But I was able to get a feel for the goofy first-person shooter combat at a preview event at publisher Take-Two Interactive’s 2K label in Novato, California. The art is beautiful, the dialogue is funny, and the characters are wacky. Borderlands fans have come to expect that from Gearbox, and that’s why the series has sold more than 48 million copies over the past decade.
In this game, you return to the planet of Pandora, a desert planet with lots of loot and guns. But make your way to new places like Eden-6, a swampy planet with dinosaurs. I was able to play the beginning hours of the game, and then I skipped over to Eden-6, where I had to face the dinosaurs but also had much better weaponry.
The preview videos give you a good idea of the gameplay. The action on Pandora begins at a place called Covenant Pass, where you have to face off against the Children of the Vault.
I played as one of four playable characters: the Beastmaster, known as Fl4k. The Vault Hunter immediately meets Clap Trap, the zany and overly enthusiastic companion robot. Fl4k tolerates Clap Trap’s help while he decides whether to shoot the annoying robot. But Clap Trap immediately sets the irreverent tone and the usual humor that Borderlands fan know.
A new beginning
At a “welcome” sign, my first task was to open a gate. It took me an embarrassingly long time to open the gate, but Clap Trap shouted, “Best recruit ever!” upon my success. Clap Trap proceeds to move in “stealth” while talking to himself and singing the whole time. Clap Trap uncovers a gun for me and I charged into the stronghold of the Children of the Vault, who are a bunch of bandits and criminals allied together under the leadership of the Calpyso twins, a brother-and-sister team who “livescream,” or broadcast live video of their victims, to their followers on social media.
Clap Trap got abducted and it gave me a reason to charge into the fray with my homely pistol. The enemies insulted me as I fired, and I shot back. Each enemy absorbed a few bullets before dying. I died and was reborn on the spot. When I shot one of the enemies, he muttered, “With my last breath, I curse Clap Trap.” These last gasp mutterings have a lot of variety, and they’re one of the ways that writers Danny Homan and Sam Winkler inject some of their humor into the game. It’s like if there is an excuse to add some humor at any point, the writers will do it.
My character said, “Let’s see if my knife fits in your skull.” And when I cleared the space, there was some loot to pick up. As usual with Borderlands, you have to scour the entire battlespace to pick up all the loot. It’s not exciting, but it comes with the territory. Then you get lost looking for the next location. Clap Trap is helpful, saying, “There might be something in that chest over there.”
Once you makes some headway into the game, you can start leveling up. That’s where the role-playing elements show up. Borderlands 3 has tons of guns, and you can level them up with gadgets, new components, and better ammo that makes them more deadly. You can also level up your character’s abilities. One of the first things you can get for Fl4k, the Beastmaster, is a beast. Or a pet, if you prefer.
The first boss was a one-armed (or rather, a mutant with one long arm and one short arm) bandit named Shiv. He charged at me with his huge machete, but he was easy to evade and pump full of lead. Once I beat him, I collected loot. A non-playable character named Lilith, commander of the Crimson Raiders (which is at war with the Children of the Vault), shows up and tells me to rescue Clap Trap from the big magnet that has picked him up. I do so but regret it.
From there, I gradually meet more and more characters and pick up more abilities. I meet the sidekick Vaughn, who brags about killing someone with his abs. I get into more firefights, and my pet becomes extremely useful at either killing small enemies or distracting big ones during a firefight. That little creature saved my butt a number of times. After another fight, Lilith said that she had a map that showed a number of secret vaults all over the place. It made the Crimson Raiders into a target. The group got attacked, lost the map, and needs to find it again.
Meanwhile, we learn more about the Children of the Vault. We learn inside Shiv’s Sanctum that the Sun Smashers have the map, and then we go after them because we don’t have anything else to do.
What you’ll like
Guns, loot, and leveling up
There are guns, lots of loot, and things that make you laugh. What’s not to like, right? The guns feel good, making nice clicking noises and booming echoes when appropriate. And then there’s the shopping. You can sell your loot, try out new guns, upgrade them, and shop some more.
Challenges that get bigger with your abilities
As you get better armed and more powerful, the challenges get bigger. I saw this in the Eden-6 level, where I had some very powerful explosive guns going up against dinosaurs.
Regenerating your ride
If your car gets blown up, you can regenerate it at a station. This saves you a lot of time.
When you first meet Vaughn, he is hanging upside down. He says, “Will you help me? If you don’t help me, I’m going to yell every 15 seconds. I like to hang, but not like this.” Clap Trap is funny and he’s a great companion. But so is Balex, who I ran into on Eden-6. This companion takes the shape of a teddy bear, and it is voiced incongruously by the tough Ice-T. The result is hilarious dialogue.
What you won’t like
Woozy, spongy shooting
I got a bit woozy playing it on the hefty machines at 2K. I’m not sure why, but I had to pull out some anti-nausea tricks like looking away. I liked how the guns felt, but the bullets seemed like they just went into sponges. I’d get a headshot on one of the little walking babies, and then I would find that the baby gets up to take another shot at me. The enemies take evasive action and shoot back. That’s annoying of them, but it makes the game more challenging. And that’s ultimately good.
Some jokes fall flat
Fl4k, the Beastmaster, likes the sound of his voice. Now and then, he will say, “I have no blood, so I am taking yours.” It’s a joke that is there so that it fills an empty space in a very long game. When you’re a joke writer, you win some and you lose some.
Borderlands 3 is a fine addition to the series that tens of millions of gamers love. It’s got 30 to 35 hours of zany shooting, and that means you have to listen to a lot of jokes. Fortunately, the writers are good. The humor is over the top, and so it either comes off as annoying or funny. I’m going to bet that enough of the pluses will come together — guns, loot, leveling up, characters, and humor — to keep a lot of people entertained at the start of the fall-holiday video game season.