There are certain things you can expect when picking up a Borderlands game. There will be looting, and there will be shooting. It will be raucous and it will be ridiculous and it will be loud. There will be graphic novel-style graphics, an endless arsenal of randomized weapons, and a couple gazillion random goons that spawn for the sole purpose of being set on fire, run over, or exploded.
I’ve been reading up a lot of the differing reactions to Borderlands 3, both the negative and positive, even as I work my way through it. And thinking a lot about the series as a whole. What appeals it to me, why I keep coming back to it as I have over the years.
There are things I like about the new title for sure. It’s been seven years, and a major overhaul was both expected and necessary. I like the new fast travel system. I like that I don’t have to walk all the way back to the start of a map once I’ve finished a quest. I like that the 3D map and waypoint system make it easier to track quest markers on different levels.
I like that Lilith has essentially become the face of the series. I like that the game doesn’t lack for women. I like that it takes time to catch up on so many characters from previous entries. I like that it has a female villain (as Tyreen is the far more active antagonist). I like getting more into the lore of the Eridians and the seeming connection to Sirens.
Still, as is perhaps to be somewhat expected, there are things I miss. I miss Spike Shields. I miss having grenades consistently do AoE damage. I miss better-placed vending machines so I’m not always overloaded on my inventory and running out of ammo. And I desperately miss having more bullet-based weapons, rather than energy-based.
But the one thing I miss most of all in these games: ambiance.
I miss when the game knew how to be quiet, and not just loud.
It’s a weird request to make from a series like this, I know. At least perhaps from a distance. After all, this kind of gleeful stupidity is exactly what it’s known for, and no doubt factors into its success. But then I’ve long thought the series doesn’t get enough credit. Sure, it’s an over-the-top looter and shooter. But it’s also quite a few other things as well.
In the first game, you’re left at the edge of a small, empty town on Pandora called Fyrestone. For the opening chapters, you are largely on your own. Sure, you meet figures like Claptrap and Dr. Zed. But Fyrestone feels like an Old West ghost town. When you explore the areas nearby, there’s not much else but skags and bandits. Every view off the edge of the map suggests empty and unexplored horizons. Pandora is always so much bigger than it seems.
It’s one of my favorite things about Borderlands. Oh sure, the gameplay is a lot of fun. It’s the key ingredient that holds everything together. And without it, the series wouldn’t be the same. But at the same time, a large part of what defines it is the space western motif. The seamless meeting place between these two story genres. Standing on the cusp of established civilization and peering out across the void of unknown and unexplored. It’s deeply embedded into the first game, and it serves the overall experience enormously well.
Borderlands 2 changed a lot of things, most for the better. But one standout element is really the environments, both embracing and enhancing that ambiance. There’s often a moodiness in these big, empty spaces; pillars of acid water, oceans of ice, and broken caverns of stone. I’ve long found these locales to be among the most memorable aspects of the second game.
Borderlands 3 has a lot of things going for it. And it’s a lot of fun. The bombastic nature of it all definitely has precedent. The series has always boasted a somewhat campy, garish presentation in tragically-named bosses, with a tongue-in-cheek approach to killing. To say nothing of the not-so-gentle jabs taken at capitalism in a corporation-run universe.
If this methodology doesn’t appeal to you, it’s unlikely you’d find any enjoyment here. But in the past, I also felt there was a modicum of restraint. The bombastic wasn’t so perpetual and overblown. There were long pauses in between large shoot-’em-up story sections where you could take in the sights on the way from one side-quest to the next. It wasn’t always just about running from one overblown showdown to another.
And perhaps most importantly of all, the games were still a space western. The mystery of the Eridians was vital, and did a lot for the mood. Each game walked an impressive tightrope between goofy and enigmatic without one conflicting with the other. If there’s one thing that disappoints me the most in Borderlands 3, it’s that it’s leaned so hard into the gleefully stupid and over-the-top, that it’s forgotten how to be much of anything else. I enjoy the absurdity and the humor. But the tone and gameplay aren’t the only things that make it work.
Maybe it’s the byproduct of success. Or maybe this was inevitable once the story demanded they leave Pandora behind. The western motif is difficult to maintain once you re-enter civilization proper.
All the same, going forward one thing I’d like to see come back is that balance. The ambiance, the mystique, the memorable environments, and the sense of unknown to be found even on one small planet. Borderlands is an absurd looter-and-shooter. But I hope it remembers that it has other things going for it as well.