I just got a new car and, let me tell you, it is something else. It feels remarkable. The steering wheel under my fingertips, the responsive grip of the tires on the road, the graceful suspension, the throaty purr of the engine. And the interior! Plush seats that feel like they were made to fit me, fancy leather, lots of cool lights on the dashboard. It’s a dream to drive this thing, to sit in it, to take it across town, to admire it.
Well, it would be if it weren’t for a couple of features.
There’s no way to control the radio. Every so often, it blares out-of-tune polka at maximum volume, and I’m never sure how long it’s going to be doing that. For some reason, the car’s maximum speed is 10mph. Worst of all, the air conditioning vents spew gray, green, and blue confetti, with occasional shreds of orange and purple. If I ignore the confetti, the engine seizes up from time to time. So I routinely have to pull over and arrange all the confetti into piles by color, and then sort those piles by small numbers printed on the shreds of confetti. Did I mention the make and model? It’s a 2019 Gearbox Borderlands 3.
As a shooter, Borderlands is remarkable. This is what Gearbox has been doing so well all along, and they continue to do it, except this time even better. But as a game, Borderlands feels remarkable in the wrong sense of the word. Everything I don’t shoot or shoot at is a source of irritation. Often intense irritation. The writing, the characters, the thudding humor, the fiddly loot, the unconscionable interface, the glacial character progression, the familiar and dated geography, the blatant pandering to social media, and then even more of the writing. Why are all these things so bad in a game where the gunplay is so good? And why do all these things so clumsily, stridently, and frequently get in the way of the gunplay?
It’s as if Gearbox doesn’t understand the balancing act that comes with good game design. In fundamental parts of Borderlands, they pair two exactly wrong choices. For instance, the loot. A fundamental part of an action RPG is making me care about the loot. The joy of the moment-to-moment action is all good and well, but the (perhaps unfortunate?) truth of modern game design is that we expect a psychological hook, and this is where loot comes into play.
Gearbox has the best opportunity yet to make loot matter. They have understood all along how much firearms matter in a first person shooter, where the gun is front and off-center. They understand the appeal of how a gun fires, how it reloads, how you hold it, what noise it makes, how the sights look, what color it is. These latest guns in Borderlands 3 have more meaningful gimmicks in terms of how you actually use them. This gives them even more personality on top of the wonderful animation, imaginative art design, and muscular sound effects. With the possible exception of Insomniac’s Ratchet and Clank games, no one gives guns personality like Gearbox.
But why are these guns spewed from a firehose? And why is the interface to manage them still so convoluted? Why do I have just 15 inventory slots when the vending machines are so few and far apart? The ground is littered with so much stuff I don’t care about, and yet I have so little room to carry it. Each of these is the exact wrong way to do loot. Either give me less loot or give me more room. One or the other. It’s as if no one at Gearbox has played a game with loot. What a weird irony that these are the most vividly imagined and implemented guns in a Borderlands game, but I’ve never cared less about loot than I do in Borderlands 3. It’s just trash management. Never have so many ignored so much for so little.
When a loot chase is uninspired, character progression can carry some of the weight. But once again, Gearbox makes the two exact wrong choices. I rarely level up, and when I do, it hardly matters. Either level me up more quickly, or make each level matter more. One or the other. It’s as if no one at Gearbox has played a game with character progression. The pull of new skills and abilities is an unholy combination of minimal, molasses slow, and locked behind a grind too drawn out for a game this clumsy.
Gearbox makes the exact wrong choices with their writing, as well. I don’t mind bad writing. It’s in 90% of the games I play. But I do mind having my face shoved into it. Look, Borderlands, I’m just trying to do your fetch quest. You and I both know this is a game about me running from point A to point B and shooting stuff in between. So why are you making me hang fire at point A to listen to your grating jokes before telling me where point B is? I could be ignoring all this on my way to the next part of the game instead of ignoring it while I stand here twiddling my thumbs, waiting for you to finish.
So either have good writing that’s an integral part of your game, or have bad writing that’s not. Don’t make bad writing an integral part of your game, and certainly don’t force me to listen to it. But you can tell by the sense of humor Borderlands 3 has no idea how leaden and forced it is. It seems mightily pleased with itself, and it expects you should be, too. Which is puzzling, since I know for a fact that Gearbox has played a game with good writing. They’ve actually made a few of them.
Gearbox is at their best when they’re engineering the act of shooting something. If their game would just shut up and let the gleeful gunplay speak for itself, Borderlands would go a lot further. Instead, the gunplay is clogged up with meaningless loot, smugly unfunny jokes, and lots of using the same ol’ gun while waiting for the parsimonious skill point drip to finally drop. Where’s the glee in all that?