Somewhere on the planet Eden-6, I met a talking teddy bear named Balex. He used to be an AI navigation system, until he’d been trapped in the toy by his girlfriend, an AI weapons system, after they had a fight. He loves to call his ex-girlfriend a bitch. Balex repeats the word so often, Ice-T begins to sound uncomfortable saying it. I found a mech where I could transfer Balex and did so, by stuffing the teddy bear into the mech’s crotch. The Pink Ice-T bear hung like a codpiece. It was hard not to stare, a fact my character decided to comment on. The joke wasn’t funny and listening to my character lampshade the visual made it worse. Like Ice-T saying “bitch” until the word lost meaning, Borderlands 3 beat me over the head with its jokes, begging me to laugh.
Wandering around the wreck of a spaceship with mecha-teddy-cock Ice-T and listening to him talk about his "bitch girlfriend" was the moment my brain turned off. The tragedy is that Borderlands 3 is a great game in every other way. The weapons feel better to shoot than they did in Borderlands 2, the loot is stranger and more varied, and the boss fights harder and more intricate. But the game constantly interrupts these moments of fun with a poorly timed fart joke. It wasn’t always this way.
Somewhere in the seven years between Borderlands 2 and Borderlands 3, the series lost some of its magic. Borderlands has always been a game about rude, crude, bad dudes rampaging across the galaxy. But it’s never felt more simultaneously meaningless and baffling.
The Calypso Twins, the game’s principle villains, are streamers who’ve turned their popularity into a cult. They literally devour their followers and want to get into the Vaults— Borderlands’ MacGuffin—to steal power for … reasons?
They’re the game’s major villains and it’s important to stop them, but 16 hours into the campaign, I’m still not sure what the stakes are or why their brand of madness is worse than anything else that’s going on Pandora. In Borderlands 2, Handsome Jack was a compelling villain because he had convinced himself he was the hero of the story. He thought the players were the bad guys and he acted accordingly. Handsome Jack thought he was going to save the planet Pandora by fighting the players and prying open the vault. I don’t understand what motivates the Calypso twins.
Similarly, as the heroes of Borderlands 3 zoom around the galaxy, they enlist the aid of the world’s megacorp arm’s manufacturers. I helped one company fend off the violent takeover by another, and watched a man coded as a Southern fop work through his inferiority complex to take the reigns of corporate power. The streamers, the gun companies, the family drama—it’s all interesting in conception, but Borderlands 3 doesn’t do anything with it.
The war between rival arms dealers focuses on the conflict between two corporate assholes. One of them literally conducts a campaign of genocide from a yacht. I’m told that Rhys is the good guy, but he’s still the ultra-wealthy head of a giant, plant spanning, megacorporation. The war with his rival is devastating the planet and it’s a war the rival implies could have played out in the boardroom if Rhys hadn’t been stubborn. This is the good guy? All he’s got going for him is that he hasn’t overseen a genocide campaign, and seems nice!
The humor has always been juvenile, silly, and meme-filled. I’m tempted to say that I’ve aged seven years and just don’t think this stuff is as funny anymore. But then I remember Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, a campaign DLC for Borderlands 2. In Borderlands 2, Tiny Tina is a child demolitions expert whose family was sold to a megacorporation for experimentation. Her parents dead, she attached herself to the vault hunters and found a new father figure in Roland—then the leader of the game’s heroes. When Handsome Jack killed Roland it devastated Tina.
In Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, Tina pressured the heroes into a playing a fantasy pen and paper RPG. The story she tells is a fantastical reworking of the events of Borderlands 2 where Roland and the other characters who died at the hands of Handsome Jack survive. Tiny Tina is working through her grief with her friends using the game, a fact not lost on her friends. It’s sad and affecting and memorable. There’s also plenty of funny crude jokes.
There’s nothing like that in Borderlands 3. I met Tiny Tina briefly, now an adult, but still building bombs. She helped me blow something up and I didn’t see her again. Many interactions play out like this in Borderlands 3. There’s a brief moment with a character from a previous game that references their quirks, and we move on. I felt like Gearbox was nudging me in my ribs and saying, “You remember Brick right? From the original Borderlands? Here’s Brick. He’s still doing stuff.”
My colleague Emanuel Maiberg is also playing Borderlands 3 and, I think, enjoying it more than me. He turns down the sound, listens to a podcast, and induces a meditative state by killing wave after wave of enemies. After getting Balex to the control room of his spaceship, and listening to his AI girlfriend hoot monkey noises incessantly for several minutes to summon monsters, I decided to follow Emanuel’s lead.
It works. Not listening to Borderlands 3 makes Borderlands 3 more fun. Without the stupid story, obnoxious dialogue, and juvenile noises, Borderlands 3 becomes a game about finding whakcy weapons and slaughtering waves of strange bad guys. Without listening to the hoots of an AI or the screams of a boss, I can focus on the weapons I just looted—a pistol that lobs homing grenades and submachine gun that drops landmines when reloaded.
Gearbox apparently agrees this is a better way to experience the game. In the most recent patch for Borderlands 3, developer Gearbox Software patched the sound so the bosses wouldn’t scream so much. When I’d fight a boss in Borderlands 3, they’d often be in the middle of taunting me when I’d shoot them. Then they’d start screaming and wouldn’t stop until they died, their shrill noises filling my speakers.
When I get home today, I’m still going to load up Borderlands 3. But I’m taking a cue from Emanuel—I’m putting on a podcast, turning down the sound, and finding joy in the shooting. Gearbox can patch out the screams of the bosses, but it can’t patch the heart back into Borderlands.