Borderlands 3: A Game Designer's Breakdown (with Review)
I've heard a lot of people talk about Borderlands 3, and I'm probably one of the last people writing reviews to get on the Borderlands 3 review wagon, but I'm going to spruce it up a little by taking a more in-depth look at the game design decisions that go into my review. I've talked about how Borderlands influenced me as a game designer on several occasions before, and Borderlands 3 gave me another opportunity to really delve in and explore how some of those systems can be expanded and adapted.
If you just want my opinion, I'll be summarizing my review at the end. I've also already written about how Borderlands 3 falls into the trends we've seen recently, where I talked about things like the Epic Games Store situation, so I'm going to try to stick to the game itself.
What is Borderlands 3?
I know this sounds really philosophical, but it's an important question to ask when you're assessing a game. When I look at games and I can't say what they are in a single sentence, it's really hard to review them well.
Borderlands 3 is, to me, clearly driven by very deliberate and clear design, and its description is pretty simple:
Borderlands 3 is a narrative-driven looter-shooter.
What does that mean in basic terms?
Well, it's a game with a defined story, and that story is going to guide your play experience. It's also got a core gameplay loop that is derived from a mixture of ARPG and FPS tropes.
It's also worth noting what Borderlands 3 isn't.
It's not procedurally generated. It's not mechanics-driven. It's not world-driven. It's not an RPG, at least not in the strictest sense.
You'll notice that I've steered away from genre in the sense of style and conventions here; in video games it is rare for a game to communicate its genre in the same terms we'd use for literature or film. Borderlands 3 is more obviously science-fiction, and more purely science-fiction, than its predecessors, but that's not something that necessarily comes up a whole lot when you compare it to other things.
We can take a look at the intro video and draw some quick conclusions.
Video courtesy of Generic Gaming
Now, there's a lot of indications of what the visual style and tone of the game will be here, but from a game design and narrative stand-point two things that stand out as obvious examples of what to expect here:
1. Narrative Framing
Marcus giving an intro spiel with his trademark delivery is intended to create a sort of story-book feel (especially when combined with the illustrations). This is not necessarily unique, but compare it to something like Fallout: New Vegas's intro.
In the intro to Fallout: New Vegas, we get a narrator, but the narrator isn't focused on the story; he's focused on the world. Even though there is dialogue, and some events are depicted, it's predominantly focused on the history of the Fallout universe and a setting recap for people who haven't played other Fallout games (and catching up people who have on changes to the universe as the in-universe timeline accelerated). The Courier is mentioned for the first time more than three minutes into the video! And even then it's presented with a lot of freedom.
New Vegas is world-driven, not narrative driven, so this makes a lot of sense for them. They don't want to sell you on the story because focusing on the story is not what the game does (though it does have a fairly solid story, it's told entirely through characters and places). It avoids telling the player what they will do after the intro concludes, it just gives them their history.
For comparison, Marcus gets a minute and a half in before he points out that he's telling us a particular story about particular vault hunters. He also tells us what our purpose will be: we've been recruited to hunt for a map. It also shows us the Calypso twins, giving us an indication of villains and setting us up to know that they are unlikable.
We immediately see a psycho after Marcus' narration ends, one of the trademark antagonists (and, in one case, protagonists) of the Borderlands world. He's looking at a giant Children of the Vault sign, which is a great way to reinforce the relationship between the bandits of Pandora and the Calypso Twins.
We see that there's a "Vault Hunters Wanted" ad, which helps to explain how some of the protagonists came into the plot as well.
And then we see our cast ensemble of vault hunters, and the shot pans to a destroyed tavern (the same one depicted in the ad, foreshadowing the central crisis of the Calypso Twins threatening the universe).
From a game design perspective, they include the major defining elements of each character: FL4K's beasts, Moze's mech, Amara's siren powers, and Zane's digi-clone. This ties into the tropes of the ARPG genre: showing us what each character is good at and highlighting those mechanics gives us an edge on understanding it.
We can see this in other games as well.
Consider this trailer for Warframe:
Warframe trailer courtesy of GameSpot Trailers
Much like Borderlands 3, the trailer serves to show us what to expect: it highlights the abilities of three of the warframes that are common in the game, and also sets the tone and expected styles for the game: stealth, combat, and supernatural (or at least extremely advanced) powers. The multiplayer element is depicted as well, with the three warframes fighting together, in the same way that Borderlands focuses on its four main protagonists fighting alongside each other.
However, Warframe is another world-driven game, at least in its original conception, and not a narrative-driven game. Can you tell from the trailer?
- No direction for what the player will be doing as a central goal. Grineer are presented as villains, but no course of action is suggested.
- Core characters lightly defined.
- Exposition focuses on the state of the universe, not the central plot.
- Action scenes take place through flashbacks, rather than
Warframe's less pure about this than New Vegas was, especially with its fleeing protagonist, but it still trends toward that presentation. Much of the action is disjointed from the central narrative as well, which serves as another hint that this is a game where the story is not core to the gameplay experience (though it is quite a good story).
It's worth noting that a lot of the gameplay experience is harder to draw from out-of-game videos. We definitely can tell that New Vegas is less action-oriented than Borderlands and Warframe, but it's not clear how they work in terms of interface, character development and progression, multiplayer/singleplayer modes, and so forth just from the footage.
One of the things that I found interesting about Borderlands 3 is how strong its focus was on the storytelling elements compared to a lot of the ARPGs I've played recently, particularly games like Grim Dawn and Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor Martyr.
I choose those as examples because they take alternate approaches: Grim Dawn is a world-driven game, with a lot of found documents and scenery that drives the player forward (it's also worth noting that the level designs in Grim Dawn are all long, sprawling, often twisting lines, but nonetheless drive players down a particular path), but a very minimal emphasis on story except as an excuse for action. And, honestly, I don't play Grim Dawn for the story. I sometimes get into the aesthetic, but I still can't tell you anything except there's a dude named Krieg and I think he's a villain. Oh, and you might be possessed. I've beaten the game, too! It's just an experience in gameplay and not in storytelling.
Inquisitor Martyr is predominantly focused on random generation; it's got less of an emphasis on telling a story (though it does have a plot) because it sells on the idea of taking on fights across a broad range of places and having a lot of replay potential. Because we're doing the analysis-by-marketing method of looking at games, let's take a quick glance at Inquisitor Martyr's trailer.
Inquisitor Martyr trailer courtesy of Gameplay Only, which is actually a little ironic.
Ah, yes, three words of dialogue, and they're a setting catch-phrase. The pitch of the game is this: Fight nasty tentacled and heretical things, and do so on a grand scale. The procedural generation serves to facilitate giving the player as many fights as possible for as long as possible before they get bored, and that's the game's appeal.
Compare this to Borderlands 3, where the focus is almost incessantly on quest objectives. There are plenty of open spaces to explore, but they're clearly secondary in focus. The game always draws a hint that leads players in the direction of the current quest objective, and always has a quest for them.
I think that this is where a lot of complaints with Borderlands' endgame comes from, and where complaints with the other games in the series come from as well: it's not a wide-open sandbox like an Elder Scrolls or Fallout title, and a lot of the endgame content is either "now play it again" or "fight waves of enemies", neither of which are particularly compelling as far as endgame content goes.
However, the truth is that while Borderlands' writing does occasionally fall flat, it is nonetheless a game that is pushed forward by how the audience engages with its characters. Some are annoying, some are flat, but all are given clear motives, even if they're petty. That's a great driver of plot.
While Borderlands' core gameplay is pretty good, the fact remains that its visually stunning environments are only made worth exploring by audio snippets (which are all aligned to the central plot or side-plots) and special challenges, which are often tied into side-plots.
It's a game that tries to get you to forget that it's telling a story, but it's also one that uses it almost incessantly. When you're not getting new story, you're getting a lot of action to draw you along and keep you from getting bored. The action by itself is not expected to carry the player's attention for most of the game, and it generally can't.
There's a moment where the player winds up on an asteroid with a giant death laser that's trying to shoot at a planet with your buddies on it, and I think that's the moment where it clicked: even though the story is often silly (a major NPC was distraught over the destruction of his beloved froyo stand), it's still something that serves as the main emphasis during the run-time of the game. Going back and wandering through the environments, pretty and well-crafted as they are, without the story and dialogue would just be a chore. I'm forced to think (for the first time in a while) of Ubisoft's The Division, a game that tried much the same formula as Borderlands but tried to sell just on gameplay, and how I couldn't finish it but how I've somehow spent more than three hundred hours on the Borderlands series.
The emotional driver in Borderlands is definitely narrative in focus.
The Looter-Shooter Loop
Borderlands 3 is a game that knows its core gameplay loop and uses it perfectly.
The looter-shooter strikes a particular balance that I think comes down to two things:
- It's got really simple gameplay, like an ARPG or a FPS.
- It satisfies the numbers part of the brain.
I have spent most of my time playing the previous Borderlands games listening to an audiobook. I didn't do that during Borderlands 3, because I felt like the dialogue and writing was better and I actually felt more engaged to the point where I wouldn't have been able to focus on what I was listening to, but the truth remains that its core gameplay loop is really simple.
And that makes sense when you think of the narrative. The game is constantly throwing dialogue at you. I don't think I've played another game in 2019 that has given me as much dialogue! Almost every non-backtracking moment of Borderlands 3 felt like someone was talking, though I did play on the "Easier" difficulty and rarely got bogged down in fights. It helps that there are a ton of places where little pops of characters saying things (e.g. "Tell my wife I... ugh!" or "For the Calypso Twins!") that are a little annoying if they repeat too much but help to pull the player back into the world.
One of the things that really pulls players in is the immense amount of guns, and the fact that there are real decisions to make. As almost every reviewer has pointed out, players tend to stick with a few really practical guns, but one thing that I've noticed is that a lot of people seem to decide that the "really practical gun" for them is not the same as it is for everyone else (I'm a Jakobs man myself), and the decision making almost always takes place in little moments outside of the narrative action.
This is where the looter-shooter shines. 90% of gameplay is almost entirely point and shoot, with action skills and weapon selection being an almost subconscious response to situations, and 10% of it revolves around character customization and making optimization decisions.
It rewards intelligence, but doesn't require it. There's almost no mental fatigue, and the story is given a chance to shine in the form dialogue and recordings going on around the action.
It's worth noting that the looter-shooter part is basically just numbers. Some people have pointed out, perhaps rightly, that the way that you play is almost entirely unchanged from the start of the game to the end (though there are some small changes), but that's not entirely a bad thing.
From start to finish, Borderlands 3 makes its game mechanics in the looter-shooter incredibly rewarding. With the exception of dying (which sucks, but if it's not an option there's a pretty bad lack of challenge), everything is built to give the player stimulus.
Shooting enemies pops up tons of damage numbers, elemental weapons give bright and splashy feedback, and critical hits pop up an extra level of text.
The whole audio-visual experience of combat in Borderlands revolves around the game mechanic as a justification for action, and it serves as a way to keep the player going while the dialogue delivers a story.
So, given that Borderlands 3 is a narrative-based looter-shooter, how does it hold up?
Well, it's visually fantastic. It's overwhelming at times, but in the same sense that a nice greasy burger is overwhelming. To paraphrase Mr. Torgue, "EXPLOSIONS!"
However, it doesn't have to be hyperactive to give a really impressive visual. The worlds beyond Pandora each have their own clearly defined visual direction, and while it's a bit of a shame that some of the worlds are so monolithic–I yearn for some of the more exotic parts of Pandora we got to see in Borderlands 2; the ice-fields from the opening of the game are one of my favorite parts of the setting–at least there's more variety than there is in previous games, and I don't think any of the places fall flat.
The Eridian elements of the setting are absolutely breathtaking. The Vaults are finally clearly defined after being sort of uncharted territory until the end of the Pre-Sequel, and they're not only great as dramatic elements and places for exposition but also as a visual treat.
There are tremendous visual options available in the PC version. Every single option I wanted was available in the settings menu, plus another half-dozen or so I didn't even know I needed. My only issue was that setting capped FPS seemed to not save right, because every time I started the game I had to tweak it to get the cap going again (I use an ancient 60 Hz monitor that barely drives that, and I like to keep my computer's heat output down). The settings themselves are not overly broad (e.g. you only get a couple of anti-aliasing options), but they feel deliberate in their selection. Setting Borderlands 3 up right, you are in for a great experience. It doesn't have some of the really high-end features, like raytracing, but it doesn't need them. It's a gorgeous game.
The final point I'd like to talk about is the user interface. It's not necessarily the best I've ever seen, but it's really functional. The out-of-menu GUI is able to be customized to a small degree (e.g. change the size of the elements), and you have not only subtitles but also closed captions scale as well, which is nice if you're up close to a giant monitor and want to see the action in all its details.
I've put on my own music after about thirty hours or so (I haven't been strictly keeping count and EGS doesn't make it as easy as Steam does to check), but both the regular sounds and the music are competent. The main irritation I have with the music is that it doesn't stick to a tone as well as earlier installments, and while the licensed music is usually great at setting the tone the ambient music that plays during exploration (infrequently, in my experience) and the combat music is just less appealing.
It's not bad, but it's not a thrilling experience.
The sound, however, is great. The voice-acting is what you would expect from a triple-A title, and there are a lot of celebrity cameos that are absolutely delightful. Sound effects for combat are weighty and meaningful without becoming irritating or repetitive.
Before I begin, I would just like to point out that I'm a writing guy. I'm an English teacher by trade, and I'm getting an MFA in creative writing.
I say that because I'm going to need shielding from embarrassment in just a moment:
I really like Borderlands 3's writing.
Now, is it perfect?
Some of the really big moments in the story feel forced to me, especially when the Calypso Twins are being evil for self-gratification. It's not even that I don't buy that people do that, I don't buy how they're doing it.
But I'm a little ashamed of how many of the gags got a chuckle from me. The actual dialogue itself feels perfectly natural and believable, and you really get a feel for who the characters are and what motivates them. It's actually probably the best-written game I've played this year in the field of main-stream games.
And, if we're honest, the main storyline is generally good. It has twists and turns, and while it's not necessarily the next Tolstoy, it's satisfying in the sense that it feels authentic and bold. There's cool stuff cover-to-cover, and I think it takes a page that certain other franchises could learn from. The major characters are compelling, and a lot of returning minor characters become major characters.
It's definitely not a game you can play and get as much out of if you haven't played the earlier games, though. Things move very quickly between characters, and the new and returning cast get introduced quickly and often fade away quickly too. I don't mind that; you're telling a story across multiple planets with compelling reasons for each journey to take place. That's something a lot of storytellers fail at, and honestly I think that the character-driven method keeps things together.
The game itself is probably around 20-30 hours long, depending on how fast you are and how many side-quests you do. I think I'm at 30 right now, and I did a "straight to the finish" run on my main character and very little on my other characters. I'm still playing some of the side-quests.
Obviously, Borderlands 3 is written to be funny.
Well, yes, I'd say so. It's less married to the idea of being funny than some of the other games in the series, being willing to take a break from the comedy to be serious at times.
The humor runs the spectrum. Yes, there are poop jokes and the assorted scatological and anatomical comedy that one expects from Borderlands. There's also Clap-Trap, though he's less annoying than he has been in the past.
A lot of the characters are distinctive in ways that facilitate both serious drama and humor (there's a moment where FL4K says "I have gained self-awareness and I thirst for murder" to someone in absolute deadpan, which is funnier in context).
The humor branches out more. At least in the main plot, it definitely has more hits than stinkers, and some of the more obnoxious parts of previous games have been toned down. Referential humor feels earned, not just "lolrandom", like bandit showmen Pain and Terror being played by Penn and Teller, and even if you don't get the reference it's still either good voice acting or funny in its own right.
Smooth, polished, and modern. I'd accept this game as a standard shooter without the ARPG elements, given how the storyline and the visuals are so compelling. The movement is so smooth and polished that it feels like the best parts of every innovative shooter of the past decade have come together in a single place.
It's a game you can pick up and play, and it's a game you can put a lot of thought into.
As with most other Borderlands games, only rare and legendary loot feels distinctive, and even then there's some that isn't so distinct. One thing that really helped that is the ability to customize the behavior of the characters' active skills. Playing as Amara, a Siren, I was able to have a bunch of different elemental effects that activated all the time, and I was able to deliberately add some bonus elemental damage of my choice to my regular attack and my action skill, both of which came with accompanying status effects.
The UI is a mixed bag for me. It's not the most intuitive and it's over-busy, but in its defense I skipped the tutorials and I figured it out just fine. You need to unlearn habits, and a list view would be nice. I know they love showing off guns, but sometimes you just need to see everything at a glance, dangnabit! The interface feels really weird at first if you're coming from previous games, but it's a testament to how much modernization has gone into Borderlands 3 when compared to 2 and the Pre-Sequel. Dragging and dropping inventory items is so much better than the two-click system used to be, at least with a mouse.
I think the UI looks pretty good, but it's stylistically a little iffy with boxy outlined buttons. It is easy to navigate with controller and keyboard, though I didn't really use a controller very much. The Social panel gets used by in-game stuff (e.g. for pre-order rewards, messages you get from weapons manufacturers and characters in game at various points), which feels odd at first but comes to feel natural after a while.
Multiplayer is exactly as one would expect. You'll probably want to go through the Epic Games Store for it (though there are a bunch of different options, including public matchmaking and LAN mode), which is a pain if you don't have your friends on Epic. However, you now get a choice of a more traditional cooperative mode, which gets rid of the loot stealing of the old-school "coopetition" style. I didn't have any problems with playing with my brother across the country. There was some latency, but that's not uncommon given the internet situation that we both have, and only he reported it.
There's subtitles and closed captions, which can be enabled separately. The closed captions miss a lot of stuff, but it covers exploding barrels, so at least there are some easy aggravating deaths side-stepped that way.
The end-game is a little lacking in the sense that the battle arenas are not anything I'd really care to do a whole lot of, though I'll probably fight through each once just to say I did them. Mayhem mode is cool, but the random modifiers it applies are more annoying than interesting in many ways. I put the side-quests off until I finished the main quest, but I've still been finding them enjoyable. They scale up to your level once you've beaten the game, and while there are some obvious issues with stuff not matching the state of the universe (especially once you've beaten the game), they've been pretty good in my experience.
The new vehicle is kind of fun, but vehicles play a very small role in the game during the main quest. They're still Borderlands vehicles, love them or hate them, and the customization options really just let me set up my cyclone to go as quickly as possible from Point A to Point B so I could get back to the story and core gameplay.
Visual customization is a lot more robust than it has been in previous games in the series. It's not a core feature, but it's definitely nice if multiple people in a co-op game want to play the same character, and you can actually see your character's feet now, so you can choose the color of their pants/shoes. Individual colors can be customized regardless of skin, too, which is nice if there's a pattern you like but you don't like its colors.
Worth noting: I had six technical issues during the game:
- Text strings occasionally appearing as numbers, which is weird.
- Sound occasionally not playing right, but only when my computer was out of RAM (thanks, Firefox!).
- Clipping through the floor following a major boss-fight. Fixed by returning to main menu.
- A couple crash-to-desktops, with no noticeable loss of progress/data.
- The FPS coming uncapped, as already mentioned.
- Latency in multiplayer, as already mentioned.
I'll be honest, that looks worse on paper than it did in my experience. Across thirty hours of play, barring the trips to the video settings menu (which is a very quick fix), these issues only really impacted my experience three times: the crashes, and the clipping through the floor. All of those issues except for the FPS uncapping may already be fixed by a patch; the game received several updates over the week and a half or so I was playing it frequently.
I think the thing with Borderlands 3 is:
If you like Borderlands, you'll like or love Borderlands 3.
If you like looter-shooters, you'll probably like Borderlands 3.
It's much more of a game that feels like a cohesive story and game. It has an identity and roots itself in its universe. I felt like I was playing a funny, comic-book Mass Effect in the sense that the universe felt more vivid and alive than our previous trips to Pandora have been. The plot had a few predictable elements, but it also had a great cast of voice actors and the twists were tremendous. It's full of spectacle, but without the spectacle I think it would still stand up. As a game designer, I appreciate the fact that every single part of it feels polished and deliberate.
On a scale of 1-10, I'd give it a 9/10, or even a 9.5/10. I might even round up to a 10/10 on a generous day, and not even the most generous day at that. It's a serious contender for my Game of the Year.
I highly recommend Borderlands 3 to anyone who is into the looter-shooter genre or likes sci-fi FPS games like Doom or Wolfenstein. ARPG fans may want to pass, unless the notion of those mechanics being translated to a shooter is intriguing.
Borderlands 3 is a polished game that capitalizes on years of effort and development. From a game design perspective, it manages to pull off a really ambitious vision by choosing exactly where it wants to go. There are a few things that it doesn't need, but it's a uniformly polished experience.
Borderlands 3 has a bolder story than the previous games in its series, and it certainly feels more like a game that takes itself seriously.
This post was written for an Archdruid Gaming contest covering games from this decade; go check them out for more awesome content!