When Gearbox first announced the latest installment to its wild loot-frenzy FPS franchise, reactions were basically split between “Meh, this just looks like more of the same old Borderlands” and “Awesome, this just looks like more of the same old Borderlands!” Based on 90 minutes of hands-on time with an early demo of Borderlands 3, EW can confirm that, yes, it is more Borderlands, for better or worse.
There are a few welcome updates to gameplay systems, but for the most part the feel is practically identical to that of previous games in the series. Players take on the role of one of a handful of colorful Vault Hunters to blast bandits and other baddies with bazillions of creatively designed guns, grenades, and special powers. Along the way they are treated and/or subjected to jokey dialogue that ranges from genuinely entertaining wordplay to groan-worthy dad jokes to uncomfortably juvenile gross-out humor. If you’re looking for more of that formula in your life, Borderlands 3 probably won’t disappoint when it releases later this year.
Before allowing attendees at a Los Angeles gameplay reveal event to get their hands on the game, Gearbox presented a live gameplay session, during which CEO Randy Pitchford and BL3 creative director Paul Sage demonstrated some of the major modifications. The biggest change to the franchise is the introduction of space travel and new locales outside of the Pandora system. BL3’s managing producer of narrative, Randy Varnell, promised that this will be the biggest game in the series’ history, with more locations and character interactions than ever. Gameplay revealed at this first event took place partially in the familiar wastes of Pandora, and partly on a more industrial, Atlas-corporation-controlled planet called Promethea.
As for the story, Varnell emphasized a balance between respecting expectations of longtime fans and introducing characters and concepts to first-time players. Even in the brief demos that Gearbox showed off this week, there were a whole host of fan-favorite characters, from former playable characters like Lilith, Zer0 and Maya to shopkeepers like Marcus and Crazy Earl, and of course Claptrap. Borderlands wouldn’t be Borderlands without a healthy dose of its overconfident robot host. New characters include this game’s crop of playable Vault Hunters, of which only two, Amara the Siren and Zane the Operative, were available for the demo, and a new pair of villains: social media influencer twins gone evil Tyreen and Troy Calypso. The hub where the Vault Hunter and his crew of auxiliary characters hang out is a big spaceship called the Sanctuary III, which also hosts the player’s personal quarters/gun collection, vending machines, and other useful housekeeping spots.
Gameplay-wise, the design philosophy seems to be “the same, but more.” Instead of one active skill, each character starts with three upgradeable options to choose between. During my hands-on time, I played as Zane, a cocky Irish assassin who can choose to equip two different active skills at a time at the expense of his grenade slot. His initial ability options are an immobile bulletproof barrier, a flying attack drone, and a clone decoy he can swap places with in a pinch. My weapons loadout included an electric automatic rifle with a long wind-up and a large magazine, a rapid-fire shotgun that set enemies ablaze, and an SMG that could create small auto-turrets when reloaded.
Alt-fire modes for weapons also add a new layer of variety to the tried and true run-and-gun flow of Borderlands. Some weapons in BL3 are basically two guns in one. The first such weapon in the demo was a pistol that could transform into a to a mini-missile launcher. These doubled-up weapons are sure to add even more depth to the randomized loot grind of BL3, but the fundamental endorphin loop of using insane weaponry to blow things up and find even more insane weaponry should stay pretty much unaltered.
Some other updates like NPCs being able to revive players in combat and an option for instanced loot in multiplayer sessions are nice touches, but if Borderlands isn’t your thing, they probably won’t change your mind. If you’re already into Borderlands, or if you’re looking to give the franchise a shot for the first time, mark your calendars for a September release.