Familiar Yet Modern, Our First Hands-on With Borderlands 3 Showed How to Continue a Classic

It’s no secret that I’ve teetering between trepidation and excitement about Borderlands 3. I have a history with the series and it’s a huge part of what prompted me to love games like Destiny. As the original looter shooter, Borderlands became iconic not just for its bright popping visuals, but for the brutal way it parodied so many things, from the very genre and games it was inspired by, to modern culture and countless references. It was a dark game, but it was also a funny game, and it balanced out all of its over-the-top ideas without ever feeling too overbearing. But it was a decidedly late-2000s game. The landscape has changed a lot since then, and one of the worst things about long waits for new games is the way time completely shifts what we think we want.

Fortunately, though Borderlands 3 is a familiar friend, its also learned a lot of lessons over its five years of development time. At the gameplay reveal event, I got to go hands on with Borderlands 3 for 90 minutes, with the freedom to play how and what I wanted within this particular slice of Gearbox’s latest game. I chose to play as Amara, though I could have also picked Zane. I wish I’d had a chance to play them both because it seems like there are some big gameplay differences between how each of the characters play. Borderlands does a great job at making characters feel like they have a distinct identity not only in look and personality, but in gameplay as well. Borderlands 3 is no different.

Borderlands 3 – As Skilled as a Vault Hunter

First things first, I had to build out my skill tree with the points allotted to me. What I found is a system that is so surprisingly deep, I ended up spending a good chunk of my game time in the menus just inspecting Amara’s capabilities. Gearbox has heavily leaned into the original RPG looter roots and inspirations for Borderlands in creating skill trees that are complex. They have the capability to not just grant a few new powerful abilities, but actually fundamentally alter the capabilities of each character as you unlock more and more. It’s far more than basic stat boosts. It lets each character lean into a class role and play style with abilities and boosts that will complement playing in specific ways.

Borderlands 3 hands-on gameplay reveal

Each of the different characters may play very differently from one another, but the range of choices present for every character means that even two Amaras or two Zanes could wind up with big differences to their play styles. Notably, Amara’s abilities can shift from something a little bit more ranged, to a ground slam that requires you to get right in the middle of the fight. Of course, being who I am, that’s what I went with, and the additional skills on that particular tree gave benefits for closing the game. One skill gave me a universal damage buff the closer I was to enemies.

Finally, when I’d added a few early boosts and bonuses to my low level character, I was ready to take off and explore the world. I was set down on a new planet, Promethea. Borderlands 3 is all about exploring worlds beyond Pandora, which gives the team an opportunity to really get clever with the concepts for new areas. Promethea is a Neo Tokyo-like city that headquarters the Atlas corporation. That’s a name that should sound familiar to Borderlands fans, and yes, it’s where we get our first Borderlands 3 look at Rhys from Tales From the Borderlands, now mustached and leading Atlas himself. I’ll have more opinions on him in another article, where I can hopefully articulate my thoughts a little more.

Borderlands 3 hands-on gameplay reveal

From a visual standpoint, Borderlands 3 remains iconic and stunning while adding a depth and fidelity not even possible with previous games. That hard outline that begs for people to call this a “cel-shaded” style (it’s not, but I won’t get into the semantics of it right now) remains, but the models and textures underneath have been given a massive overhaul. Of course, I was playing on a high-end PC, so it’s hard to say what things will look like on the PS4, but I don’t imagine they’ll have to compromise too much. I have a cautious optimism that although the gameplay reveal event was highlighting their partnership with AMD, the console versions will hopefully remain a high area of focus for the studio. Despite the prominence of PC gaming, Borderlands has a massive fanbase that plays in the living room with a controller. And hey, that AMD partnership might just mean that backwards compatibility will have this running smooth and looking good on the PS5.

Borderlands 3 – So How Does it Actually Play?

Ah, the main event. What I’m sure you’re all here for. You can already get a good sense for the visual style, the humor, and all of the little details shown off during the gameplay reveal. You want to know how it feels to play. Should I drum roll this moment, or just jump right into it? Borderlands 3 plays great. It feels faster than previous games with more options for mobility like sliding and mantling over objects. The gunplay feels little bit more crisp. In fact, dare I say that it feels like Gearbox got a little Destiny in my Borderlands formula? Borderlands 3 might feel instantly familiar in look, style, and yes, it even plays like a Borderlands game. But there was definitely a sense that Gearbox learned quite a bit from the other great looter shooters that rose to popularity since its last game. As a huge Destiny fan, it was a pleasant surprise to realize that the movement and gunplay felt a little bit similar to Bungie’s work.

That increase in speed and boost to mobility give every encounter an intense feeling of mayhem that quite nearly snuffed me out on more than one occasion. (Okay, okay, so it did actually end up killing me on more than one occasion.) Enemy variety ensures that fights are always interesting, from the most fodder of baddies to the mighty Giga Mind itself. We didn’t have an opportunity to see any of the truly big and badass bosses, but I was assured that there are more bosses than ever before, with a wider variety of mechanics, personalities, and difficulties to face. The original reveal trailer hinted at a lot of those, so I’m not concerned. This was just to get a taste of the game with controller in hand, not give away the farm.

Borderlands 3 hands-on gameplay reveal

While on foot combat and gunplay felt great, I left less than impressed with the vehicle combat. It might be a bit easier in co-op, when you can have a dedicated gunner and a dedicated driver, but trying to handle both at once wasn’t a friendly experience, not to mention the bullet-spongy nature of enemy vehicles. It was a part of my gameplay time that I was always eager to end as quickly as possible. Perhaps it gets a bit better in the late game, with better weapon attachments for vehicles, but for this demo session, I always preferred to be out of the vehicle playing with my own guns and abilities.

Speaking of guns, it’s impossible to talk about a Borderlands game without talking about the wealth of firepower than rains from every corner of the world. It’s the central conceit the entire game revolves around, and the loot is plentiful. The new loot system makes sure you can pick up guns quickly and get to playing with them immediately. With as many crazy weapons, combinations, and effects I saw in this short demo alone, I can’t imagine the kind of madness that the full game will bring to the table. I managed to get my hands on a gun that turned into a explosive brain with metal spider legs every time I reloaded. It was peak Borderlands for me, and I loved it.

Borderlands 3 – The Evil Live Streamers

One part I’m not quite sold on yet is the narrative, most notably the Calypso Twins. Though Tyreen has the pretty cool and intimidating ability to literally siphon people of their abilities (and life, in some cases), and Troy has a sweet metal arm with a massive sword that we may or may not learn more about in the main game, these two are based on streamer culture, and it’s one of the worst types of parodies. It’s still early on, so I’ll reserve judgment for now, but they haven’t quite captured me in the same way that a charismatic but brutal villain like Handsome Jack did. The gameplay demonstration really didn’t feature much of them (if at all), and I can’t wait for Gearbox to prove me wrong. For now, they remind me of the ridiculousness of Agents of Mayhem’s Gaunt and the ever-annoying Screwball from Marvel’s Spider-Man. A villain needs to tread a careful line between making me hate them and just annoying me.

Borderlands 3 hands-on gameplay reveal

In fact, our gameplay demo didn’t really give us much major story at all—though there was a hilarious side mission about Lorelei needing us to get her coffee, which is literally all of us. The Maliwan assault on Atlas seemed a little disconnected from the broader story, but we were also looking at a controlled slice of the game. Gearbox doesn’t want to give away all of its secrets right away, and that includes the narrative. Multiple worlds offer immense opportunities for story. We did at least get a decent look at new characters like Lorelei, some of which promise to be ongoing fan favorites. We got a look at returning characters like Zer0, and even got to fight alongside the cyborg ninja assassin (which was nice because we were playing solo, not cooperative with other real players).

90 minutes with Borderlands 3 wasn’t nearly enough time with the game, but it was plenty of time to get me amped up for the full release later this year. We know Borderlands, so we know that Gearbox has the characters, locations, enemies, story, humor, and everything else down, at least for the most part. What I wanted to know was how it would feel to play a Borderlands game in 2019, and it feels great. It’s crazier than the series has ever been, pushing forward and evolving the classic Borderlands that everyone knows and loves. Half a decade has been a long time to wait, but first impressions are good. It looks like the mayhem that Borderlands 3 brings will be worth the wait.


Borderlands 3 preview coverage obtained at an event held by 2K. Travel and accommodations were provided.