Borderlands 3 knows exactly what fans want

On the list of most ridiculous things that have ever happened to me, being flown to the other side of the world to play a video game for an hour and a half may take the cake.

On Monday, 2K Games ANZ flew a small pack of journos and influencers to Los Angeles to be present at the first hands-on event with the game. The location of the event, an event space around 20 minutes from our hotel in Hollywood, was kept a closely guarded secret up until the moment the media buses started pulling up out front.

My theory ahead of arrival was that the event would be held at The Magic Castle on Franklin Ave. Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford may have a tentpole game to promote but that’s never kept him from indulging in his passion for magic. Our hotel was only a few streets away too. It didn’t pan out. There’s always next time, Randy.

Pitchford himself was in good spirits, resplendent in the bedazzled “3” shirt he wore during the game’s announcement at PAX East. Pitchford presented a 50 minute look at the game in motion to that morning’s audience of media, streamers and influencers with assistance from Borderlands 3 game director Paul Sage.

It was nice! The presentation featured new gameplay, and a look at some of the game’s new biomes. It featured a surprise on-stage appearance by the entire Borderlands 3 development team. It even featured some good jokes — a word joke in the trailer involving “Coolant” and “Heatant” blew by the early morning audience. “These are the jokes,” Pitchford remarked dryly. It is the same presentation you will have likely seen live online today before the streamers get stuck in.

Speaking of streamers, I have to marvel at Gearbox’s audacity. They fly in streamers and influencers from around the world, at great expense, to attend this huge gameplay premiere and then reveal their central villains to be a pair of murderous, fame-hungry livestreamers. “Don’t forget to like, subscribe and obey!” trills Tyreen to her audience of barely-controlled psychos and raiders, allies she literally drains of their life force for power. The twins are demanding, entitled and thoroughly self-absorbed, singing a followers-as-valued-allies siren song even as they willfully slaughter their grateful acolytes.

The journos in the audience certainly enjoyed the jab at the competition, but I don’t know that we should get too comfortable. We might be next on Gearbox’s list.

Alright, let’s talk about the game.

The biggest question I had for Borderlands 3 coming into this preview was a pretty simple one: Will Gearbox stay the course, sticking to their tried and true formula, or will they chase the live service loot shooter model they arguably helped invent? The answer, based on the hour-and-a-half we got with the game, is definitively the former.

Idling on the title screen, waiting for people to pick up their controllers, it already looked and felt comfortingly familiar. We were asked to choose our character — Amara the Siren or Zane the Operative. We are told the remaining classes — Flak the Beastmaster and Moze the Soldier — will be made available to media at future preview events prior to launch. Ultimately, this turned out to be fine as both available heroes had more than enough going on by themselves.

I locked in Amara, interested to see how the Siren, historically a popular and powerful class, had changed. Previously, the Siren was a character all about elemental burst damage, disengaging from fights quickly and punishing foes from mid-to-long range. Amara throws a lot of that out of the window, combining the best of the Siren class with that of Brick, the Berserker class, from the original Borderlands. She launches herself into the fray rather than away from it, slamming into the ground and dealing a massive AOE burst of elemental damage.

Don’t be concerned if that doesn’t sound like the Siren you know and love. Where previously characters really only had a single special move they could use, Borderlands 3 introduces multiple moves across all three main skill trees. Not feeling the ground pound? Change it up. Go back to the old temporary invisibility move. Try something new. Experimentation is half the fun of this series and Borderlands 3 is leaning into it hard.

Additionally, the available skill trees feature new slots called augments. Each augment allows you to prop your character up in areas in which they might ordinarily be deficient or buff their primary stats to make them truly overpowered. It’s one of a series of moves Gearbox is making to cater to the hardcore ARPG community that has sprung up around the series, committed to multiple runs and maximizing the gear drops vs stat ROI per run.

This is exemplified by the new alternate fire mechanic. While not new to first person shooters in any respect, alternate fire in Borderlands isn’t merely a fun new way to destroy your enemies (which it is), it also has a significant effect on your overall stat management. Alternate fire options are rolled like any other weapon stat and the number of potential build opportunities it opens up is absolutely wild.

Speaking of destroying your enemies, Borderlands 3 is updating player movement and environmental interactions to create a more electric, modern combat experience. Borderlands 2 proved that Gearbox had mastered the art of great shooting, but its approach to movement was a fairly straight forward affair — walk, run, crouch and jump. In addition to the now-standard ability to mantle, Borderlands 3’s biggest movement add is an Apex Legends-esque combat slide. The slide not only makes you a smaller target without sacrificing too much speed, it also makes you feel like a badass, flinging yourself into combat and coming up guns blazing. This is important. Being a badass is core to the Borderlands experience.

Further badassery arrives in the form of environmental changes. Hitting an explosive barrel with your melee attack now sends it flying into the air or across a room. Angle it correctly and send it into the nearest mob, firing into the barrel to set it off as it goes. Notice a fuel pipeline nearby? Shoot it. Oil will pour out onto the ground, oil you can then light on fire. You might also create a dead zone with the newest damage type, radiation, for some extra damage-over-time. It’s all extremely smart, logical stuff that opens up all sorts of combat possibilities. “Mayhem is coming” indeed.

Co-operative multiplayer, another pillar of the Borderlands experience, returns in both split-screen and online variants. The biggest change for co-op players is the introduction of instanced loot and multiplayer. For those who don’t speak Video Game Industry Buzzword, this is a fancy way of saying “even playing field.” Characters of vastly different levels can now play together and the game fills in the blanks so that neither player feels over or underpowered. Similarly, loot drops are not shared — everyone sees loot but what you can see is just for you — but are always level appropriate, even while playing together. Loot instancing is an optional mode so if you prefer the old up-by-your-bootstraps method of jumping a new character in with a high level friend for powerlevelling, you can switch back to Classic mode whenever you like.

There is honestly so much to talk about here and I don’t have that kind of time. You’ll be seeing a lot of video content coming out of this event that will illustrate everything I’ve talked about here. The point I’m trying to make is that if you were at all concerned about what Borderlands 3 would look like or if it would stray from the things that made it great and memorable, don’t. Stop worrying. Borderlands 3 looks and feels like the real deal because it is the real deal. If the rest of the game is as strong as the hour-and-a-half we got with it, the future is bright indeed. I look forward to seeing what else Randy and the team have up their sleeves in the months to come.

The author was flown to Los Angeles as a guest of 2K ANZ.

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.