Gearbox has been pretty candid about its strategy with Borderlands 3 for some time.
"We know what we're good at and what people love about Borderlands," producer Anthony Nicholson told us at the Borderlands 3 gameplay reveal event in April. "We already had a strong foundation, so it was more about finding the things we know people really cling to and we know we do well, and expanding on those things."
Judging from the initial wave of reviews, Gearbox accomplished that goal, but critics were a bit split on just how worthwhile that made the end product.
In his 9 out of 10 review for IGN, James Duggan said the game was "stubbornly refusing to reinvent itself after a five-year absence." And while that was a boon in Duggan's eyes, other reviewers saw it as a misstep.
"The game certainly delivers more Borderlands, though not much else," Ben Kuchera in his unscored but decidedly negative review for Polygon.
The substance of many of these reviews match up nicely, but the scores are less in line. Duggan's IGN review was among the most glowing the game received, while James Davenport's 63 out of 100 review for PC Gamer was on the opposite end of the spectrum.
"With Borderlands 3, a few things have changed, but to little effect," Davenport said. "It's still a Diablo-like masquerading as a shooter, now with new traversal moves, gorgeous gun models, and improved weapon feedback. But Gearbox has done little to build on the Borderlands formula, while chucking the pitch perfect writing of Tales from the Borderlands in the bin. It's the best and the worst of the series at once."
Davenport took particular issue with the writing, from its preoccupation with feces to its penchant for referencing things and letting that reference be the extent of the joke. As Davenport explained, "the bulk of Borderlands 3 reads like teenage lunch table improv circa Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me."
In an 8 out of 10 review for GameSpot, Jordan Ramée was impressed by the game's heart as well as its humor.
"The story is a bit of a slow start, but it quickly picks up near the end of the first act and rarely slows down on its way to its grand finale," Ramée said. "Looting and shooting are still the focus of Borderlands 3, but its campaign also delivers a fairly well-written story of sacrifice, the importance of family, and the responsibilities of heroes."
Mike Williams had similar issues with the early goings of Borderlands 3, saying in his 4 out of 5 review for USgamer that he "almost tapped out from boredom" in the first few hours. However, one of the games' few new significant changes, new planets to explore, wound up winning him over.
"It's surprising how much a dash of color adds to Borderlands, as combat and traversal still play out largely the same, but the new environments and enemies offer unique engagement," Williams said.
"In co-op multiplayer, Borderlands 3 is still the absolute blast that the first two were"
Even though the new areas bring new enemies, the difference they make on gameplay is limited by most accounts. Even in Duggan's IGN review, the functionality of the new environments was limited.
"Though few have mechanical differences that distinguish them from the rest, every nook and cranny is generously littered with chests, collectibles, and amusing Easter eggs that make exploration and looting almost as much fun as the combat," he said.
And just as Duggan's laudatory review mentioned many of the same negatives as the reviews with lower scores -- few innovations, annoying boss fights, uninspired main antagonists -- so too did the less impressed reviewers agree on some of the things Borderlands 3 does right, like the nuts and bolts of combat powered by a vast and ever-rotating assortment of absurd firearms.
"Goons explode like bloody pustules in his wake, limbs whirling around a singularity while I -- wearing a horse head and an American flag skin -- fire rockets and toss grenades into the mess," Davenport said in his PC Gamer review. "This is what I love about Borderlands... I do this for around 30 hours, and while the novelty wanes the inherently repetitive action is propped by an endless font of cool guns, grenades, class mods, artifacts, and shields, each with their own ridiculous attributes."
The series co-op play was also a focus of praise, with Williams in particular saying it causes the game's flaws to fade away into the background.
"In co-op multiplayer, Borderlands 3 is still the absolute blast that the first two were," Williams said. "You can just get together with a friend and literally shoot the shit."
As he concluded, "Borderlands 3 is pure Borderlands though. If you love Borderlands, hey, it's back. If you don't, nothing here is changing your mind. Gearbox looked at Borderlands and figured that the way to improve it was 'BIGGER' and 'MORE.' And I can't argue that the result isn't a good one."
Ramée agreed, saying, "If you've never been a fan of the franchise, it's unlikely Borderlands 3 does enough things differently to change your mind, as the game best excels at continuing what the series has always done: deliver a humorous tall tale of misfits looting and shooting their way to heroism."