How new does “new” have to be? It’s a question that’s bedeviled authors and filmmakers for far longer than it’s ever been an issue in the world of games. When making a sequel to a well-established franchise, how much does a creator owe to the spirit of innovation vs. simple refinement, or even just rote duplication? The issue of length complicates things, too, as it so often does when considering the gaming medium: If someone spent 60 (or 100, or 700) hours with a game you made, wouldn’t ambition or innovation only get in the way of those players getting exactly what they wanted a second time around?
Earlier this week, 2K Games flew us out to L.A. for a very swanky, very hype-heavy event promoting a soon-to-be-very-hype-heavy game: Borderlands 3, Gearbox Software’s latest entry in its massively successful, uber-profane series of sci-fi shooters. Aggressively cheerful PR people invited us to be “Welcome to the mayhem”; Andy Warhol-influenced pop prints of the games’ iconic Psycho enemies stared down from converted warehouse walls; and—after an hour-long demo reel that only occasionally took on the energy of a high-tech cult meeting—we were given 90 minutes to play the game itself, running two of its new characters through a major chunk of the glossy, Blade Runner-esque high-rises of corporate headquarters Promethea.
The Borderlands games have always operated at a pitch of exuberantly marketed excess, and so it’s fitting that the watch word for Borderlands 3’s first day out in the sun was “more.” More guns, with more weird little quirks. (Yes, the little deployable rifle that chases your enemies around after you reload it, acting as a mobile turret, is exactly as fun to play with as it looked in the game’s first trailer.) More quality-of-life improvements—things like the option to turn on level scaling for enemies and weapon drops, allowing you to play with your high-level friends without either of you having to sacrifice the joys of scooping up beefy loot. More of the series’ signature dialogue, which studio head Randy Pitchford described as “irreverent and sincere,” and which a more objective observer might dub “comedy-adjacent low-grade meme fodder.” And more, ultimately, of the same.
More following quest markers to mow down waves of more of the same faceless opponents. More pain-in-the-ass inventory management. More juggling elemental damage types and blowing up barrels to take your enemies out en masse. More scrounging for ammo and items, peering at giant lists of numbers to try to figure out whether a new gun is actually an improvement over your current loadout. More unsatisfying vehicle combat. More hearing the same “cool” quips come out of your characters’ mouths whenever they activate a skill or dispatch a foe. More Borderlands.
Which will—in case this even needs to be said—be absolutely welcome for the franchise’s legions of fans, who happily hoovered up Borderlands 2 in 2012, and its “pre-sequel” installment two years later. Both of those games offered up minor refinements to the series’ formula and lots of space in which to test them out—and if there were those who grumbled about the encroaching sameness of it all, there were just as many who were happy for hours more of familiar content to grind their way on through, either alone, or with a friend. Like many of the bastard children swarming across the “looter shooter” genre it helped inaugurate—a.k.a. “Shoot the man to make him drop a better gun to shoot those other men with”—Borderlands is allergic to ambition almost by default. Like a shark, it is now perfectly evolved to do exactly what it does, and almost impossible to evaluate on any other merit. Are we supposed to yell at a game for seamlessly devouring hours of human existence in the most low-friction way possible, any more than we’re supposed to yell at an apex predator for eating, swimming, and shitting out other, weaker fish? It’s not that you couldn’t find a way to evolve or innovate this formula, but to what profitable end? How do you artistically evaluate something that has no interest in being art?
Playing through those first 90 minutes, it’s impossible to conclude that the game is anything but beautiful, full of gorgeous animations and exquisitely drawn gore. It is expansive—at least in the sense that you’re finally leaving the blasted wastelands of Pandora in order to shoot your way through other blasted wastelands, on other, shinier planets. It features all of the series’ signature characters, plus several new ones that pretty much all sound like the ones you’ve met before. The new playable characters—including Siren Amara and roving assassin Zane, the two available during the demo—have skills that are almost, but not entirely, recognizable as ones lifted from character classes from earlier games. It is profoundly, determinedly familiar, designed with a precision bordering on brilliance to both welcome back old players, and to lull new ones into its simple, pleasurable rhythm. It is lovingly crafted. It has no soul, and does not seem to require one.
And why not? Games are supposed to be fun; the idea that they should be anything more than that is still relatively new. Borderlands 3 is, at least, far less predatory than many games of its ilk, with no progress-related microtransactions leeching cash off of impatient players, and a robust ability to be played offline. (“Non-predatory” for players, at least; Gearbox is just as prone to accusations of soul-crushing crunch conditions as any other major studio.) Borderlands 3 is more of the same. Nobody gets mad when you say that about a can of Pringles, right?
Note: 2K Games paid for our travel accommodations for this event.