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Borderlands 3 hands-on preview – new worlds, new characters, same gameplay

Although it sounds impossible, this instalment features an even greater variety of guns, complete with alternate fire modes that let you unleash micro missiles, fiery ammunition, and Fifth Element-style auto-targeting where multiple shots track the same victim. There’s also a greater degree of customisation available in characters’ skill trees, with action skills joined by augments that allow further divergence from the vanilla stats.

As Brock was keen to point out, ‘Each player will have an opportunity to laser in on what they really want to do and it’s easy enough to modify or change those over time.’ A facility that will mean no two builds you meet will be the same, even when players are using the same character. Vehicles are similarly varied. ‘In the past we’ve offered a range of paint jobs and you could modify some weapons, and while those are still the same basic categories, the amount of things in them has just exploded to an insane degree.’

Along with a scattering of new enemies, the only new vehicle shown was the Cyclone, in which your character sits in the middle of a single giant wheel. There are four new player characters to choose from though: Moze the Gunner, who can spawn a mech; Amara the Siren, who specialises in magic and melee; Flak the Beastmaster, who brings along a pet monster; and Zane the operative, who has a decoy hologram and plays a bit like Borderlands 2’s Zer0, who also returns in this instalment.

The hands-on demo was set on a planet called Promethea in a cyberpunk city that feels completely different from the Wild West-in-space milieux of Pandora. It’s the setting for a corporate war between rival weapons manufacturers Atlas Corporation and Maliwan, and you soon make friends with Atlas’ leader and new face, Lorelei. She’s English with an accent sounds like the real thing, and in a decidedly non-Dick Van Dyke-esque twist calls someone a ‘minger’, along with a range of other authentically colourful British vocabulary.

The frequent combat is anything but divergent, however, and will immediately feel like home to fans. Loud, messy firefights with numbers popping up to show the damage you’re doing to enemies, and a reliance on moving and using cover, whilst giving your rechargeable shield enough time to top itself up. We were only able to try the game in single-player, but the look and feel of its gunfights suggested multiplayer would be largely unchanged.

Missions also follow a familiar pattern, with a plethora a side quests available, many of which displayed the series’ trademark irreverence. An early one on Promethea has you hunting down coffee for Lorelei, the coffee shop’s barista-bot needing a power core and a separate reusable travel mug before it can supply you with ‘life-saving’ java. You must then endure a series of devastating counterattacks as the enemy force attempts to recover the mug you stole.

Graphically, although the game now runs in 4K, its art style almost doesn’t need it. While its cartoon visuals look slightly sharper than before, and provide more detailed backdrops, it’s an upgrade that’s far from revolutionary. Similarly, the process of actually moving and shooting remains very much in line with past outings. The guns may sound slightly more aggressive, but the feel is unchanged. If you loved it before you still will, but if not this will do nothing to win you over.

From the boxes of loot adorned with temptingly flashing lights to the cheeky comedy dialogue, Borderlands 3 looks set to fulfil all the expectations of series devotees. The fact that it steadfastly refuses to reinvent itself is partly down to its commercial success, and partly down to a stubborn belief that it’s got things right, even when the rest of the industry seems to be herding itself in other directions.

Whilst that offers few surprises, it will at least provide a huge new serving of Borderlands, which in these straitened times of widespread conformism might not be such a bad thing.

Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox
Release Date: 13th September 2019

By Nick Gillett

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