Borderlands 3 Review

What is it?: The latest cooperative looter-shooter in the Borderlands-verse.
Reviewed on: iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, 2020.) 3.6 GHz 10-Core Intel Core i9. 64 GB 2667 MHz DDR4. AMD Radeon Pro 5700 XT 16 GB.
Time Played: 150 hours.
Expect to pay: $60.
Multiplayer: 4 player coop + Crossplay.
Mac Platform: Epic Games Store.

Even though Borderlands 3 hit Mac in October 2019, the game still feels pretty fresh two years later. This is thanks to the impressive support Gearbox has put into the title. Beyond the expected slew of DLC (recently finished), there have been frequent patches, balancing items, characters, adding seasonal or thematic events, and more. (If you'd like to hear my thoughts on the DLC only, then check it out here.)

Also, it's very easy to find the game on sale these days, which makes it easy to grab. With that in mind, I feel there is no better time to start playing BL3 despite its age.

Getting Modern

Let's just get this out of the way upfront: Borderlands 3's story is mostly shite. The villains are stupid, beloved characters are sidelined or killed, or others retconned to be something they are not. And worst of all, this bratty and irritating kid gets the spotlight instead of being spaced out the airlock where they belong.

The good news? Just about everything else in the game is improved compared to previous entries. Gunplay and movement have never been slicker and more satisfying. The universe opens up with a galaxy hopping adventure featuring many fun planets and locations. Vault Hunters are far superior - and there is an actual and satisfying end game with the brilliant Mayhem mode. And after the misfire that was The Pre-Sequel, the funky humor and zaniness are also in abundance.

So let's elaborate, shall we?

Story

If you want some more backstory, you can check Borderlands 2's The Search For Commander Lilith DLC. Although I can't recommend paying for this, you got it free on the first day it was released. All else failing, just look it up on youtube or Wikipedia. It nicely bridges the gap between the two games and sets up players for getting off-planet. Previous games or DLC are not required, but as with any long-standing series, you'll get more from the latest entry with prior experience.

Our antagonist this time around is not one, but two. Who are these dastardly twins? The impressively uninteresting Calypso siblings, who, besides wanting to take over the universe, are also - wait for it - live streamers! It's as cringy and obnoxious as you can imagine. Tyreen, the sister, is a siren and is the driving force, supported by her brother Troy. They've used their influence to unite the bandit clans and bring terror to Pandora and beyond. Naturally, there's a super powerful MacGuffin to contend over similar nonsense. There's potential late in the story for some interesting twists or character arcs between the two. Still, it never manifests, leaving a formulaic and uninspired ending. Borderlands was never a narrative-heavy game, but BL2 set a pretty good standard for the genre. Unfortunately, different writers and different times lead to subpar results here.

The best part about the story is that we learn about Sirens and more of their powers. So for anyone actually invested in the lore of Borderlands, you can discover many answers and exciting details.

The primary campaign will last about 50 hours or less, depending on how many side quests you do. However, I suggest you perform them because most are entertaining and provide fantastic rewards.

Borderlands!…in Space

The two main draws about this 3rd entry for me are the new Vault Hunters and the fact that you now get to play across multiple planets and locations. Pandora is fine but is getting pretty old in the tooth by now. Thankfully, after about 8-10 hours, you'll get off-world and start having a grand old time about the galaxy. The game does spend too long on one planet, and too little on another, but overall is relatively balanced and sees you hopping around different areas for good story reasons. There are usually optional fun areas to find and explore as well. The worlds are also littered with secret assassins to kill, and big game hunts to discover. The best part about changing locations is brand-new enemies. The game throws a considerable variety at you, including some actual curve balls that are a challenge to take down. This keeps the game compelling and exciting despite being a much longer campaign than previous Borderlands games.

New Hunters

Of course, the heart of the game is the vault hunters themselves.  I had praised The Pre-Sequel for offering more asymmetric and chatty hunters. The trend continues here in a big new way, with each character having 3 different Action Skills to choose from. The build variety is now huge, and it's an absolute blast to experiment as you level up. With a built-in level cap of 72, there are lots to try out.

My favorite is Amara, an Indian-mythology-inspired Siren with incredible melee and crowd control powers. She has some of the most visually badass stuff in the game, hands down. Unfortunately, she was the only genuinely balanced hunter at launch, with the rest being subpar in comparison. But this has long been fixed via patches.

We also have Zane, the quippy corporate assassin, who can use two action skills at once. Next, there's the young soldier girl Moze, with her trusty mech Iron Bear, who can unleash devastating barrages of firepower. And last but not least is Fl4k, a cool robot with pet powers who can summon Skags, Rakk, and more upon command. After you beat the game once, you are given the ability to start a new character at a higher level for a quick start. This is nice to try out new hunters without playing a ton.

Gearbox decided against adding any new vault hunters via DLC (boo). Still, they did add a 4th Skill tree/Action skill via DLC instead.

It's worth mentioning that player movement is greatly enhanced - you can now slide, clamber and mantle around environments. Not only does this feel more dynamic, but it also allows much faster or intuitive traversal of the levels. Combined with the improved gunplay, it's the best Borderlands has ever felt.

Guns, Guns, Guns!

Gearbox promises Bazillions of guns in this game, and that's largely true. Not only has gun variety and creativity taken to a whole new level, but the gunplay itself is also really sharp. Taking some cues from more modern shooters, it feels terrific in the moment-to-moment gameplay. I also like that legendary weapons aren't always the best choice until the ultra-late end game. Many blue, purple or unique equipment is powerful and viable.

Some guns shoot other guns. Guns that walk, flamethrowers, rail guns, smart auto-tracking weapons, and more. Many weapons have multiple firing modes, allowing for a vast amount of variance and load-out possibilities. This is a looter shooter, but Gearbox has outdone themselves overall, and it's a significant upgrade from previous games.

Audio/Video

Visually, this is one of the best-looking games around, never mind just on Mac. It's two years old and still looks a treat. Especially if you have a computer that can run it on High settings or more, your eyes are in for a great time. The textures are lush and detailed, and particle effects are fantastic. Level/planet design is also lovely, ranging from dark and brooding cyber cities, mountainous monasteries, dusty Pandora, and more I won't spoil. There's a lot of fabulous views and picture-worthy moments. Thankfully the game comes with a screenshot mode, and you can do awesome things with it.

Audio is similarly top-notch in general. Strong voice acting, rad music, and thumping guns and skills make every character feel powerful and impactful. Gearbox usually nails this in their games, but it's nice to see it consistent over time.

Performance

Story aside, the other detractor from this game is the Mac performance. In a word, it's pretty piss. An in-house port from Gearbox has yielded some benefits, such as no-downtime patches and full crossplay across other platforms, which is excellent. But sadly, I don't think there's a Mac in existence that can run this game without stuttering. I've spent a lot of time tinkering with it across various Macs, and not one test has resulted in a stable frame rate. My uber-iMac can feasibly run the game at max settings and resolution. However, even setting everything to ultra-low and low-res, it still stutters.

I also had to do weird shenanigans with the display modes and rendering. It seems to operate best in windowed-display mode at full 4K/5K resolution *but* then setting the rendering resolution to 50%. This was the most stable/best looking I could get the game. Perhaps someone else can do better with another Mac or setting that I'm unaware of.

There are a lot of settings to tweak, and the Unreal Engine has always scaled well across different machines, so that's nice.

Intel

Seemingly unavoidable stuttering aside, the game runs at Ultra/Badass settings on my iMac at 1440p. I also encountered no crashes or particular bugs.

Silicon

The good news here for M1 users is that aside from a 7-core GPU Air, any M1 machine should run this game. The older models will only run it on low settings and just hit 30fps, but any Pro or Max machine can run the game quite handily on High settings with solid FPS in the 40-60 range.

End Game

After you finish the story, you can proceed with "True Vault Hunter Mode" as usual, but honestly, there's no point. It just forces you to replay a long campaign. This was the only way to keep playing at a challenging pace in previous games, but no longer. Mayhem mode unlocks after completing the game, and it's f$#ing AWESOME. Not only does it level scale all enemies, loot, and quests to your level (very important for going back and doing any side quests you missed before), it scales from levels 1-11, adding kinds of modifiers, buffs, and challenges to the gameplay. It's fantastic and has a great scaling curve. Also, with all the arenas, raids, takedowns, events, and other things Gearbox has added, you can play all kinds of fun stuff beyond the campaign at precisely the difficulty you prefer.

It also should be said this game has a significant amount of DLC in the form of four campaign expansions and two different gameplay packs. Some of these are great, and some are meh. See my below post for full thoughts on what's worth buying and skipping.

Conclusion

Borderlands 3 is difficult to rate conclusively. The story villains are shite, and the performance is hogwash. Still, the gameplay, vault hunters, and adventures have never been better. It's easy to sink 100+ hours into without breaking a sweat, and it remains one of the best coop experiences around to have a romp in with friends. Great support from Gearbox keeps the game fresh, and crossplay anywhere lets you play with whoever you want, even on Mac. Whether the game's issues are enough to detract you from the good stuff is a decision you'll have to make. Personally, I really enjoy the game and heartily recommend it, even at full price. But any Mac buyer should check it out for themselves first.

Rating: 9/10 I guess?

Awesome

  • Visuals
  • Momentum/Gunplay
  • Massive amount of content + ongoing updates
  • Multiple Action Skills!
  • Multiple planets and worlds!
  • Mayhem Mode is F%#!ing Brilliant.

Mixed

  • No new Vault Hunters via DLC
  • Minimal showing of previous games' main characters.

Popsnizzle

  • Mac performance
  • Primary Villains
  • Epic Store only
  • Ava (Pls, can I put her out the airlock?)