(Pocket-lint) - It must be said that, in recent times, we’ve had an inordinate number of post-apocalyptic shooters. And many of them present stories very much with their tongues firmly in cheek.
However, as much as Far Cry New Dawn, Rage, Fallout 76 and several others have filled the void (with varying levels of success), there’s one series that has always ruled the roost in this specific genre: Borderlands.
Borderlands 3 proves why. It is a funny and frenetic FPS that more than impresses even without a PVP mode. It also does so without purchasable loot boxes or any of the other trappings of modern triple-A titles.
In short, it is a fun, friendly experience that celebrates single-player (and co-op) story-based exploits and a more honest era of gaming where you get exactly what you pay for.
For our review, we played countless hours of the campaign, fulfilling every side mission and searching for every collectable along the way, so we can safely say that, while the combat can feel routine at times, it's the biggest, baddest Borderlands yet.
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It starts with you having to choose between four new vault hunters, each with their own abilities, voice acting and play styles. We preferred to play as FL4K, a robotic hunter who commands one of three savage creatures to help in battle, but all are fun in their own ways. There is also Moze, with her mechanoid exosuit that can be called upon at time, Zane the operative, who uses tech to help in battle, and Amara the siren who has, well, siren powers.
Each character has an extensive skill tree to fill as you progress, in fact three different ones with different options, so there is plenty of customisation to be had throughout the game. And, as in previous Borderlands, you can also change the look of your avatar greatly, through pick-ups found along the way.
All of this means you get to play the game exactly as it suits you. Prefer aggressive, heavy-handed skills and abilities? Sorted. Or, should you want to be more defensive and ranged in your combat style, that's on offer too. Even more so than its predecessors, Borderlands 3 is an action RPG and, as such, half the fun is in creating the character you most want to be and seeing him or her through to the end.
Let me tell you a story
The story is certainly epic enough to fit the role-playing genre. Once again, a major threat has emerged, but is wider ranging than ever before. It comes from the Calypso twins who, between them, can rob others of their powers and suck out their life force, turning them into dust in the process.
This leads the duo to believe that they are effectively gods and, with their Children of the Vault motley crew, seek the wonders of remaining vaults to become truly such. That's where you and the Crimson Raiders have to step up to the plate, to rebuild Sanctuary again and stop them, cracking open a vault or two along the way.
There are some real standout, almost shocking moments ahead but this is a Borderlands game, naturally, so there are also plenty of laughs. Claptrap is back to provide much of the humour, while the game has a fine handle on some beautifully dark comic scriptiing.
Some of it doesn't work - with the punchlines being a touch on the puerile side at times - but it works more often than not and no developer really does it as well as Gearbox. Especially on this scale, as Borderlands 3 is a much bigger game than its predecessors. Not least because it's the first to take you to other planets and locations.
The game starts on Pandora - like its predecessors - but there are a couple of other planets and off-world sites to discover as the story progresses. You will head to Promethea and Eden-6 are new, for example.
And as well as provide different large open-world layouts to explore, switching between them allows for different graphical styles.
Pandora is naturally covered in rock-filled canyons, wastelands and bandit camps, as before. But, Promethea features the highways and skyways of futuristic metropolitan city, Meridian. It is packed with foes that are more high-tech, while Eden-6 is a jungle-like planet with much more verticality in the play as you jump up and across gantries.
You also get a new Sanctuary this time around. It not only serves as your homebase, but helps you travel from planet to planet because, as you soon find out, it is an enormous spaceship. Inside, there are different, customised quarters for your character and NPCs, plus many interactive elements that enable you to fully prepare before heading planetside.
Preparation is certainly a key element to succeeding in the game as, like with the rest in the series, the most important decisions you'll have to make before undertaking main or side missions is what weapons, shields and grenades you want to take with you. Let's just say that Gearbox wasn't lying when it told us that there are billions of combinations.
It's a blast
While tweaked, the core gameplay is mostly untouched. The Borderlands series has always thrived on its vast selection of weaponry and loot crates and both look and feel very similar in style to previous episodes. There are some additions, however. There is a new elemental type - radiation - that joins fire, shock, corrosive, slag and explosive for addition damage effects.
Some weapons even allow you to switch between effects and ammo types, so you can adjust depending on the type of foe you face - not just select different guns, but different options on several of them.
Other weaponry improvements include a greater variety of Tediore gun types, which perform different actions when you run out of ammo. Instead of reloading, Tediore-made blasters are thrown at an enemy and, while they also appeared in Borderlands 2, there are more spectacular effects on offer this time.
We particularly liked the weapon we found after dispatching the Gigamind boss on Promethea - a brain in a jar, essentially. It turned into a Gigamind Spider once depleted, which scuttles towards enemies and explodes.
There are others with equally comic moves.
What we found during the first few hours of play is that, while weapons seem weak and underpowered at early levels, you soon find much better guns. Indeed, about two hours in, we were already firing off volleys of micro-missiles and sniping bandits from a distance with a single headshot.
Finding loot has always been important to Borderlands, but it has rarely been so much fun too.
Better with a friend
Even more fun is playing the entire story with a friend. Drop-in, drop-out co-op online or even split screen is available for the whole game experience and there is one very clever feature implemented to make it even more balanced and worthwhile, no matter the level of each player.
Loot Instancing is an optional mode that, when activated, balances the game for each player. That means, even while they play at the same time, on the same game world, players will get a tuned experience just for their character level.
For example, if one player is level 10 and the other level 25, the former will find loot of level 10 and below, while the same loot will seem to be level 25 for the other. Enemies will be tuned suitably too.
It means both players will get an even challenge, no matter how much time they have invested in the game separately.
The mode can also be turned off and co-op set to work normally, but this is a real groundbreaking step for co-op play, we feel. It means you get exactly the sort of challenge you want, no matter your skill level.
As with the previous games, Borderlands 3 adopts the cell-shaded graphical style which works especially well in resolution mode on the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X (plus higher-end PCs, of course). And HDR support for the game, regardless of whether you play in 1080p or 4K, is superb - the over-saturation of colours is exactly what the art of Borderlands requires.
There is another mode for the more powerful consoles, that allows you to favour frame rate over resolution, but we've found the game to run better without.
Audio too is exemplary - especially on a decent home cinema speaker setup or virtual surround headphones.
Having spent so much time with Borderlands 3, we can safely say that it is a blast from beginning to end.
Yes, some of it can feel like a grind, with waves of similar-acting enemies around many corners, but pick up a new gun and combat feels fresh again. And, with planet hopping now an option, you don't even have to stare at the same scenery for long.
There are also some awesome boss battles along the way, that will tax you - we stumbled on some for hours if not days. Plus, the skill and levelling progression system means you get to play in the best style that suits you.
Basically, Gearbox has created the best Borderlands yet. It feels very familiar to the others in the series, which is to its benefit as that makes it easy to launch straight into, but there is enough new and improved to sate the appetites of fans and newcomers alike.