VIDEO: Borderlands 3 gameplay impressions from Pandora and Eden-6. Also on YouTube.
I played Borderlands 3 for several hours last week, and I didn't really have an answer when someone asked me if it was funny afterward. I felt like I'd stepped out of an industrial dryer full of guns and gags, too dizzied by Borderlands' aggressive energy to say for sure.
I still don't know if I'd call Borderlands 3 'funny,' exactly, but it was hard not to be entertained when enthusiastic, committed voice actors, including Ice-T, were pelting me with ten gags per minute. You can see what I'm talking about in the video above.
I like that Borderlands 3's villains are livestreamers who stream sacrificial killings to their ravenously loyal followers—a streamer army turned into an actual militant cult, essentially. The Calypso Twins themselves are predictable, condescending egotists, and I miss Handsome Jack's brand of assholery a little, but it's topical and fun even if no specific line made me laugh.
I'm sure that, to someone, hearing a cultist rip his limbs off at the behest of his streamer gods will warrant cracking up. To me, it's cute and endearing more than anything. Borderlands 3 sticks to its sense of humor: Flat characters who embody a time when the existence of dubstep was a punchline. I appreciate the commitment!
The central joke of the series is that corporations have made life hell for everyone, but all the characters you meet have decided to make the best of it by finding joy and utility in their horrible, violent existences. Here's another decent gag along those lines: At the very beginning, Claptrap hands you an ECHO 3 (your HUD, basically) and mentions that the ECHO 2 units had a "tiny issue with spontaneous combustion" and were "rebranded as grenades." Lead writers Danny Homan and Sam Winkler tell me that you can actually find an ECHO 2 later in the game and use it as a grenade.
During a mission on the jungle planet Eden-6, I met an Ice-T voiced AI who'd been stuffed into the body of a teddy bear. We've all seen that juxtaposition before: the character who's trapped in an unlikely body. I've seen the movie Ted. I wish I hadn't, but I have. It was cute that the AI was self-conscious of his tendency to give people directions—he's a ship's navigation system—but the same joke was funnier in Futurama, where Bender solved problems by bending things.
None of the jokes were bad, but clearly they weren't cutting edge, and they couldn't hold the game together alone. In contrast, Tales from the Borderlands was fun solely because of its characters and writing. Granted, Telltale could focus entirely on storytelling and joke-making because it wasn't a sprawling open world shooter that needed characters like Ice-T's to guide players through corridors.
Borderlands 2 came out in 2012, and Borderlands 3 feels like it could've released not long after. The rendering has improved a lot, of course, but on the whole it feels quaint, recalling the time period of the original Mass Effect trilogy. The characters are animated awkwardly, and when they talk with each other outside of cutscenes they stand six feet apart, expressionless, jostling their hands around to approximate emoting. While other developers hype up dense, high fidelity-experiences and performance-captured actors, this is Borderlands as it always has been.
I'm not sure it would be better any other way. If Borderlands went all in on lifelike, detailed character animation, it might lose its charm. Not all of the gags land, but the voice actors sound like they're having a good time, and through brute force, I feel compelled to have a good time with them.
Borderlands 3 also recalls the past because it hasn't become a Destiny-like shared world shooter, something so many other developers have chased. It's still four-player co-op, with lots of loot and a standard open world mission structure.
It's familiar and the shooting is fun. Because I had limited time to play, I rushed between story missions as FL4K, the Beastmaster. That left me a little underleveled in areas, and when your guns aren't up to par, the enemies start to feel spongy and it's less enjoyable. But I obviously wasn't playing like I would at home, where I'd make more of an effort to do side quests, level up, and hunt down cooler guns. (Here are a few of my favorites from the demo.)
I was also playing alone, and like the other games, Borderlands 3 will be best with at least one co-op partner. In some of the encounters, I was being mobbed by close-range enemies—the kinds that like to run and leap at you—while also being harrassed by more distant guys, sometimes with turrets. Having friends with different specializations would've made it much more manageable.
For loners, there is a last chance system that puts you back on your feet if you kill one enemy after going down. I used it quite a bit in the early boss fight I played. He was a pretty standard boss dude: really big, had a shield, and telegraphed area-of-effect attacks by making parts of the level glow. I struggled with him, but I triumphed eventually because there were lots of adds around to kill when I needed a last chance revival.
FL4K's pet helped, too, sometimes landing a kill just after I went down, which sprung me back to my feet. FL4K was the final vault hunter to be revealed, and has three choices of pet: a skagg, a Spiderant Centurion which passively restores health, and a Jabber, which is basically a monkey with a gun. Yes, you can pet them, sort of. The prompt is "touch pet" and there's no animation, but they react.
I'm not really sure why FL4K has teamed up with the vault hunters: They seem to be an ancient AI who loves killing stuff for the glory of something-or-other. The hunters do get up to a lot of killing, though, so I guess it makes sense. I'm not convinced that they'll be the most interesting vault hunter—the motivation, 'well, I kill things' isn't promising—but maybe there's a twist ahead. I did like how fond FL4K is of their animals, and how it contrasts with their bloodthirst. It's another simple Borderlands gag, every possible variation of which will probably be explored throughout the game.
The Borderlands series has been around for ten years, and it hasn't really had to change, because there's nothing else quite like it. Its philosophy is more, not different, and as far as I can tell, Borderlands 3 continues the tradition. It'll be out on the Epic Store on September 13.