Like many people, I was incredibly excited for Borderlands 3. After discovering the franchise in 2015, I waited in anticipation for a new entry that would deliver the same trademark humour, thoughtful narrative, and memorable characters. However, finishing the latest instalment did not elicit the same appreciation that its predecessors demanded. Instead, I felt a little annoyed and incredibly disappointed at how good the story could have been.
The absence of quality and potential from the main storyline becomes apparent when examining the exceptional side quest design. Optional missions in Borderlands 3 offer some of the best narrative content in recent memory. Players eager to explore the sprawling worlds are consistently rewarded with fun, humorous dialogue that complements the unique designs of the planets and their inhabitants. The most memorable quests brilliantly showcase the comedic talents of the development team through the bizarre cast of NPCs, which includes a hipster barista and a talking Porta-Potty. Even hunting down the Typhon logs is worth the effort for the satisfaction of learning more about the mysterious first vault hunter.
Maybe the reason most side quests succeed where the main storyline does not lies in the fact that they make the player feel involved. A side quest is exactly that, optional content that may never be seen by some, or any, players. To actively seek them out is a choice that requires the player to connect with the content, even though they do not have to. Borderlands 3 perfects this principle, yet throws it away for the main story because the endgame is not obtainable without completion. Every time a cutscene played, I found it hard to believe that I was the hero or that this was my story. My character felt like a fly on the wall, watching everyone else reap the rewards of a battle I had single-handedly won. All the time and effort spent on the story felt wasted, especially when the ending felt like little more than a Mass Effect 3 final cutscene knock-off with antagonists that lacked substance.
Trying to follow up the critically acclaimed villain Handsome Jack has proved to be an impossible task for Gearbox and its co-developers. In Borderlands 2, players are introduced to Handsome Jack: a sarcastic, psychopathic ‘code-monkey’ hellbent on power and control, never requiring an explanation or exposition. Then Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel introduced the world to the man before the adjective. The Pre-Sequel allowed players to meet the bad guys of Borderlands 2 and understand what led to their fall from grace, which is perfectly encapsulated in the closing credits song What Makes A Good Man? by The Heavy. Understanding the history that determined the fate of the characters in Borderlands 2 made every encounter in Pre-Sequel a reward, whereas, in Borderlands 3, meeting old friends feels more like an obligation of the developer to acknowledge the past rather than add anything new to their future.
Fan-favourites Brick, Mordecai, and Tina are left on the sidelines for much of the campaign and certainly could have played a more prominent role. Players eager to learn just how crazy Tina has become or even how Ellie is coping after losing Scooter sadly never get the chance to find out when the main story is wasted on a war between weapon manufacturers that feels unexplained and out of place.
To clarify, Borderlands 3 is a great game with a terrible story, and therein lies the problem. Gearbox refined every other element of the game to perfection, but let the story fall by the wayside. Despite narrative being a strong aspect for previous instalments, Borderlands 3 falls short of capturing what made its predecessors special. Although the gameplay is crisp and undeniably fun, it does not justify the narrative shortcomings in a title where the core gameplay loop involves repetition of a poor story as part of the endgame. Despite my frustrations, I will keep playing Borderlands 3 because, at its heart, it is Borderlands. No matter how much I play of Borderlands 3, however, it will not stop my little Australian heart from wishing I was playing The Pre-Sequel.