Borderlands 3 is almost certainly the game that you think it is. Six hours in, a lot of my feelings remain the same as they were when I first played Borderlands 3 at an extended preview last month. In a lot of ways it’s a time capsule, in some ways embarrassingly retrograde in its sensibilities, and in other ways confident that its central draw of shooting and looting always was and will continue to be enough. Because of how little the franchise has changed, the best way to know if Borderlands 3 is for you is to boot up one of the previous games in the series and see how well it works for you today.
Time is not a friend to the Borderlands games, which have largely remained stagnant as so-called loot shooters have proliferated around it. The novelty of a game that fused the steady dopamine rush of Diablo-style loot and light role-player character building with some decent shooting has now become common. You can get a similar experience with better shooting in Destiny 2, or with a weirder backstory in Warframe. It’s like the difference between being excited about Chipotle coming to your small town and choosing to go to Chipotle in a big city. If that’s what you like, go for it—but has anyone told you about your options?
A significant point in Borderlands 3’s favor is its size: I’m still very early in this very long game, and while it doesn’t seem interested in a major shift from what came before, there’s plenty of room for little surprises. I’m curious to see what’s lurking in the margins, to dive more deeply into side quests now that I’ve spent some time diving ahead in the main campaign.
So far, the story is serviceable—you begin the game working for Lilith, the Siren from the very first Borderlands, and are drawn into conflict with the Calypso Twins, a couple of livestreamers with loud personalities and a penchant for snuff. The Calypsos have united all of the bandits of Pandora, and they’ve got designs on finding Vaults—in Borderlands lore, they’re hidden lairs rumored to be full of unimaginable loot, but in reality often come with a nasty surprise—on planets across the galaxy. So it’s up to you to chase them, because they very clearly won’t use whatever they find in a Vault for any good.
There are some concerning technical issues—on a Friday afternoon stream, I played co-op with video producer Paul Tamayo on an Xbox One X, and the game almost ground to a halt, the frame rate protesting as a second player dropped in for a split-screen local game. After a few minutes, it worked out just fine—until one of us opened our menu to change out loot or look at the map. Then, once again, the game began to chug, and negotiating firefights became far more difficult than it needed to be.
I should note that like many games enhanced for Xbox One X, you can choose to emphasize visual fidelity or frame rate, and I had chosen the former. Regardless, seamless couch co-op is a huge part of Borderlands 3’s appeal, and it should work without issue. I’ll be trying it some more in the coming week to see how consistent a problem this is.
It’s the biggest problem in a game with rough edges. Most are minor, like some mild texture pop-in or the occasional audio drop that makes your gun suddenly silent (which might irritate you more if you, like me, wish the shooting in Borderlands had more heft.) There was also one instance where a quest-giver completely disappeared mid-mission, barring me from continuing because they were supposed to open a door for me. Fortunately, Borderlands 3 is generous with its checkpoints, and re-starting my game fixed the problem, but I’m still a little wary.
Mostly, Borderlands 3 feels like a game that doesn’t have a whole lot to prove. It has piles of guns and a rude attitude and little people to shoot, because hey, isn’t that funny? In its first act, Borderlands 3 luxuriates in low expectations, resting in confidence that its core pleasure of sorting through endless piles of weird and improbable weaponry is enough to skate by. That and, if it works, the all-too-rare pleasure of having a solid shooter that you can play on the couch with someone else.