Seven long years since the launch of Borderlands 2, and Borderlands 3 is finally here. The looter-shooter has been a long time coming, with Borderlands 3 enjoying a level of pre-release hype that is rare for most games. Now that the game is out and the dust has settled, we know whether or not Borderlands 3 manages to live up to expectations and the lofty legacy left by its predecessors.
Borderlands 3 is bigger than Borderlands 2, with gameplay improvements across the board. Mantling and sliding makes traversing the environment a lot easier, and there are quite a few other quality of life improvements to note as well. Players can easily cycle through their quests using the d-pad, which means wasting less time in menus, and they can fast-travel from wherever they want. Players are also able to fast-travel to vehicles, so one person can drive to the next objective while someone else is busy figuring out which of the 1 billion+ guns in Borderlands 3 to keep and which they need to sell.
Driving itself still feels a little too floaty, but there are more vehicle options to choose from, with a lot more customization options than before. Borderlands 3 players are able to collect new vehicle parts throughout the game world, which they can obtain by completing quests, hijacking enemy vehicles, and more. Driving is still far from perfect in the game, but it's definitely an improvement from Borderlands 2.
Borderlands 3 gives players more options than Borderlands 2 in more important areas of the game than just driving. Leveling, for example, is far deeper and more involved. Each of the four playable Vault Hunters in Borderlands 3 has three skill trees apiece, littered with special skills and abilities that players can experiment with to find the build that's right for them.
Speaking of the Vault Hunters, Borderlands 3's lineup of playable characters is quite possibly the best there's been. We tried all four Vault Hunters, and found all of them to be fun in their own way, with two standouts. Flak the Beastmaster is one of the game's standout playable characters, as their use of pets make them play quite different than any of the past Vault Hunters. Better yet, Flak's pets can actually be upgraded through his skill trees as well, which means players may have to put a little more thought into how their spending their skill points. For example, if they want the Spiderant's new forms, they may have to invest points in an area that they wouldn't have otherwise, which can lead to some interesting builds.
The other standout Vault Hunter is Moze the Gunner. Moze is equipped with a mech that is hilariously overpowered and a ton of fun to use. The mech itself can be customized to a certain degree, and skill points spent in Moze's skill tree greatly expands its uses.
Each character in Borderlands 3 may have their own distinct skill trees and special abilities, but everyone can help themselves to the same absurd amount of loot in the game. Borderlands 3, like its predecessors, showers players with loot so that they are constantly finding new weapons, shields, grenade mods, and more. 90% of the time these new weapons are worthless compared to what players already have in their own inventory, but even so, the weapon variety is impressive. For example, some weapons are able to freeze enemies, while others double as an explosive whenever players reload them. The guns all have a nice weight to them that was missing in past games, and overall, the Borderlands 3 combat experience is much improved when compared to its predecessors.
The weapons play a major role in making the combat in Borderlands 3 so fun, but the enemies are also hugely important as well. Borderlands 3 has more enemy variety than any other Borderlands game, and players will find themselves in one massive firefight after another, taking on four or five completely different enemy types in any given encounter. Each enemy type in the game requires a different approach, and while much of the combat does still boil down to just shooting things until they die, some of the defenses and attacks of enemies do require more strategy on the part of the player than was ever required before.
Borderlands 3's boss fights are another area where the combat really shines. Some of the bosses can be legitimately tough if players go in unprepared, and while there are a few that are just bullet sponges, many have unique quirks to them that make the fights a little more interesting than typical Borderlands boss fights. For example, there's one boss that upends the platform players are standing on, forcing them to be mindful of their position throughout the entire battle to avoid falling off the edge to their death.
Players encounter these bosses on Borderlands 3's different planets, which also go a long way in ensuring more variety in the minute-to-minute gameplay. This time around, players aren't confined to the desert wasteland that is Pandora, but instead get to travel to places like Eden-6, which is a swampland, and Promethea, which is a dense metropolis. Players travel to these planets using the Sanctuary III ship, which can be decorated with items found throughout the game and is a neat little hub area once players learn where everything is located.
Borderlands 3 players can experience Sanctuary III, the game's different planets, and its fantastic combat with up to three friends through co-op. Borderlands 3's co-op works and it's painless to jump into a friend's game. And it also supports split-screen co-op, which is almost impossible to find in most games nowadays.
While the fact that Borderlands 3 has split-screen at all is appreciated in a time when the vast majority of games seem to ignore couch co-op altogether, it's hard not to be disappointed by its performance. Borderlands 3 runs poorly in split-screen, with horrific lag whenever the other person decides to open a menu. The frame rate literally grinds to a halt, and so players will find themselves doing a lot of standing around waiting for their partners to be done in the menus.
Borderlands 3's split-screen lag is the biggest issue with the feature, but it's not the only one. When playing in split-screen, if a player on the bottom screen looks at loot, the item's stats cover the top screen. This obscures the top screen player's vision and can be very annoying in a firefight. Top screen players will also find that they have to tilt the camera up awkwardly to see the full stats of gear that they are looking at, which can be annoying.
Yet another issue that Borderlands 3 has when playing in split-screen is that the text for quest objectives and weapons is microscopic. Players should plan to rearrange their furniture so that they can sit as close to the TV as possible if they hope to read any of the words in Borderlands 3 when playing in split-screen. And even sitting just a foot away from the TV, we found ourselves straining our eyes to read the text. The game's accessibility options do allow Borderlands 3 players to increase subtitle size, but there are no options to increase text elsewhere in the game. Not only does this mean that players may sometimes have to physically get up and walk up to the screen to read some of the non-dialogue text in the game, but it also means that they may miss out on some of the fun flavor text for the weapons, which include things like Futurama references. We haven't experienced a small text problem this significant since the days of the original Dead Rising on the Xbox 360, and it's disappointing to see it still a problem in a game in 2019.
Borderlands 3's split-screen problems are frustrating, but they would be a bit more tolerable if the game wasn't bogged down by a host of other technical problems. While mileage may vary depending on platform, Borderlands 3 on Xbox One X is a buggy mess. It would be ridiculous to list all of the bugs we encountered during our time with the game, but some of the most notable include multiple crashes, important NPCs walking through walls and becoming inaccessible, optional objectives not completing, weapon stats staying stuck on the screen, and HUD elements disappearing. We also ran into a frequent issue where NPCs would talk so quietly that we couldn't hear what they were saying, even when standing right next to them. The latter may be another split-screen-exclusive issue, however, as we didn't experience it when playing solo.
And that's the thing - Borderlands 3 plays significantly better when playing solo or in online co-op instead of split-screen. The difference is night and day. No lag, no audio issues, easier to read text, and a generally smoother experience all around. In its current state, it's much easier to recommend Borderlands 3 to someone who plans on playing alone or with friends online, as opposed to someone who is looking to pick it up for the couch co-op. Anyone in the latter camp may be better served waiting for a price drop and updates that fix the split-screen issues (and hopefully add more options like vertical split-screen).
There are some problems in Borderlands 3 that aren't going to be fixed by updates, though, and one of those issues is the sometimes lame quest design. There are many quests where players are tasked with following NPCs around, and many more where players are tasked with "talking" to NPCs. This translates into players jumping around while waiting for the NPCs to wrap up their expository dialogue, which takes way too long sometimes and can't be skipped.
The inability to skip dialogue or cut-scenes in Borderlands 3 puts a big damper on the game's replayability. But on the bright side, a single playthrough will leave the vast majority of players satisfied with their Borderlands 3 experience. It can easily take 30+ hours to beat Borderlands 3's main story, and that's even if players don't take a deep dive into the side quests. Content-wise, Borderlands 3 is easily the biggest game in the series to date, and will keep dedicated fans busy for quite a long time.
Plus, Borderlands 3 offers more endgame activities than past games so players can busy themselves with things like Circle of Slaughter and Proving Grounds instead of replaying the story. Players can also spend some time when the story is done cleaning up Crew Challenges like finding dead Claptraps and crossing names off Zer0's hit list, and finishing any remaining side quests they may have.
It helps that the side quests in Borderlands 3 are all mostly fun. Sure, there are some missions that send players running back and forth and can become quite tedious, but there are others like the Mad Moxxi battle royale quest that feature a ton of action, boss fights, and appearances by fan favorite Borderlands characters.
Borderlands 3 features basically every Borderlands character that one would hope to see, and while these brief appearances are fun as side quests, we actually found them somewhat detrimental to the main quest. The main quest in Borderlands 3 plays out like a series of glorified cameos, where players meet and complete a quest for one familiar Borderlands face after another. The trademark Borderlands humor helps keep things at least interesting throughout, but anyone expecting the story to match or exceed Borderlands 2 will be let down.
Borderlands 3's story is a weak point, mostly thanks to the revolving door of characters that make it difficult to get too invested in any one thing, and the lackluster villains. The Calypso Twins feel like retreads of Handsome Jack. They are brutal sociopaths that constantly terrorize people and want to take over the galaxy, and their characters never evolve beyond that. They are as one note as can be, and oftentimes just come across as obnoxious. Ava is another new character that we found to be insufferable, to the point that she undercuts what would otherwise be one of the game's more emotional moments.
Despite issues with the narrative and the mountain of bugs and technical issues, Borderlands 3's fun factor is still undeniable. The game is also one of the few large-scale, big budget adventures playable entirely in couch co-op that has released this entire console generation. Future patches will undoubtedly clean up many of its technical problems, and content updates like the upcoming Bloody Harvest event and more substantial DLC episodes will increase its value even further. Borderlands 3's performance issues certainly hold it back at launch, but a few months from now it should be a much better overall experience.
Borderlands 3 is out now for PC, PS4, and Xbox One, with a Stadia version also in development. Game Rant was provided an Xbox One code for this review.