Borderlands is back in the boldest of fashions. Gearbox unveiled gameplay and several key details at a dedicated event in Los Angeles and the forthcoming threequel so far looks every bit the instalment fans have patiently waited for.
Both familiar and suitably enhanced in equal measure, Borderlands 3 is a “much bigger game” that the first, second or Pre-sequel outings. And, it has plenty of new ideas to breath new life into the franchise, as we got to discover first-hand during 90 minutes of playing through an early demo.
For starters, the extended demo we played was set on the all-new planet of Promethea – the homeworld of Atlas, one of the weapons manufacturers you will have encountered in previous Borderlands games.
This is significant as it represents the first time in the series missions are set in systems other than Pandora’s. The original planetary location is still part of the game – with the beginning solidly based there – but space travel is now possible and, indeed, necessary to progress.
Gearbox told us that there are many planets to explore in the game going forward, each with their own challenges, enemies and landscapes but, for now, Promethea is the only one we’ve seen up close. Nonetheless, it gave us a refreshing look at a new colour palette and change of scenery. Instead of the rock-filled canyons and wastelands of Pandora, we got to travel the highways and skyways of a futuristic metropolitan city, Meridian, encountering more high-tech foes along the way.
Also new to the series is the method of transport offered to get you from location to location. Your homebase this time around is an enormous spaceship, with different, customised quarters for your character and NPCs, plus many interactive elements that enable you to fully prepare before heading planetside.
We didn’t get to see any of this during our playthrough – just on stage during the keynote – but it looks like a nice tool to help transition between major story missions and a vehicle for comedy asides, to boot.
While tweaked, the core gameplay is mostly untouched. The Borderlands series has always thrived on its vast selection of weaponry and loot crates and both look and feel very similar in style to previous episodes. There are some additions, however. There is a new elemental type – radiation – that joins fire, shock, corrosive, slag and explosive for addition damage effects.
To be honest, it is too soon to say how different this will prove to be and we didn’t really meet any enemy types particularly susceptible to it during the demo. But, we did enjoy seeing glowing bad guys dotted around when we unleashed a radiated volley towards them.
Other weaponry improvements include a greater variety of Tediore gun types, which perform different actions when you run out of ammo. Instead of reloading, Tediore-made blasters are thrown at an enemy and, while they also appeared in Borderlands 2, there are more spectacular effects on offer this time.
We particularly liked the weapon gained after dispatching the Gigamind boss – a brain in a jar, essentially. His weapon turns into a Gigamind Spider once depleted, which scuttles towards enemies and explodes.
There are others with equally comedic moves.
Some weapons also have secondary abilities this time around. One might fire normal bullets usually, but also offer tiny missiles after a quick tap of the down direction key on the gamepad. This gives a large degree of customisation to match your gameplay style and, if nothing else, adds extra mayhem and tomfoolery during battles. Swapping during weapon types was one of our favourite practices during the preview test, for sure.
Customisation for playable characters is also enhanced. Skill trees are expanded greatly over former Borderlands games, with more RPG-a-like adjustment on offer.
Skill points are rewarded each time you level up and can be assigned across three different categories for each of the various characters. We played as Zane the Operative (the other choice on offer was Amara the Siren) and his abilities allowed for some interesting special actions.
One of which that we used often was the SNTNL drone. When available, Kane can send an autonomous, heavily-armed drone to take out designated targets. Another of his main abilities is to throw down a time-limited shield from bullets. Another is to create a clone of himself that can both fire at enemies and draw their shots.
We chose Zane to play this time as he is unique in that he can have two abilities active in his load-out at the same time.
Then there are passive skills to help improve damage, health, etc. In fact, there are so many skill options available per character that 90 minutes were not enough to even scratch the surface. We look forward to exploring them further when the game is available for review fully later this year.
The skill tree can also be used to ensure your character is unique during co-operative play.
You can play co-operatively with a friend throughout the entire game (or as a single-player, if you prefer) and that can be done in split-screen or online. By offering a wide array of customisable skills, you could therefore both play as the same in-game character yet have very different talents and ability sets.
Your Amara could be radically different to your mate’s, for example. In look too, as there are many aesthetic customisation features available too.
Another new feature designed to improve co-operative play is what Gearbox calls Loot Instancing. This is an optional mode that, when activated, balances the game for each player. That means, even while they play at the same time, on the same game world, players will get a tuned experience just for their character level.
For example, if one player is level 10 and the other level 25, the former will find loot of level 10 and below, while the same loot will seem to be level 25 for the other. Enemies will be tuned suitably too.
It means both players will get an equal challenge, no matter how much time they have invested in the game separately.
The mode can also be turned off and co-op set to work normally, but we can see this being a real ground-breaking step in the right direction for action games going forward.
Something we also hope to test in the near future is the graphical fidelity on console versions of the game. Gearbox and 2K Games were transparent in revealing that the demo was running on high-end AMD-based PC architecture and, although we used an Xbox One controller, the hardware was more capable than even the One X or PS4 Pro.
We were informed that the version for those latter machines will be in 4K HDR (possibly checkerboard for the Pro) but we can’t say for certain right now.
Needless to say, the PC edition looked fantastic. Typically Borderlands, with its cell-shaded graphical effects, but sharp and detailed too. Some might bemoan the fact that the visual style hasn’t changed much in a decade, but not us. We loved the unique quality to the series and the third chapter continues the trend with aplomb.
Based on our gameplay session, outing numero three is undeniably a Borderlands game – with the same humour, madcap weaponry and play mechanics we have loved for years.
That is to its benefit. It is so easy to pick up and play for a series stalwart that you don’t even have to read any instructions or play through a tutorial (although there is one at the beginning of the game).
Our only worry is that it could also turn out to be one of its caveats too. The gameplay might be a tad too familiar to give the impression of definitive progression.
We shall see further down the line – close to its release date on 13 September for PS4, Xbox One and PC. For now, we are happy to say that we delighted in the lunacy and altered surroundings enough to come away with big beams on our faces. And, you can’t say that about many full games these days, let alone a 90 minute taster.