I appreciate the simplicity in the way that Borderlands 3 executes its action. It's the kind of game that only requires as much your attention as you are willing or able to put into it to find the fun – that's what I was reminded of when I recently had the chance to get my hands-on a pre-release build at GamesCom. Borderlands 3 is the sort of game where you can hold the trigger down under your finger is red and pulsing, point your weapon in any direction that will have it, and be met with a cacophony of numbers and noise as a reward. Enemies explode, loot pours from their ruptured carcasses, and still, those numbers keep rising. Just keep your fingers poised on the trigger, and you'll be rewarded for it. Borderlands 3 asks no more and no less of you – if you don't want it to – and I love it for that.
Borderlands 3 is then, in a sense, mindless fun. And if you think that's a criticism of it, then you're being a cynic. Borderlands is the type of game best enjoyed with a beer in the left hand, with the right still gripped to the trigger; a six-pack in the fridge to be enjoyed by my buddies, sat either side of me on the couch, all of us leaning back and continuing to argue over who gets to play on the bigger slice of the screen. This was true of Borderlands back in 2009, and I get the impression that it'll be true of Borderlands 3 in 2019 as well.
That is, for me, the premier way to experience the hybrid looter shooter, but that might not be your jam; if you want to lean-in, spending hours looking for the best loot, whipping through the story, and investing in the best skill-tree configurations for each of the four Vault hunters then you'll be able to do that too. Such is the simplicity in execution of the Borderlands formula, something we all take for granted given the complex confluence of systems working behind the scenes. That is, after all, how Borderlands 3 developer Gearbox wants it.
Bringing back the fun
"Honestly, I think this has been an interesting exercise," Chris Brock, the managing producer of development for the Borderlands franchise tells me. Brock is only too aware of how much of an outlier Borderlands 3 feels now in the FPS space, but then it's been that way ever since the series made its debut in 2009. "The industry has kind of moved in this other direction, kind of away from games like this. So to me, the reaction has actually been reassuring."
The reaction Brock is talking about here is the way in which Borderlands fans and genre enthusiasts alike have reacted to this third instalment throughout the – as Brock calls it – "marketing blitz" that has unfurled since Borderlands 3 was revealed at PAX East back in March of 2019. "[Some people] are being cynical about it, but it's also exactly the thing that they wish we would be making, right? After we revealed the game, I was sitting there in the airport terminal, looking at Reddit and everything else, and I was smiling because it's exactly what they want... I'm actually very comfortable with our game kind of being in its own skin. Because there's nothing else like it, really."
Brock is correct, there is nothing else like Borderlands 3. If anything, it has felt as if the wider games industry has made a concerted effort to move away from the type of experience Gearbox is so proficient at providing. Borderlands 2 landed back in 2012, and since then co-op games have only grown in popularity, but it so often feels as if simplicity has been stripped away in favour of pushing players to work together as tight units to succeed and proceed. It's the MMO-lite style popularised by the likes of Destiny 2 and The Division 2 that have taken the gauntlet and run with it, all as split-screen died a terrible, unceremonious death before our eyes.
Brock tells me that it is Borderlands 3's stripped back approach to co-operative play that helps it stand out in today's ecosystem. "I think that there's something about just being able to play a game that you like – that you could just happily play by yourself – and experience it with your friends. Like, Borderlands 3 isn't necessarily about having these very co-op specific driven moments. It's more an expression of 'this is pretty cool, and it would be cool if you could come and play it with me!"
It's difficult to disagree with that assessment. The co-op shooters that have risen to prominence since Gearbox's Borderlands went on ice have required an increasing amount of attention and energy from players. You are required to fulfil a role, and failure to do so appropriately means time wasted and frustration for the group that assembles around you. Some players love that investment and challenge, but there are others out there – myself included – that are quite happy to simply sit in a beautiful world and shoot away at anything that is stupid enough to walk in the way of my reticule. In that respect, Borderlands 3 feels like it could well be the antidote to the surmounting complexity of co-operative games.
Simple but evocative
As I said up top, Borderlands 3 asks very little of you if you don't want it to. It's a first-person shooter cast out across a variety of beautiful, colourful biomes, each of which is populated with a cast of out-of-this-world characters to meet and enemies to shred. If you want to find a couple of neat weapons, ramp up the rate-of-fire and reload speeds through your skill trees, and hold down the trigger until numbers fill the screen you can absolutely do that. Better still, you can do that with three friends by your side online. Better still, you can do that with three friends by your literal side thanks to the support of split-screen co-op.
That should be a small detail, but it says a lot about the industry as it stands today that split-screen is such a big point of order. Even as consoles have gotten more powerful, as screens have gotten larger to properly facilitate HD and 4K gaming, the split-screen co-op has sadly taken a back seat. Thankfully, Gearbox couldn't imagine a scenario in which it launched Borderlands 3 without it – even if it does straddle the borderline of being more trouble than it's worth. "I think business-wise, it probably doesn't make sense to do split-screen. Like, the actual percentage of people who play it is pretty low, right? But the people who do [play split-screen] love it so much and appreciate it so much that I don't…. I couldn't imagine not doing it."
That isn't to say that Brock doesn't wholly understand of why many studios have left it behind this generation – it's difficult to optimise and integrate into play. "Not to get into like a tech talk here, but when you have even just two splits, even when we have just two frames of split-screen, the game is rendering twice – the GPU is just very stressed out, right, so there is a tech concern there. There's also a UI concern, and it's something we have to consider all the time. There were times during development where we were like, 'why are we doing this to ourselves?' but when I talk to players that enjoy it, I know exactly why we are doing it."
For Brock, for Gearbox, this all speaks to what is at the heart of the Borderlands experience. The pure chaos that the game likes to generate in its moment-to-moment action and the stories players can find within that. Borderlands 3 isn't a game that forces you into a player role for hundreds of hours, all four of your friends could decide to roll across Pandora, and beyond as FL4K or Mose if you wanted to, it doesn't really matter to the way the action unfurls or your chance at survivability. Borderlands 3 is about finding the fun, no matter how you get there.
Borderlands 3 is about creating stories with your friends and about sharing those stories with those that couldn't make it to your flat or to your online session that night. It's about bonding with buddies over billions of weapons and a mutual hatred of Claptrap. It's about tackling each of the game's ridiculous bosses without dying because somebody missed a Raid trigger or failed to clear a mob in time. It's about holding the trigger down until your finger is sore, until you're dreaming of damage numbers, and arguing with your friends about ninjaing loot. That might make Borderlands 3 mindless, but honestly, I'm so here for it.