Borderlands 3 review: The best the series has ever been

It's been seven years since Borderlands 2 released, and I'm happy to say that Borderlands 3 was worth the long wait. Character arcs receive well-earned endings, questions are answered regarding lore and theories that fans will love, and the gunplay is top-notch. Any stumbles Borderlands 3 takes are overwhelmingly outshined by what it does well.

And as satisfying as it is for long-time fans, it's still accessible to newcomers so that nobody is left out of the fun.

The Good

  • Endgame content
  • 30-hour campaign
  • Enhanced combat
  • Performance and resolution modes
  • Diverse environments and enemies

The Bad

  • Humor can be hit or miss
  • Some bosses are frustrating bullet sponges
  • Inventory and vending machine UI
  • Lack of cross-play at launch

Borderlands 3: Story and characters

It was a tall order moving away from such an iconic villain as Handsome Jack, who arguably defined the Borderlands series, but Gearbox took the risk and did so quite successfully. Troy and Tyreen Calypso, the new antagonists hell-bent on conquering the universe and unleashing the power of the Vaults, don't live in Handsome Jack's shadow. They forge their own path. I was worried that they wouldn't be able to live up to the expectations that Handsome Jack had set for a villain, but I surprisingly never felt his absence.

What's the series without its own special brand of wackiness?

Like Handsome Jack, they exist to make your life a living hell. They'll insult you left and right, laugh at your suffering, make sometimes cringy, annoying jokes worthy of the "cool kids" table in a middle school cafeteria. They're meant to be a take on the worst aspects of streamer culture, obsessed with likes and followers, doing anything for content. On the surface, it's easy to write them off as one-dimensional caricatures, but near the end of the game, their motives will fall into place more clearly with a reveal that gives much-needed context and reasoning for their quest to become gods. I still don't exactly see how the whole "streamer culture" aspect fit the narrative, but this is Borderlands, and what's the series without its own special brand of wackiness?

Aside from bringing back fan-favorite characters like Lilith, Tannis, and Rhys, to name just a few, Gearbox also created a handful of new characters to help our Vault Hunters. While most of them are forgettable in my opinion, three that stand out are Wainright Jakobs, heir to the Jakobs corporation; Clay, a smooth-talking gunslinger; and Lorelei, the leader of the resistance movement against Maliwan on Promethea.

It serves as a fitting end to the franchise.

These new characters still take a backseat to return characters, for the most part, which I think was a smart move. We've invested years into characters like Lilith, and this was as much an ending for them as it was for us. Borderlands 3 perfectly concludes a saga that begun in 2009 with our original Vault Hunters. It serves as a fitting end to the franchise that leaves room for future entries in the series, but stands on its own as a satisfying final installment. If Gearbox were to make Borderlands 4, I think it would need to be far removed from the story we've been following, much like how Mass Effect: Andromeda was from the Mass Effect trilogy — though hopefully the next Borderlands, if there is one, will live up to expectations.

When Gearbox started staffing for this Borderlands 3 and called it "the big one," the studio wasn't kidding. It feels immensely larger than its predecessors in terms of content and story. We're taken all across the galaxy, from industrial cityscapes on Promethea to the backwater bayous of Eden-6 in an effort to collect multiple Vault Keys and stop the Calypsos from opening The Great Vault and ushering the end of the universe. Borderlands 3 provides answers to a lot of questions regarding the Eridians, Sirens, and Vaults which I think long-time fans will love, if anything because the lore is so rich.

Borderlands 3: Gameplay, combat, and one billion guns

If you don't come for the story, you stay for the combat. Borderlands 3 is better than ever in that regard. Yes, it's more of the same, but that's exactly what the series needed. I'm so impressed by Gearbox's ability to reinvent Borderlands and somehow keep it the same experience that people fell in love with.

Borderlands 3 is better than ever.

Each Vault Hunter now has three actions skills as opposed to one, and it makes a huge difference in how you play. Two people playing the same character won't have to worry about fulfilling the same rolls on a team now. Character builds can be unique even if you and your friend are both playing as FL4K. This variety only adds to its replayability and life far beyond launch. If Borderlands 2 could still be popular seven years after release, imagine what Borderlands 3 could look like ten years from now.

As I was told in my interview with producer Chris Brock during the game's gameplay reveal event, the gore had indeed been dialed up. Shoot a psycho in their face, and you'll be met with a cloud of exploding red mist. It never gets old. Not after the first hour, and not after the 30th hour. This only adds to how satisfying the guns feel to use. Something about the way they handled in Borderlands 2 didn't click for me, but it definitely clicks in Borderlands 3.

I'm not about to count every single gun in the game, but it certainly feels like a billion. Yeah, the advertised numbers are skewed because Gearbox can technically count the same type of gun with minor stat variations as multiple guns, but the numbers are still impressive. The care that went into crafting each weapon part and making each manufacturer feel unique is apparent.

Vehicle combat is still a pitfall, but luckily mostly avoidable.

On the opposite end, vehicle combat is still a pitfall. There are new vehicle types and more customization now, just nothing that really makes the combat itself fun. They're a means to get from point A to point B, but that's about the best I can say about them. Luckily there aren't too many missions that require them, though one of the final missions relies on them quite heavily.

Now players even have the ability to knee-slide and mantle to climb objects, adding mobility and verticality that wasn't present before, unless you were one of those skilled players who spent five minutes carefully climbing up a wall of rocks to cheese a raid boss. No judgment from me.

Speaking of bosses, Borderlands 3 has some of the most gargantuan the series has seen. That doesn't always equate to good, though. I had a lot of fun fighting certain bosses, and one Vault boss in particular — even if it was a bullet sponge — was my favorite, but others are needlessly frustrating.

Other little quality of life changes, like the ability to fast travel from any location and refill all of your ammo at a vending machine at once, serve to make the game more user-friendly. Where it fails in user-friendliness, however, is the UI for your weapon inventory and vending machines. Quite frankly, they are abysmal and clunky to navigate.

And for a series that hypes up its cooperative gameplay so much, I'm disappointed in the lack of cross-play at launch. It's something Gearbox has said it's looking in to, just not something that appears to be a priority.

Borderlands 3: Endgame content

The endgame content is where Borderlands 3 truly shines. I was frustrated while playing through the main campaign with the quality of loot I was getting. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that since the game contains multiple Vaults, it contains multiple Vault bosses as well. Out of all of them, I only received a single legendary drop, which the occasional Epic or Rare weapon. Usually, any drops I got just formed a sea of green. Once you activate Mayhem Mode, which adds modifiers to enemies and yourself, after you beat the game, get ready for legendaries for days. It's understandable that the endgame would obviously have better loot, but I still felt good quality loot was a bit too sparse in the first playthrough.

Mayhem Mode increases the challenge exponentially. Depending on if you play in Mayhem Mode 1, 2, or 3, you'll see different status effects take place that augments the gameplay. In Mayhem Mode 3 there could be the possibility of your elemental damage being buffed while your grenade and gun damage has little effect on enemies. No matter which Mayhem Mode you play in, you'll always gain more experience and have a better chance at finding rare loot.

The endgame content is where Borderlands 3 truly shines.

And then there's the Proving Grounds, challenges left behind by Eridians that test players in various Trials. These Trials amount to waves of increasingly difficult enemies that end in a boss fight. If you complete the challenge in under a time restriction or certain conditions have been met, you'll earn greater rewards.

What it lacks is a proper raid boss. While Borderlands added Crawmerax in an expansion, Borderlands 2 shipped with a raid boss, Terramorphous. I would have expected Borderlands 3 to do the same considering the popularity of raid bosses and the focus on endgame content, but that isn't the case. Players will need to wait for a raid boss to be added at a later point. For now, you'll need to be content with Mayhem Mode, True Vault Hunter Mode, and the Proving Grounds — which honestly may be more than enough for some people.

Borderlands 3 also swaps out Badass Rank for Guardian Rank, a natural progression that is much better than its predecessor. Guardian Ranks can only be earned after you beat the game, and once they unlock you can spend tokens on slight augments that buff various stats, like your max health or shield capacity. It's hard to see in action any practical effect of grenade damage being 1% more than usual, for example, but the effects are surely there.

Borderlands 3: Performance and graphics

For the most part, I didn't have too much trouble running Borderlands 3. I played on an Xbox One X in performance mode, and while there were frame rate dips and it wasn't always a steady 60FPS as it should have been, it was consistent enough that it wasn't unplayable. Resolution mode bumps the graphics up to 4K and caps your frame rate at 30FPS, which is more stable. I would have liked to play in resolution mode, but for some reason it would screw with the mini-map in my game and almost magnify the map and any markers on it, rendering it effectively useless.

When everything works properly, the amount of detail is stunning. Borderlands' concept art style has always held up better than games aiming for photorealism, but Gearbox really outdid itself this time around. The environments are gorgeous, and it helps when the level of detail on enemies has bumped up a notch as well. It's awesome walking by an irradiated skag that's oozing toxic fumes — at least until it sees you as its next meal.

Should you buy Borderlands 3? Absolutely

You'll have to ask yourself whether you want to support Gearbox after multiple controversies have kept the company frequently in the news, but if you're just here for that Borderlands experience, you'll be happy. Almost everything was refined to make Borderlands the best game the series has seen to date. The humor doesn't quite live up to what Tales from the Borderlands accomplished and leans too heavily on cringe-worthy toilet humor, but when it hits the mark, it nails it.

4.5 out of 5

Borderlands 3 definitely has a long life ahead of it, with Gearbox pledging to support it for years to come. It says a lot that after playing for 35 hours over the course of three days to finish this review, I only want to keep playing more.

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.