The most striking thing that you'll notice upon first starting Borderlands 3 is, and maybe this won't come as a surprise, Claptrap. The series mascot is still by and large the obnoxious mechanoid you know and love (to hate), walking players through the game's opening tutorial for the third time running, but something's... different about our beleaguered robot pal this time around.
Borderlands story recap: Catch up on the history of Pandora in time for Borderlands 3
Since former Gearbox exec David Eddings is no longer working at the studio to play the character he helped personify, the role has fallen onto the voice box of actor Jim Foronda, now doing his best impression of Eddings doing Claptrap (and rather successfully, I have to admit).
In a weird way, this subtle change is emblematic of Borderlands 3's design ethos as a whole; same same, but different. For its long anticipated sequel, Gearbox hasn't so much reinvented the Borderlands wheel as it has merely chiseled away at the contours, forming something rounder, smoother, and slightly more palatable to those previously put off by the series' rough edges.
That timeless, cel-shaded art style remains as distinctive as ever, for instance, but has nevertheless been varnished with a fresh coat of richer shades and textures. Pandora's familiar pantheon of enemies are all here, too, except now you'll run into Tinks instead of Midgets, and fire off elemental rounds of Radiation as opposed to Slag; just two examples of the game's more sensitive approach to its internet humour. Even the series' country western infused soundtrack is back, pulsing with bursts of atonal twangs and percussive punches, yet offering variant riffs on the melodies that came before it.
The limited scope of these changes might seem negligible, but that's entirely the point. While some sequels must adapt to succeed, Borderlands is one of the privileged few that merely needs to double down on the gold it first stumbled upon back in 2009. My recent hands-on with Borderlands 3, in which I played through the first three hours of the game, confirms Gearbox has indeed left that winning formula alone for the most part, and – with the exception of a few sour notes – it's still looking to be paying off in dividends.
Trials of the hunt
Let's get those sour notes out of the way first, as there's every chance that the final product will filter them out over time, beginning with its gameplay pacing, a (quite literally) long-running problem of the series to date. Any seasoned Vault Hunter can describe in great detail what it's like to be forced into extended periods of wandering from one objective to another over barren stretches of land, often with nothing but the odd enemy mob to keep things interesting, but the TL;DR is that it's not much fun.
Simply a case of not enough butter spread over too much bread, Borderlands 3's creative director Paul Sage promises the sequel has addressed this problem with new features like the exploration-based Crew Missions. And yet, even during my brief time with the game, I couldn't help but notice that these long-instances of empty traversal haven't been abolished altogether, though they’re certainly less frequent, with a good chance they’ll be ironed out completely over the course of the campaign.
Then there's the villains. Borderlands 3 was always going to suffer from the Vaas Effect, the impossible task of having to follow up a character as despicable and hilarious as Handsome Jack, but new antagonists The Calypso Twins are barely making an impact as it is. They're cult leaders versed in the streamer ethos (Geddit? Because internet fan bases are like cults! Ha ha!), but the joke starts to wear thin from their very first appearance in the story.
Troy and Tyreen's millennial mannerisms also make them about half as threatening as they should be, while the initial signs of a tragic backstory colour them with more empathy don't quite redeem the pair in the early hours, either. As stated, both of these noticeable quibbles could well turn out to be non-existent once we're knees deep in Borderlands 3's core loop of rhythmic gratification; it's just a question of how far they sodden the overall experience.
And boy, is that core loop working in all the right places. Gunplay, thanks to a variety of nips and tucks behind the scenes, feels phenomenal, finally making Borderlands 3 feel as robust a shooter as its equivalent competition.
A hybrid between an FPS and an RPG, previous games often felt like they had made compromises to the expected standards in both of those genres purely to ensure they had one foot firmly in either, but that no longer feels like the case. As a shooter, combat is punchy and to the point, making me excited for the prospect of Borderlands spin-offs with more competitive dynamics (which, as it happens, Sage admits he is completely on board for).
Land of the free
Likewise, Borderlands 3’s role-playing elements are neither overly convoluted nor needlessly shallow. I finally had the opportunity to play as FL4K, the already adored Hunter class who can call in one of three tamed pets at will, and they're one of the best examples of how this sequel is built up for the fans first, not least in the way that their play style caters to lone wolves who prefer the company of a Skag to that of a friend.
Again, it's the little stuff that makes a big difference here, from being able to freely switch between our skill tree's primary Action Skills to the new Augments that widen out the parameters for self-expression through combat, all of which compound into a progression system that's putting player agency first. If you never understood the fuss around Borderlands, or were alienated entirely by its frequently juvenile tone, it's looking unlikely that Gearbox's third entry is going to change your mind. For those fully invested in the fate of Pandora, though, that will come as music to the ears. Borderlands 3 is, simply put, more Borderlands, now Borderlandsier than ever before, with extra helpings of Borderlands sprinkled in for good measure.
This design decision, along with the promise of a more ambitious endgame inspired by the looter shooter ‘Games as a Service’ titles that the series inspired in the first place, easily gives Borderlands 3 a healthy shot at being the game everyone is still talking about come 2019's end. And, as best evidenced by Claptrap’s minor but not imperceptible transmutation, the best part is that Gearbox has barely changed a thing.
For more, check out the first 14 minutes of Borderlands 3 opening gameplay, or watch our Release Radar below for a guide to everything else out this week.