Borderlands 3 preview — Mayhem awaits across the universe

Borderlands 3 should need little introduction at this point. Gearbox's upcoming role-playing shooter is the latest in the acclaimed franchise and the first that will take us beyond Pandora's planetary system. If my nearly three hours with the game was any indication, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That's not a knock on it, though, as Gearbox has just doubled down on what made players fall in love with Borderlands to begin with.

Gameplay: More options than ever

Gearbox recently held an event in Los Angeles that gave us an opportunity to interview a couple of Borderlands 3's developers and go hands-on with two of the game's Vault Hunters. It's everything you've come to expect from a Borderlands game — the humor, the loot, the gunplay — but dialed up a notch. And instead of one action skill, each Vault Hunter now has three to choose from, and they can be swapped out at any time so that you aren't only stuck with one choice.

Borderlands 3 Producer Chris Brock says that this decision was made to ensure that people can have unique experiences playing as the same character.

"In the past Borderlands games we've had one action skill and it's kind of been what defines their role," he said. "Everyone can use all the guns, so the thing that makes a character truly unique is their action skill. So we wanted to make them more unique. We wanted to make sure they had more options available to them."

Everything you've come to expect from a Borderlands game dialed up a notch.

We had the chance to play as both Amara and Zane and got to experience this in action. Depending on what type of enemies I was fighting or the situation that I found myself in, I would switch between Amara's skills to give me the upper hand. If I was overwhelmed during a fight, I'd equip Phasegrasp, which is a similar ability to Maya's, to act as crowd control and hold an enemy stationary. If I wanted to run in and get up close and personal, I'd use Phaseslam, a powerful melee ability where Amara leaps into the air and smashes the ground with excessive force. But the coolest thing may have been seeing Amara thrust explosive barrels into enemies using her regular melee attack. When playing as Zane I didn't even need to choose one ability over the other at a given time because he can have two abilities equipped at once, in lieu of your grenades.

Your journey will take you across the galaxy, and your hub now reflects that. Sanctuary III is a spaceship that can be used to travel to a handful of planets. According to Brock, these planets have their own flora, fauna, and architecture, along with a few "mechanical differences" which he brought up when I asked if we might see something similar to the low gravity of Elpis in The Pre-Sequel. Still, the game isn't turning into No Man's Sky or Mass Effect. It's not about space exploration in that sense.

The playable demo also gave us the chance to finally see Promethea. What was once a bustling city and the headquarters of Atlas is now under siege by the Maliwan Corporation. It reminded me a lot of Opportunity from Borderlands 3. Everything is high-tech and advanced, a far cry from what we're familiar with on Pandora, and you'll encounter a lot of robotic enemy types.

Going back to the game's weapons, Gearbox has created more than ever, partly due to the incredible amount of stat variety and firing modes. Certain guns will now give players the option to select between two different firing modes that change how the gun works. This could be a quick flip between elemental types like corrosive or fire, or you could effectively turn your pistol into a grenade launcher. But the amount of customization only goes so far.

When I asked if we would be able to customize weapons by adding or swapping out additional parts, Brock said that there is not a module weapon customization system, meaning you won't be finding any scopes or extended magazines that you can attach. There are, however, character skills that can upgrade weapons, and challenges for each manufacturer that can improve their stats.

Even minor quality of life changes have been made that should cause a big impact, like the ability for your Vault Hunter to knee slide and grab onto ledges to climb up.

And just how big is Borderlands 3? Brock said it was hard to give a measurable comparison, but it is bigger in "almost every way" compared to Borderlands 2.

Moving on from Handsome Jack

One of the first questions that I asked Borderlands 3 Co-writer Sam Winkler was how they could move on from such an iconic villain as Handsome Jack, who has arguably defined the latter half of the series' life. As it turns out, this is something that the developers at Gearbox even asked themselves.

"You are asking literally what we asked ourselves," said Winkler. "You can't just make a sequel to Handsome Jack, so we took a look at what we were doing with the world and what we wanted to change about it… and the main bad guys had to exemplify the change in the world. In Borderlands 2, there was this corporate active presence just dominating Pandora. In Borderlands 3, the bandits have all come together…. we were looking at what's going on culturally, and said '[the Calypso twins] are social media stars, these are livestreamers'… we wanted them to literally have a cult of personality and exemplify the worst of humanity."

Players may have also noticed that while Tyreen Calypso is definitely a Siren, it appears her brother Troy may be as well. This is interesting because Sirens in the Borderlands universe, from what we know, have historically been women. Winkler notes that the game will delve deeper into the history of Sirens because people have a lot of questions, and Borderlands 3 will provide some answers, including what their purposes are and what their true powers are.

Fighting the twins while uncovering more Vault Keys is no easy feat, and luckily you'll have a ton of help at your side. You'll have probably already noticed that Rhys, from Tales from the Borderlands, and Zer0, among many others — Sir Hammerlock, Maya, Ellie, and Lilith, to name a few — will be in Borderlands 3. If you remember the ending of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, a mysterious alien figure known as The Watcher showed up to warn our Vault Hunters of impending doom, and that they'd need all the help they would get. Winkler says that there are "connective tissues" between these moments and Borderlands 3, and that the studio has "not jettisoned any lore, including Tales [from the Borderlands]."

You may be wondering the fate of a few characters from Tales from the Borderlands then, notably Fiona. While we've seen Rhys, Fiona has been absent from all marketing material so far. Unfortunately, Winkler could not comment on her involvement in the game, or even if we'd get a chance to see her again. All he said was that Rhys "kept a few friends along the way" after Tales from the Borderlands ended. And this does mean that they ended up canonizing certain elements of Tales.

"Yes, we canonized a few things," Winkler told me. "A lot of player choices are a little more difficult, because we don't necessarily want to say 'No, this person did live for sure,' unless it's worth it. There are some things where we'll put our thumb on the scale and say 'In order for us to tell the best story, X character had to live.'"

And the almighty question: is FL4K Loader Bot? Winkler could not answer anything regarding FL4K at the moment, though he did smile and mention that he loves Loader Bot.

No microtransaction bullshit

And you don't need to worry about Borderlands 3 becoming something similar to games that are free-to-play and pay-to-win. Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford reiterated that it wouldn't have any "microtransaction bullshit." The studio knows exactly the type of Borderlands game that fans want, and is aiming to hit those expectations.

When I spoke with Brock, he also said that they weren't planning on any player-versus-player modes other than duels returning. I prompted whether this meant we wouldn't see a battle royale mode any time soon, and he replied that they are not thinking of a battle royale mode at this time. It's not impossible, it's just not what they're doing with the game.

Borderlands 3 releases on September 13, 2019 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.

Jennifer Locke
Games Editor - PlayStation, Android, VR

Jennifer Locke has been playing video games nearly her entire life. You can find her posting pictures of her dog and obsessing over PlayStation and Xbox, Star Wars, and other geeky things.