We take a look back at the first year of Gearbox's latest looter-shooter, and spoke with the devs about what's to come next.
As the pioneer of the so-called "looter-shooter" sub-genre, Gearbox Software's Borderlands is a brash and in-your-face action-RPG series with an infinite supply of guns and a squad of badass, quirky vault hunters to get to know. After a short hiatus between entries, 2019's Borderlands 3 was an explosive return for the franchise's bizarre yet enticing nightmare gallery, filled with big guns, fast vehicles, and tons of pop-culture references. However since the release of 2012's Borderlands 2, the landscape has changed, with the rise of other looter-shooter games like Destiny 2 and Tom Clancy's The Division. Because of this, Borderlands 3's non-subtle and more energetic approach to the loot-grind was simultaneously a nostalgic sight and something of a throwback to the early 2010s shooter.
At launch, Borderlands 3 was a solid return for the series, keeping up with the many tenets of collecting loot, nailing fast kills with your character's expanded suite of abilities, and a plot that sought to tie up many of the franchise's long-gestating questions. However, it wasn't without its criticisms. While the story was a lot more sprawling in comparison to previous games, it didn't quite land many of its more impactful moments, and its endgame content left people wanting after the story's completion.
But like its direct predecessor, Borderlands 2, the most recent entry in the series was a game in progress and it has evolved in some significant ways over its first year. Since its September 2019 release, Borderlands 3 has seen a suite of changes and revisions that have not only fleshed out its universe but remade the original endgame loop (known as Mayhem mode), upping the thrills and keeping people invested post-campaign. In many ways, this first year of content for Borderlands 3 has gone a long way in further defining the game's identity, and in turn, the franchise, in the modern era.
In this GameSpot exclusive, we had the chance to talk with Executive Producer and Founder of Gearbox Software Randy Pitchford along with post-launch creative director Graeme Timmins about Borderlands 3, its first year, and what's coming next.
"I'm pretty proud of Borderlands 3. We have the data, and we can see how Borderlands 3 did from launch. We're about 60-70% above Borderlands 2 in terms of active players, which is just astonishing and way beyond what we hoped or expected," said Randy Pitchford. "We're in there playing with the game and modifying it, we try new things, and we're not afraid to get in there and mix things up a little bit. Some of the things we've added in works better than others, but all of our adjustments are made from a wish to try to engage and entertain and try to create joy and happiness for people. We learn something from every step. I love that process. I'm really proud that we've got some momentum with that process, and that there are people who are enjoying coming along with us, and other folks that are arriving and showing up. We've got some of the things you're going to see on the horizon would only be possible, that would only be possible because of a culture of that iteration and that loop we have at Gearbox. It gets me pretty excited for what's to come, frankly."
From our talks with both Pitchford and Timmins, it seems clear that work needed to be done on the original game to get it to where it needed to be. In GameSpot's review of the game, associate editor Jordan Ramée gave the game an 8/10 and stated, "Borderlands 3 has a few stumbling blocks when it comes to bosses, but these fights are overshadowed by the game's rewarding gunplay and over-the-top humor." Borderlands 3 has and continues to excel at offering engaging shooting gameplay and some endearing characters with personality. So it was especially great to see that the post-launch content focused more on providing content that strengthened the game's personality and snappy shooting.
The game we have one year later is in much better shape than it was at launch. The standout expansions that bolsters Borderlands 3 are the contents from the first season pass. These include the campaign add-ons Mad Moxxi's Heist of the Handsome Jackpot, the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired Guns, Loves, and Tentacles, the Western-themed Bounty of Blood, and the concluding add-on Psycho Krieg and the Fantastic Fustercluck. While not all of these campaigns hit the mark, they still introduced new stories and worlds to explore, offering some fun jaunts through more unique environments that did a lot to show how creative and imaginative Borderlands' art-style can get.
These set-piece add-ons were big attractions to check out, but surprisingly they're not totally what made Borderlands 3 a more enjoyable and worthwhile game in its post-launch life. Following the launch, Gearbox rolled out seasonal events, quality-of-life updates, and the occasional level-cap increases for your chosen vault hunters. The game also saw a set of high-end content aimed at veteran players, such as the two raid-like Takedown missions. Limited-timed events like the recent Revenge of the Cartels also reshaped standard encounters within existing worlds, which incentivized revisits to take down key targets, culminating in a smash-and-grab style raid of a Scarface-esque mansion that housed tons of Eridium, along with new guns and cash to grab. For lapsed players who peaced out after the campaign, these timely events were great ways to dive back in and check out new additions to the game.
As a loot-focused action-RPG, the push to collect new loot and power up your characters is everything, and new updates to Borderlands 3 made that grind less of a hassle and more flexible. Along with changes to anointments--special modifiers for rare weapons--we saw a massive revision to the endgame centerpiece, Mayhem mode. This difficulty modifier was initially intended to be the significant endgame content to keep players going. Still, the first iteration led to repetition, especially with players taking advantage of certain bosses to squeeze out rare drops.
Only a few months after the launch, Gearbox released Mayhem 2.0. This new update revised the loop by rebalancing the difficulty, adding more Mayhem levels, and introducing bizarre combat modifiers that give a variety of buffs or debuffs to characters and enemies alike--all for the promise of better loot. This new update ended up being the turning point for the game, making many of the encounters much more unpredictable and giving you proper control over just how crazy you want your engagements to get. While reflecting on the first year of content, post-launch creative director Graeme Timmins talked about how things went better for the game with Mayhem 2.0.
"When we first launched the base game with Mayhem 1.0, we knew what we were scratching at in terms of making the game more of a fun endgame experience that wasn't dependent on just farming bosses wholly by itself," said Timmins. "We realized working through the revisions that some things aren't necessarily as interesting as we had hoped, so we knew we wanted to revise things after launch. There was just so much more potential to do that since we had more time to execute it. With Mayhem 2.0, we wanted to stay away from just stat changes and do something more fundamental in terms of behaviors that are happening in the world. When it comes to stats, we've had to kind of balance and rebalance things for the Borderlands games, but it's often not very visible to the player. That's why we went with the new modifiers, like with the lasers, and the death skulls, and whatnot. Those are putting like very actionable changes of behavior in your face that you have to react to. We found that that, for us, was a more interesting way of approaching additional difficulty outside of just relying on stat changes."
One of Gearbox's controversial decisions for Borderlands 3 was that the game would not receive new characters post-launch, but rather expand upon the current four vault hunters. To make up for that, each character in the game has a greater level of customization and build options than what previous games offered. Presently, this approach has been well-received by fans, and players are still experimenting with character skill-sets, which are showcased on popular Borderlands YouTube channels. In our talk with Timmins, he confirmed that the game's post-launch period reaffirmed their choice to stick with the four characters, as having players to replay the game's lengthy campaign to reach the endgame with new characters wasn't a worthwhile investment of time.
With the end of the first season pass of content, capped off with the Psycho Krieg DLC, Gearbox announced that more content is still on the way this year in the form of free updates and some premium content. In addition to new skill trees and skills for each character, giving characters like FL4K and Zane a pet robot and a shoulder cannon respectively, along with more seasonal events, Borderlands 3 will also see another substantial update--this time introducing a totally new gameplay mode.
During our talk with Pitchford and Timmins, they shared some details on the new mode called Arms Race. Set to be revealed later in October, the devs say that Arms Race will be a new standalone mode that brings players to an isolated map, where every gun they pick up will matter throughout the game mode. Pitchford stated that it has elements that players who love Call of Duty and battle royale games might find interesting, but it is "not a battle royale game." Timmins also elaborated a little to explain what's to come.
"Our goal with Arms Race is to make the gun game in our game of millions of guns really matter," said Timmins. "I can talk about that game mode for hours. I'm so excited about it, but we'll have to wait. I'll say it's got its own environment and just leave it at that [for now]."
Currently, Borderlands 3 will be entering its second year of content with the launch of the next wave of events and DLC coming this year. Gearbox has plans to keep Borderlands going for the long term. With the launch of the upcoming PS5 and Xbox Series X/S, Borderlands 3 will also make its ways to next-gen, and players who own the game on either PS4 or Xbox One can upgrade to the next-gen edition free of charge.
According to Pitchford, this free upgrade to next-gen was possible due to the game's success and its current install base, which is sitting higher than Borderlands 2. In 2021, Gearbox Software plans to expand the cross-play functionality to consoles, with Xbox and PlayStation players joining up for games across platforms. During our interview, Pitchford spoke candidly about his "dream" to expand further than that and have all versions of Borderlands 3 possess cross-play functionality in 2021.
"It's happening, and it may come sooner on some platforms. We'll see," said Pitchford. "What's interesting is that we're there, technology-wise. We've been there since we launched Borderlands 3 on the Steam platform, which allowed cross-platform play between Steam and Epic. And the Steam and Epic guys hate each other, but we made that happen, and we managed to do that. It's so fascinating that there's still emotion in play, and I understand it. A lot of groups have spent a lot of time protecting their silos and building those silos, and we're not trying to destroy the silos. We're just trying to take the friction away from real people that find each other and want to have entertainment experiences with each other. They found that they have a shared interest in the game, but just because they happen to have a shared interest in one game on a different platform, they're forever separated, and there's a divide between them. I hate that, and it's been my crusade to try to tear that down, and we've done it. We've done it, and it's inevitable. There's still some work to do, and some things to deal with from a policy point of view, but I think we're there, and that nut is finally cracked to the point where we've been confident enough to say, "Yes. This is done. It's happening, and you will have it."
In a brief follow up, I asked Pitchford about cross-play between all versions of the game, and he stated: "We're not stopping until that's true. We are confident enough that that will be true to say that it's coming in 2021. And, good fortune willing, it could happen sooner. We'll see what happens."
Borderlands 3 is not only the largest game in the series in terms of content but also the fastest-selling entry in the franchise, proving that there's still plenty of fans itching to dive into the energetic and high-octane universe of vault hunters. Back in 2009, the original Borderlands was something of an underdog release in a packed fall period, and now it's a game franchise that's about to have a major film directed by Eli Roth and starring Cate Blanchett. The future looks bright for the franchise, but many fans are still fixed on what's to come with the evolving platform of Borderlands 3, and it doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon.
For more on Borderlands 3 and what's to come with next-gen consoles, check out GameSpot's full interview with Randy Pitchford.