Welcome to 'Borderlands 3', Where You Can Shoot a Brain in a Jar With Legs
The latest iteration of the Gearbox shooter offers a billion guns and a slew of ludicrous things to shoot them at.
The sound a PR makes when you ask a question they are not exactly a fan of is: ttt. There is another noise they make, too, a rarer one, that goes like this: [inhaling air through the mouth while exhaling it through the nose, like furiously playing the flute]. This is the peek behind the curtain you didn't want: often, interviews journalists conduct are quietly overseen by a PR, like bumpers on the edge of a bowling alley, making sure you don’t stray anywhere too interesting or too far from the agreed-upon topic at hand. The two noises again: ttt; the inhalation / exhalation of air.
I have heard these two noises many times in the past, but never have I managed this: I have never made a PR make the chimeric noise of disapproval, the inhale noise, followed immediately by the hard-T tut. Try it now and see if you can do it (I know you are only at your desk): wheeeeeeeesh, tttT. That is the noise a PR made when I asked two Borderlands 3 developers:
"Why can I shoot so many babies in this game?"
Before I get an email, I should clarify that you cannot shoot babies in the upcoming 2K/Gearbox shooter Borderlands 3. You can shoot dwarf-sized people with baby-fat arms and baby-fat legs and doll-like babies' heads, but they are not – canonically! – babies. They look and behave like babies, and shriek like babies might if you shot them (the babies), but they are not babies. "What are they, then?" I ask. The PR makes another un-transcribable sound.
You know how Borderlands goes by now, which is what Borderlands is hoping for. Borderlands, in brief: a living graphic novel set on Pandora, a made-up planet that doesn’t exist, where everything is seemingly made by welding a load of mashed-up cars together and is populated by insane shrieking dystopian gangs of topless men with gas masks and death wishes. It’s the sort of game that feels like it was spiritually descended from a goth doing a sketch in the back of a maths book: arched-eyebrow humour, schlock-like gore, smart-mouthed villains, hyper-fun boss battles where everyone jumps wickedly from behind some pipes and freeze-frames on their outrageous cobbled-together apocalypse-chic gears-and-goggles outfit.
It is – actually, if you think about it – the modern game that is most directly descended from the weird jump-and-dash platformers of the early-90s, where big-armed heroes chewed cigars and shot oversized rifles into the repeating faces of a nearly endless series of henchmen. In recent years, gaming has become something capital-G, like Films and Books, and perhaps lost a little of that – everything's very serious, isn't it, everything's very grey, the physics are very real, are they not – and along the way lost a little of that thing they used to have, where every gun had a fun nickname and the lore was, basically, "Have you ever thought a tribal tattoo might make you magic?" In 2009, Borderlands came along and changed that, and, in 2019, Borderlands 3 hopes to do it all over again. The timing, you have to admit, is close to perfect.
I have played Borderlands 3 now, at an astonishingly bombastic play-along event in sunny Los Angeles hosted by magician-cum-auteur Randy Pitchford. You are either wholly unmoved by that news – like, it would be next to impossible for you to care less; or you want to grab me firmly by the lapels and demand that I tell you everything. I will tell you everything.
But first we need to recap the first games and their myriad DLC spin-offs. Borderlands (2009) mapped out the rough texture of the ensuing games: playing one of four "Vault Hunters", you would search the tombs and vaults of a dystopian planet, shooting bandits to smithereens in flashes of comic book hyper-violence, cobbling together enough alien technology to make your gun "better at being a gun". Throughout this you were being taunted and aided by various mysterious voices, and your best friend was a robot, and everyone kept saying "artefacts" a lot in important-sounding tones. Borderlands 2 (2012) was that again but with more guns and a villain called Handsome Jack. Do you want me to recap every DLC? It was basically that again but with different people in it. It's not hard.
That's sort of the point, though: mindlessness as an art form. It feels like Borderlands 3 is an exquisite case of timing in an industry that's turned towards both being very serious and cramming a battle royale game-mode into anything with a vaguely functioning engine. B3 is quite proudly continuing in its own vein (in the play-along, I – a magic siren-woman with a gatling gun – shot someone’s head off in a way that they tipped very slowly backwards, still gracefully spurting blood from their neck-like stump, then looted their remaining body for ammo, and that was maybe the third-coolest kill I did), and after a five-year development period where the demands of players has changed dramatically, the need now for a dumb and mindless blast-em-all seems serendipitous.
"I don't know if the timing was purposeful," lead weapons artist Jimmy Barnett tells me, "or just happened to be accidental. But as the development ebb and flow was happening, we worked on some other projects – we did some things in the industry as it began to move the way that it did – and as we were coming back around to revisit Borderlands, the industry had kind of gotten a serving of that nature of gameplay style. You can almost feel a desire for something like this, because you haven't really seen it in a while – the couch co-op, the narrative single-player experience. Call it just timing or luck, but I think this is what people are excited about, just as a change of pace for a little bit."
The last time I played Borderlands I was quite profoundly stoned on a comfortable sofa. There, rendered close to catatonic by misjudging the exact amount of edibles needed to sink my body into the soft furnishings, skimming along vast ice-blue wastelands while shooting gas-masked men in the head became oddly soothing, hypnotic. Because that's what it is: while Borderlands paints itself as a frenetic move-and-fire where guns sprout legs and you can render bosses shattered into atoms by stumping them with the butt of your rifle, the beats and rhythms of the game form in familiar shapes and patterns, and that's why blasting your way through an open quad of armed guards is more often intense than stressful. It's like listening to a loud, rough rock song: your blood is pumping but you don’t have to think too hard about why. And a lot of that hinges on the mealy grub of gun worship.
There are, as many reports state, a billion weapons in this game (obviously not an actual billion: there are various shapes and parts that combine together to make weapons, as well as procedurally developed names for each, so you might have a pistol that fires hamburgers, that hasn’t technically been designed but has been at least calculated), and you might find yourself – whether glued by drugs to a sofa or just playing like a normal person – feeling a kind of kinship with a weapon that got you through a particularly difficult fight, a weird reluctance to swap it out.
Borderlands has always been a loot shooter – kill the bad guy, pick up the shiny things his shattered body drops – but B3 takes things to the extreme, with torrents of guns falling to the floor whenever you kill a boss or mid-level grunt. It’s actually quite hard to get out of an area without compulsively checking it for loot – the same way it’s quite hard to close Instagram when you know you have a pending red notification bubble – and it's with these glittering prizes that the game drags you from one area to the next. Collecting weapons isn’t just the point of the game, it’s a form of locomotion within it.
Is it weird to feel like you’re friends with a gun? Another overblown space-set multi-planet shooter, Destiny, taps into that same strange frenzy: you harbour weapons you have made gaming memories with, learn to know the alcoves of their fire rate and recoil distance, save them in vaults when it’s finally time to upgrade, too attached to drop them on the floor. How did Borderlands designers make you want to, you know, shag your rifle?
"We tried to push that a little more in this game," lead visual weapons designer Kevin Duke admitted, "and giving people reasons beyond base stats was important for this: like, does it do more damage, does it shoot faster? What does the manufacturer actually bring to your gameplay? And what’s that effect in-game? Do you like having the utility of a shotgun on a rifle? Or do you like having a shield? And finding those answers took a lot of brainstorming. We tried that with every manufacturer [there are nine in-game] and tried to figure out, you know: a) What is the gameplay impact? and b) How can we tell through the aesthetic?"
Do you really need a billion guns? No, not really. Does it feel weird to have access to a billion guns? This is the kind of game where you can spiral someone's head off their shoulders and it spins in the air 400 times while being attacked by a drone. This game is the mental equivalent of Jason Statham driving a Mustang into Sergeant Bash. Anywhere else, we'd have to be really Having A Chat about whether a billion guns is necessary. In Borderlands, it almost feels like it’s not enough.
So the new Borderlands is Borderlands, and then some (to slip into Borderlands-appropriate parlance for a moment: it’s Borderlands… on acid!!). The shapes are the same but in different places: your base, Sanctuary 3, is now a living, breathing, floating spaceship-type structure with wise-cracking characters cranking around in every room and the ability to warp to other planets; the city-planet, Promethea, feels like a city, at once overbearingly large and tall-building claustrophobic; the open landscapes still feel suitable sand-blasted by apocalypse.
The series' previous antagonist, Handsome Jack, is nominally dead, but in his place are two utterly annoying anime-esque villains, The Calypso Twins, who strike that perfect balance of villainy: lip-lickingly ecstatic to be so evil about things, but so infuriating you cannot wait to shoot them, again and again and again, in the face, with a shielded shotgun.
The co-op game mode is still a central pillar of the game (either local, on the TV in your front room while sharing a beer, or online, like nerds), and a new feature – Loot Instancing – means you don’t need to squabble with your fighting partner for the best gear (though this can be turned off if, like, you actually like fighting your friends). What else? Oh: there’s an incredibly annoying English-accented NPC who keeps saying "slag" wrong in a way that feels engineered specifically to wind me up ("Oh, slag it!" – no.), and even though it is among your missions to help her, very very often you do not want to help her.
The "bullets-that-do-things" mechanic has evolved four, maybe five, stages, so now you can shoot burgers, drones, guns-with-legs, guns-with-brains-on-legs, guns that explode with a pop of radiation ("In meetings, normally someone turns around with an idea and we say, 'Well, let’s give it a shot,'" Barnett tells me. "Yeah, or someone says, 'You sound like a fucking idiot,'" Duke chimes in); there are more vehicles, including an over-the-head single-wheel Cyclone ("The [sound of] the mono-wheel is my motorcycle recorded in the garage," Duke says. "The weapons in the game have engines on them and the idling sound is my car," Barnett adds. "We spent an afternoon on top of the parking garage, making noises"), and every manufacturer of weapon is tweaked and tuned so it feels distinct, so that you know when you're firing a Maliwan instead of a Jakobs.
You can slide boots-first along the ground and smoothly butt an enemy on the head with your gun, then climb a building and explode their corpse with a grenade. You can snipe with the same weapon, then switch to auto fire and rev bullets through approaching hordes with the click of a single button. The violence in Borderlands quickly moves through "Oh!" to "Cool!" to a sort of schlocky mindlessness, and that’s where a lot of the series draws its strength: it doesn’t feel pathological to use a billion weapons to shoot a baby (or something that looks a lot like a baby! An eerie baby!) – it feels like a natural motion across the world you’re in. So far I have used the word "gun" 18 times in this piece. There are four more coming. That alone should act as a pretty firm review of the game.
That, then, is the new Borderlands: the old Borderlands, with just enough fizz in the water to make it feel newer, bigger, capital-m More. If you’re into Borderlands – and the fact that the LA reveal event was iron-clad with enough smoke and mirrors and security guards going really quite a spicy distance up my inner thigh in search of contraband, held at a secret venue to allay the unspoken fear that a breakout fan community, a subreddit or something, would find the location of the new game and surge the stage, nerds in ill-fitting psycho masks shrieking with laughter and slaughtering us for info, and we, with little more knowledge than them, cowering on our knees, guns to our little heads, sweating and crying and bleeding and saying "there's a quick change station", barrel digging into the soft meat of the forehead now, "There’s a quick change station where you can change your characters' look if not their feel!" And The Guns Go Off – so if you’re into Borderlands, as so many people are, this will feel like greeting an old friend after a long trip abroad: the humour, treading that razor fine line between nerd snark and annoying, landing on a delicate thread of funny in between; violence so bombastic it becomes a punchline of its own; the infuriatingly rare ammo drops; that woozy feeling of watching a comic pulsate to life; the boss of your collective gang keeps appearing at inopportune mid-game times as a shimmering half-moving apparition in your HUD.
Those new to the game will recognise Borderlands too, as something of a throwback on steroids: a triple-A game genuinely trying to make you laugh, an open sprawling multi-planet epic that nevertheless grabs you by one gloved hand and pulls you through it at a frenetic pace, a shooter to sink into a sofa to, a near perfect compliment to edibles. At some point you may question whether you need one billion guns to kill a single baby (again, lawyers: not a baby!). At other points, Borderlands 3 will answer the question for you. It will put 900 shotguns up to the temple of your head and sing: you do.
'Borderlands 3' is out on the 13th of September, 2019.