Borderlands 3 Hands-On Preview – Bigger, Better and More Badass

In this new age of looter-shooters such as Destiny and Anthem, the arrival of a brand new Borderlands game was always going to be met with some trepidation. How do you keep a series fresh in a genre that’s taken massively different turns since, while still crafting something that lives up to the franchise’s legacy and its fanbase? In the case of Borderlands 3 the answer is alarmingly simple – do the same but more. Much more.

Packed into a secret location in Los Angeles, California, some 200-odd journalists, influencers and streamers were treated to a live stage presentation featuring a world-first look at Borderlands 3’s gameplay. Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford took to the stage along with members of his team to show off some of the very first moments of the game, which will feel instantly familiar to fans of the series. The story in Borderlands 3 takes place after the events of every other game and begins with the Siren, Lilith, rallying new recruits to her Crimson Raider army in order to take down a new, dangerous cult on Pandora called the Children of the Vault. One of those new recruits is you and, in a sequence not unlike the beginnings of the previous games, you’re first met by a Claptrap robot who takes it upon themselves to be your superior officer and guide you through the game’s tutorial section. It doesn’t take long of course for things to escalate into all-out combat between Claptrap, the player and a whole base full of Children of the Vault fanatics. So far, so Borderlands.

Fast forward a little into the presentation though and we get our first glimpse at something very new to the franchise. For the first time, players will be leaving Pandora (and its moon) behind and embarking on interstellar travel to entirely new worlds. Facilitating this is an all-new home base, ‘Sanctuary III’, that happens to be a damn spaceship. Filled with familiar faces like Hammerlock, Tannis, Ellie and Crazy Earl, the new Sanctuary looks like a killer new hub, and even comes with places to mount weapons and enemy trophies to give it that personal touch. It’s here that you’ll set off to new worlds as well, with the demo moving to the world of Promethea, headquarters to the Atlas Corporation and the setting for our world first hands-on demo.

We were given the opportunity to play as either Amara or Zane and dropped into Promethea, featuring a huge, high-tech city that reminded me a little of ‘Opportunity’ in Borderlands 2. It’s here that Lorelei, a new non-playable ally, is introduced. Lorelei works for Rhys, who fans will know as the main character in Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands, and is now head of Atlas Corporation, who are themselves at war with Maliwan. Alongside Lorelei, I drove, fought and looted my way through Promethea in search of Maliwan’s tactical war AI tech. Structurally, Borderlands 3 doesn’t seem all too different from previous games, with NPCs doling out story missions and side missions aplenty while you tear up the semi-open environments and blow the s*** out of your enemies. Rather than mess with the established formula, Gearbox seem to be turning out a tried-and-true Borderlands game, albeit one that goes bigger, deeper and explode-ier than ever before.

Visceral, over-the-top FPS combat is at the core of any mainline Borderlands game, and so it’s in combat that I was most keen to check out what Gearbox are doing to take things to the next level. Playing as Amara, this game’s Siren, I felt instantly at home with the controls and the general flow of combat encounters. It didn’t take long though for things to start really heating up and the need to arise to come to grips with the game’s new mechanics. One of the most immediate shake-ups is the addition of an alternate firing mode to a lot of the game’s weapons. Switching between modes at the touch of a button, guns can do things like change firing patterns, switch elemental effects or even completely change their functionality. One of my favourite new weapon abilities involves lobbing a tagging grenade at an enemy in one firing mode, before switching to another than unleashes a barrage of ‘smart’ homing bullets at that target. Having alternate firing modes is just one subtle addition, but in a game that can boast ‘billions’ of unique weapons, it goes a long way into making every new piece of loot potentially very interesting. The same goes for other, general tweaks and additions to weapons, especially in relation to their in-game manufacturers, that give them even more unique personalities. Take the Tediore shotgun that I rolled with for most of my demo which, instead of reloading, is chucked out onto the battlefield at the end of a clip before turning into a legged robo-gun and hurling itself toward the nearest enemy and exploding. Neat stuff.

Aside from changes to the guns themselves, combat gameplay in general has also been given some nice upgrades. There’s an Apex Legends-style slide, which is great for making a hasty retreat to cover. You can also now hurl explosive/elemental barrels towards enemies with a melee attack, making for some super fun on-the-fly tactical moments. Characters’ skill trees have expanded somewhat as well, with players now able to choose from three unique Action Skills as well as unlock further augments and modifiers to those skills. My go-to became Amara’s Phasegrasp, which locks enemies in a kind of stasis field and can be augmented to do things like add extra elemental damage. All of this adds up to a lot more variety, a lot more scope for strategy and most importantly a lot more mayhem in every encounter. I found myself covering more ground, switching things up and experimenting more in Borderlands 3 than I have any of the prior games, because it’s just so damn fun. Borderlands has always been about giving players maximum freedom in building their characters and taking them out on the field, but this is the first time I’ve felt so compelled to get truly creative in every encounter.

Another big new change that I appreciate is the expanded vehicle system. Vehicles have always been a big part of the Borderlands experience so it’s great to see them back and better than ever. Summoning and driving vehicles works in much the same way as before, albeit with much more customisation seemingly possible. I couldn’t access much in the closed demo, but it looks like there’s going to be a decent variety of body and weapon options for vehicles. Coolest of all is the addition of a new type, the Cyclone, which is basically a monowheel but with guns. I’m not sure if it’s exclusively used in Promethea, but its small size certainly made zipping around the city streets in my hot pink Cyclone a much more attractive proposition than walking. I can’t wait to pull up with my whole squad in four of these things like total badasses, and I also can’t wait to see what other new modes of transportation might reveal themselves in later areas.

Of course, when you’re not thrashing the streets in your sweet ride or blowing the heads off of fanatics, you’ll be undertaking missions and errands for your friends and allies, in true Borderlands fashion. While my main quest took me across the city, eventually meeting up with fan-favourite Borderlands 2 character ‘Zer0’ and taking down ‘Mega Mind’, I took it upon myself to stop along the way and help folks out. While I couldn’t play enough to truly say whether Borderlands 3’s side content will eventually measure out to be more of the same ‘fetch’ quests that have been a series staple until now, I can say that the few I did showed the same sense of fun and humour as some of the better quests that have come before. One that I did, for example, involved procuring a fresh pot of coffee for an increasingly cranky Lorelei, a feat made challenging thanks to a less-than-helpful robo-barista and what seemed like a cult of coffee-worshipping bandits. Borderlands has always done a decent job of giving its outlandish characters very human problems, and while the wild swings from genuinely heartfelt writing to fart jokes mean than not everything is for everyone, there’s at least something for everyone.

While I didn’t get to experience co-op play and the new instanced systems, the small taste of solo action that I experienced in Borderlands 3 was enough to convince me that Gearbox are on the right track here. By staying true to what made the previous games great while fleshing out and building on the core systems to a staggering degree, this new entry looks set to deliver exactly what fans and newcomers want. Borderlands 3 just shot right to the top of my most-anticipated list for 2019.

Kieron traveled to Los Angeles for the Borderlands 3 gameplay reveal. Flights and accomodation were covered by 2K.