Having finally finished Borderlands 3, I couldn’t help but think there was something… missing from the experience. Borderlands 2 is an important game for me, one I have played many, amny times. So there would naturally be some aspects of a long awaited follow up that I’d end up having problems with. Sure, it’s irreverent style humour is the bread and butter of the series, meme-lording it over the story. But behind that front, it was a game whose characters had a lot of heart.
It’s really difficult for me to exactly put my finger on whether or not BL3 really “felt” like Borderlands. While the moment to moment gameplay is actually fantastic, there is no shortage of excellently controlling shooters in my life right now. What I was most interested in when coming to Borderlands 3 was the continuation of the story and these characters that have been around for over a decade now. Now being on the other side of the game, I can’t say I’m thrilled with how the final (?) part in the story dealt with it’s cast.
Under-utilising basically everyone
The main focus of the story in BL3 are the trio of Lilith, Tannis and Ava, and their struggle against the villains of the game: The Calypso twins. During the planet hopping adventure, there are a lot of different themes and story threads touched upon, but the main through like focuses on the nature of the Siren’s and how all five of these characters react to this power. As well as losing and gaining it over the course of the story.
Which is fine in itself, but not only does this result in the story leaving so much of the wider story on the table, I don’t think it does an especially good job of conveying how these characters are dealing with things on a personal level. Borderlands 2 did a much better job of having the characters reacting, and then coming to terms with Roland’s death. Lilith specifically got a lot of focus, having the mantle of leadership thrust upon her.
Lilith, having her powers stripped away from her at the beginning of the game and continuing to struggle with leadership is still a theme, but one that never really gets taken apart and focused on. The game goes through the motions of development, but it never feels like anything beyond that. You never get those quiet moments to get insight into what characters are actually thinking. I know it might seem a bizarre critisim of a Borderlands game.
But in the previous games, that subtext was there. It was subtle, but it allowed for the player to draw their own conclusions without really stating things outright.
In this regard, Lilith is the main character of Borderlands 3, with Tannis stepping up as the primary support character, ending up having far more development and impact on the story than Lilith. Or even the game’s villains.
Creating villains that could follow Handsome Jack was always going to be difficult. The wisecracking corporate psychopath created such a cult of personality amongst the fan base that he even convinced some weird kids that he was the victim in the story and that Lilith and Moxxi were the real villains. Which continues to be insane to me that some people could come away with that.
The Calypso’s are cut from a very similar cloth. Like Jack, they constantly self promote while badgering the player at every turn. They’re written to be the “love to hate” kind of villains, having charm and charisma, but also making you really anticipate eventually getting to take them down.
But you can probably tell where I’m going with this. Like the earlier examples, the twins fail to reach the standard established by Handsome Jack before. Now in their defence, Jack had a pre-sequel and a major part in the Telltale game to further establish his legacy as one of the most recognisable villains in modern day video games. But even taking that said, Tyreen and Troy really don’t get that much deeper than their jerk-ass streamer personalities that get established in the game’s early hours.
During the final hours of the game, we learn of their connection to Typhon DeLeon; the first vault hunter and a character who gets significantly more development than any other new character thanks to being the focus of a bunch of audio log collectables throughout the preceding game. With this connection coming to light, I’d have hoped that there would be some insight into the twin’s motivations and behaviour. But it never really goes there.
Sure it hints at why they would go bad, but nowhere near enough to give them any kind of sympathetic side. They continue their douchey behaviour right up until the end and I walked away never really feeling like I had a real understanding of how they arrived at the point they did.
Considering the game seems to omit much of the existing cast, including the player characters from their storytelling, I’d have hoped that the main villains would be explored lot more than the game ends up attempting whatsoever. It doubles down on it’s humour style without finding that balance, that heart that make me want to follow the characters and their stories in the first place.
I could honestly go on and on about how the secondary characters in the game hardly felt present, those that were present at all. The likes of Brick and Mordecai not factoring into the main story whatsoever. The fact that Sanctuary feels bustling and worth visiting compared to the hub of the previous game, and the complete absence of previous Vault Hunters, Dr. Zed and the likes of Athena and Fiona from Tales.
The one thing that bugged me the most through, and one more thing makes me feel like Borderlands 3 is a game plucked out of time is the lack of presence of the player character in the game’s story.
Whenever the game cuts to a pre-rendered cut scene, the player character is completely absent from it, sometimes with an explanation, but a lot of the time without one. This something we should be well past at this point. The characters aren’t silent protagonists, during gameplay the player characters banter more than they ever have before. And yet I still feel separated from events whenever my avatar fails to participate in important events throughout.
If you want want to render my avatar into scenes, then at least plot all four characters into the video to make me feel like I’m reveling in that boss I just killed. For the most part, it makes it feel like the game is just happened around me, as I run through and just happen to be involved in events on the periphery.
Borderlands 3 is a great step up from the previous games in a great many ways. But it also feels like it’s resting too much on its laurels and the good will that came from the previous games in the franchise.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time with Borderlands 3 a whole lot as a pure video game, and it’s only in retrospect that this issues come to light for me. But there is by no means perfect and ripe to be criticised for a number of things on top of the story and character problems I’ve already detailed here.
I played through Borderlands 2 at least half a dozen times, having seen credits for BL3 now, I’m not really feeling the rush to go back and continue playing it. Sure, the series has been pretty good with it’s post release content up until now, and will probably be enough to bring me back in. But the game as it exists upon the time of release is always going to niggle me for the things that could have been there and made it so much more.