Take a bag of potato chips—any brand, anywhere—and you more or less know what you’re going to get. Crispy, greasy salt and oil delivered via thin layers of starch, they make a mess of crumbs and grease, and they’re terribly delicious, extremely difficult to stop eating once you’ve caved into the first, and likely to cause a carbohydrate crash and a sense of regret. Potato chips are great and awful and we all know what we’re getting into when we open a bag.
So how would you review one? Do you tell people chips are awful for their health and break down why? Do you get into the ethical practices of various potato chip companies, perhaps? Or do you go all-in on the other end of the spectrum, singing the praises of the perfect snack food, one that isn’t as impressive as other snack foods but also isn’t trying to be gourmet cuisine? I mean, sure, gourmet chips exist, but we all know it’s the snack of the people.
Borderlands 3, Gearbox Software’s return to their most popular franchise, is a bag of potato chips. It’s the series that popularized the loot shooter genre, marrying first-person gunplay with Diablo-style loot and skill trees. You collect gun after gun with the same mindless, dopamine-pumping pleasure of popping chip after chip in your mouth. It is awful and wonderful and also white noise, an experience so commonplace and reptilian that you wouldn’t call it the best gaming experience you’ve ever had, but you’d be down for it if someone put it out in a bowl.
Much like a bowl of chips, it also leaves a hell of a mess when the party’s finally over.
The story in Borderlands 3 is the same as it’s always been in Borderlands. Once again, you’re a vault hunter, a mercenary/fortune seeker who shoots their way across the bandit-ridden wastelands of the planet Pandora. The hope is that, in all this shooting, you will find your way to a Vault, an ancient repository of rumored riches. (And, usually, there’s a big nasty being in that Vault, watching over it all.) This time around, you’re answering a call from Lilith, one of the hunters from the first Borderlands who has since become commander of the Crimson Raiders militia that fights to protect civilians from bandit hordes and corporate overreach (corporations have armies in Borderlands). Also, of course, they want to loot those sweet, sweet vaults. They’re the good guys, kind of.
Nipping at your heels are the game’s antagonists, Troy and Tyreen Calypso, twin siblings who have united all the bandits of Pandora under their cult of personality. They’ve also figured out that there are other Vaults on planets elsewhere in the galaxy. Your mission: Get to those vaults before they do.
As the Vault Hunter hero of this game, you get to choose between four characters, each with their own impressively elaborate skill trees filled with different kinds of abilities to level up. There’s Zane, the Operative who controls the battlefield with drones, clones, and barriers. Moze, the Gunner, can summon a giant mech to pilot and outfit that mech with different cool weapons and upgrades. Amara, the Siren, can deal elemental damage by conjuring magical arms. And FL4K, the robot Beastmaster, has tamed a number of wild creatures who fight alongside them. It’s a lot to dig into, and like the first several potato chips in the bowl, it’s absolutely delicious at first.
Unlike the tactical realism of a Ghost Recon, or Destiny’s system of arcane perks that only serve to make their sci-fi creations better at shooting, Borderlands’ guns are toys. They’re garish in shape and color, digital creations that exist to solve digital problems. It’s the best.
Borderlands’ approach both side-steps and doubles down on the gun fetishism that comes part and parcel in video games about shooting by making it all one big crass joke: wouldn’t it be cool to have an arsenal of impressive and interchangeable dicks that could also file your taxes?
Finding a good Borderlands gun feels like cheating, like you found an endgame weapon 20 hours too early. My first legendary sniper rifle was an absolute beast of a weapon that fired three incendiary projectiles at once but only consumed one bullet at a time. I got it at the end of the game’s first act, and it remained a staple of my firefights right up through the credits.
This is the high that Borderlands offers, and it feels great, but like any high, it cannot last. The experience of playing Borderlands often devolves into a hunt for the next fix, and the longer it takes to get that fix, the more time you have to resent the game for not giving it to you. When you’ve tasted the high of an unexpectedly power-packed weapon, trying out more of the “normal” guns makes you feel kind of like a scrub, you know?
Granted, “normal” in Borderlands 3 is still pretty wild. When you have guns that turn into homing grenades, or crawling drone turrets, or bouncing balls that yelp “ow” every time they ricochet off a surface, you’d have to work very hard to have a boring firefight.
The game is built to encourage an endless search for the perfect loadout. What if I’m missing out on the coolest gun I’ve ever seen in a video game? I won’t know until I find it, so I have to keep playing. But am I actually enjoying this? Or just chasing the high? It’s hard to say.
Tucked away into the corners of Borderlands 3, I do find a lot to like. Its generous approach to sidequests, for example, rewards players with items but also with bespoke little stories. There are whole regions of several maps that you’ll only ever go to if you’re pursuing a sidequest. They’re like optional dungeons, there for those who want to do them, each offering something new to see along with a chance for more loot.
Borderlands 3’s soundtrack, which rarely makes itself known, has the benefit of offering occasional moments of delight when you stop to notice it. Like Borderlands itself, it can occasionally blast up into garish and annoying territory, but more often than not, it’s a hidden gem, there for the finding. After I got clobbered by a giant sphere drone and tried to re-evaluate my loadout, I happened to notice a throwback club groove that sounds a lot like the chorus to Kiesza’s “Hideaway,” with a touch of the sax-and-dance vibe at the end of Japanese Breakfast’s “Machinist.” Over on the swamp-world of Eden-6, I paused to take in a bit of ambient music that sounds like a Kate Bush synth cover.
These are little grace notes that show some personality in areas where other huge games might phone it in. There are some musical ideas I’d love to groove to there, but the game quickly moves on to other ones, like the (admittedly pretty good) running joke about a fictional modern jazz act.
Borderlands 3 is marketed as a comedy, but I’m not sure that’s what it truly wants to be. It’s irreverent, sure. There’s a very South Park-esque “everyone sucks” vibe to the game’s comedic beats. It’s just that the target of every joke is too lazy or too late. There’s a scene making fun of hipster baristas, a character who’s supposed to be a version of The Room writer/director/weirdo Tommy Wiseau, and an achievement list with titles like “On Fleek.”
Even less flattering are the game’s many comedic asides that make light of casual misogyny even as they exhibit an awareness of it. There’s the man who purposefully misstates “bitch” instead of “witch” when referring to a villain who’s an actual swamp witch. Another character, after saying something that could be interpreted as sexual harassment, notes that he “definitely attended that meeting.”
It remains baffling and infuriating that the game continues to treat dwarfism as fodder for slapstick comedy, even though it has ditched an offensive term for little people that previous games used, replacing it with the made-up term “tinks.” Or that, despite this being an issue raised about a character in Borderlands 2, Borderlands 3 has a white character appropriating African American Vernacular English. Or that this game prominently features Chris Hardwick reprising his Tales From The Borderlands role of Vaughn despite public allegations of emotional abuse (not all of the other returning characters have their original voice actors back).
While this is the garish shade with which Borderlands 3 colors itself, the game’s overarching narrative is more interested in telling a sincere story that feels like a last hurrah for the cast of characters that has slowly developed over the past four Borderlands games. (And yes, Tales From The Borderlands is part of this farewell tour.) Borderlands 3 is casually and quietly inclusive, making it clear that a number of its heroes and villains are queer or nonbinary while also not calling too much attention to it. It’s a story in which the heroes are mostly women—women who lead and sacrifice and disagree and win. There are jokes, but the story delivers its stakes with a straight face, and bets that players will be delighted at which characters will turn, and who they will miss.
The bummer is that, much like its comedy, the drama of Borderlands 3 doesn’t really have a target it’s willing to show teeth to. “Corporations” in the abstract sense have always been the overarching villain in Borderlands games, but they’ve also been a target that Borderlands has always stood up to with the weakest of knees. It is hard, after all, to make clean hits at massive companies for trampling people underfoot in an amoral quest for profit when the heart of your game is wholly dedicated to selfish plunder.
The specific antagonists of Borderlands 3, Troy and Tyreen Calypso, also feel like missed opportunities. By making them shock-jock streamers who have amassed a cult following among the bandits of Pandora, Borderlands 3 gestures at the kind of unchecked influence YouTubers and livestreamers can have in our current media landscape, and how viral fame can also destroy those who it elevates. The bones of something compelling are there, but Borderlands 3 lacks any of the conviction necessary to deliver on it. Its themes are as poorly developed as its sense of humor.
Despite the proliferation of games like Borderlands in the burgeoning loot shooter genre, there still isn’t a big-budget game that does exactly what it does. It’s a massive offline Diablo-style first-person shooting game that can be joined at any point with friends, either online or on the couch. All of its serious competition—be it Destiny 2 or Warframe or The Division 2—come with a pretty big deviation, namely a required internet connection.
While the broad strokes remain the same, Borderlands 3 is a better Borderlands game than we’ve ever seen, notably in the way that it opens up the endgame. There’s the prerequisite new game plus that lets you keep your loot and skills to take on the story again, just harder and with better loot.
There’s also the new Mayhem mode, which allows you to go back into the world after the end of the campaign and clean up any side quests you have left, with stronger enemies and random modifiers that will buff certain weapons or enemy health, or debuff your stats. Maybe energy weapon damage is boosted while regular weapon damage is dialed back. Maybe your guns do more damage while your action skills do less. There are three tiers of Mayhem, each offering better loot in exchange for steeper modifiers. It’s a terrific feature that makes going back and cleaning up leftover side quests—which, as mentioned, are substantial—feel so much more rewarding.
Unfortunately, on a technical level, Borderlands 3 is surprisingly bad at one of its core features: inventory management. I’m not merely referring to the interface, although it is a bit too cluttered and throws so many numbers at you that your eyes will glaze over after several hours of comparing loot. The bigger issue is performance. On Xbox One X, the inventory screen stutters almost without fail. Sometimes there’s a barely perceptible lag, and other times it takes a full three to five seconds for your guns to load in.
This may sound like a minor quibble, but it’s a problem that’s magnified when you play in split-screen. The rest of co-op play works well enough, although the same technical issues that you may encounter in solo play, like lighting that doesn’t properly adjust when you go from indoor to outdoor environments, will persist. The real issue is the whole game grinds to a stop whenever one player opens up their inventory screen.
I don’t mean the game pauses when one player pauses. (The game only pauses in co-op when both players pause, which is a very nice feature.) I mean the frame rate drops to the damn floor and no one can move for a couple seconds once someone opens their inventory. Given how much of the game is devoted to inventory management, it’s enough to make you want to tap out after a single co-op mission.
I don’t know how vital couch co-op is to the Borderlands community as a whole, but it is one of the reasons why I’ve always kept a Borderlands game within reach. It’s one of the last holdouts in the big-budget shooter space that has held on to split-screen co-op in a world where it’s largely gone extinct (Gears 5 is another.). To me, it’s part of the reason I even bother with Borderlands.
When a video game franchise has been around long enough, it establishes an identity in the public consciousness. That identity can become a defense against criticism. What did I expect, for a Borderlands game to not be Borderlands, with all the good and bad that comes with that?
Borderlands 3 has what its predecessors had: the corny humor that doesn’t always land, an unremarkable story, and an endless loop of replacing your loadout with a slightly improved loadout. It’s a relatively static experience in a franchise that hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last ten years. It is what Borderlands has always been, and everyone knows what that entails.
There’s room for it in your life, just like there’s room for a bag of potato chips in your pantry. They’re great for parties, or carb emergencies. They’re also unfulfilling, and don’t contribute much to your health. We call it junk food for a reason.
Like junk food, Borderlands 3 is an exercise in cheap hedonism. It’s not meant to take the place of a meal, but it still warrants criticism for being what it is, what it’s always been: a compulsively playable shooter with some good ideas and also some frustratingly retrograde attitudes. There’s enough good here to understand why you’d keep it around, but also enough troubling aspects that you could justify cutting it from your life entirely. But, even then, if you came across it at a house party, you’d probably take a bite.