You can cheat some by hiding in an unreachable corner and slowly chipping away at the boss’ weak spot, but that’s not much fun either as pretty much every boss in the game has a large healthpool and many of the later ones are bullet-sponges.
Borderlands 3’s late-game bosses pack a wallop with every attack too, downing you in a few hits if you’re not careful and thus demanding that you near-perfectly dodge for an extended period of time–which can drag on and feel boringly repetitive in the longest of these fights. So when you do encounter a boss in Borderlands 3, it typically grinds the mayhem-filled action to an abrupt halt as you’re forced to respond to the boss’ patterns by playing more slowly and carefully.
The new climbing and sliding moves do allow you to better navigate environments and thus get out of the way of certain attacks, but both mechanics are better suited for weaving among the scattered firefights with normal enemies, not the concentrated bombardment of the bosses. Several boss battles are frustratingly difficult to tackle on your own as a result, to the point that they all seem like repeated suggestions that you should be playing Borderlands 3 with at least one other person. Two or more players allows you to take turns reviving each other, making it easier to last longer. But simply trying to outlast one strong enemy doesn’t impart the same enjoyable impact of the mayhem-filled firefights from the rest of the game. You feel more like a badass running around and gunning down a vast assortment of different enemies than you do hiding behind cover and waiting for the boss to stop attacking you just so you can safely get a few shots off.
Thankfully, boss battles only make up a small part of Borderlands 3’s overall campaign. Most of the story sees you go up against the Calypsos’ seemingly never-ending cult of bandits or the armies of the twins’ corporate sponsors as you race to find the pieces of the keys to open up vaults across the universe. Your journey takes you far beyond the planet of Pandora, and it provides opportunities for new types of combat encounters in a series that has largely revolved around wide-open deserts full of bandits or factories full of robots. For example, the jungles of Eden-6 contain an assortment of dangerous wildlife that have different hunting grounds and patterns, and the low gravity of a Maliwan space station orbiting the planet of Promethea allows the elemental gunslinging corporate soldiers you’re going up against to jump higher and more easily attack you from above. Certain weapons have greater utility in certain environments as well, such as an explosive mushroom-like grenade that becomes more powerful when thrown into water. That’s easier to do more often in Eden-6’s swamps than Pandora’s sand dunes. Borderlands 3’s campaign sees you bouncing back and forth between planets every few hours, which keeps each setting from growing stale while also encouraging you to keep adopting new playstyles, strategies, and weapons.
Even if Borderlands 3 takes you far beyond the scope of Pandora and sees you meet brand-new allies and encounter never-before-seen threats, the original cast of characters that have defined the adventures from the beginning are still at the forefront, and the story is better for it. Whether you’re a long-time fan or not, it’s the connection to the Crimson Raiders that acts as your motivation for fighting through the campaign. Borderlands’ heroes are nothing if not personable, and that trend continues in this latest installment–transforming the motley crew of outlaws into a family you feel a kinship with. Your connection to the Crimson Raiders continues to grow with every mission as well, as–thanks to the spaceship Sanctuary III–the entire group is with you throughout the course of your journey.
Newcomer Tyreen is clearly a bad person, but the campaign’s story never gives you a compelling reason as to why you would want to kill her so as to stop her for good. Lilith is fond of reminding you that Tyreen’s plans would ultimately destroy Pandora, but Borderlands 3 introduces a bunch of planets that would make for more preferable homes. Tyreen, and thus Troy, never amounts to a credible threat that you feel like you need to stop as a result, so the Calypso twins instead feel like the primary source of much of Borderlands 3’s comic relief, not villains that must be stopped.
With most of the franchise’s juvenile humor and ludicrous jokes coming from your planetside interactions with the Calypsos, it’s on Sanctuary III with your crew that Borderlands 3’s well-written story delves into its more heartfelt and emotional moments. The game wastes little time reintroducing you to mainstays Lilith and Patricia Tannis, a brilliant yet socially anxious scientist, and building the drama of its narrative around them as the two women grow into their new roles within the Crimson Raiders. Tannis’ evolution is especially compelling as you see her make courageous strides to move beyond the self-imposed limitations she’s set for herself on account of her autism and social anxiety. For two characters that were popular but little more than caricatures in the first game, it’s rewarding to see the growth the two underwent in Borderlands 2 now culminate into two leaders that you’re willing to follow to the end.
That isn’t to say the other fan-favorite characters have been left out. Pretty much everyone from the previous games returns to complete their respective arcs. Borderlands 3 weaves in plenty of memorable new characters as well–such as the coffee-obsessed Lorelei, artificial intelligence BALEX, and scoundrel turned rebel general Clay–but the game’s story is very much the fulfilling conclusion that long-time fans have been looking forward to for the franchise’s mainstays.
And what a conclusion it is. Borderlands 3 has a few stumbling blocks when it comes to bosses, but these fights are overshadowed by the game’s rewarding gunplay and over-the-top humor. The game’s character-driven narrative acts as a satisfying finale for the loot-shooter franchise, and the new mechanics and features–especially the reworked skill trees and weapon manufacturer effects–give you plenty of agency in how you want to play through it. If you’ve never been a fan of the franchise, it’s unlikely Borderlands 3 does enough things differently to change your mind, as the game best excels at continuing what the series has always done: deliver a humorous tall tale of misfits looting and shooting their way to heroism.