Like most of my work, this video / article was completed over a week before publication. Below, I brought up a lot of gripes about how the Borderlands 3 loot system works. Then early last week we got a patch to address these problems. I was worried I was going to need to rewrite the video or scrap it entirely. But as luck would have it, Gearbox’s changes were quite small and timid, so the patch didn’t fix my gripes so much as mitigate them very slightly.
Maybe some future patch will fix my concerns, but this seems less like a balance problem and more like a deliberate (although somewhat inexplicable) design decision. I guess we’ll see in the coming weeks. At any rate, to make sense of this we need to jump back a few months.
Back in January of this year – back before Borderlands 3 was announced – I had an article on the Escapist listing 5 reasons why I was worried about the game. Now the game is released and we’ve all had a chance to play it, so I thought it would be good to look at how it turned out in light of my concerns.
You can read the article below, or you can see the video version on YouTube.
1. The Plan Was to Make Borderlands 3 REALLY BIG
I really thought the long development cycle of Borderlands 3 meant that the project had runaway feature creep and we were going to get something like Mass Effect Andromeda where the game was a hodgepodge of different conflicting designs, which is common with games that get caught in development hell. Or maybe we’d get something bloated like Batman: Arkham Knight, where new gameplay modes eclipsed the core mechanics. But that didn’t happen. The game isn’t an over-designed mess.
Don’t get me wrong. This game is huge. There are a lot of zones, a lot of foes, and a lot of story. Eventually it felt like the Lord of the Rings movies where you think, “Okay, that was a good ending.” and then it drags on for two more hours and ends four more times.
But that’s fine. The important thing is that the game wasn’t bloated and unfocused like I feared.
2. It’s Been a Long Time Since the Last Game
I was really worried that the team might lose their way. The Pre-Sequel was outsourced to another studio, which means it’s been seven years since the last Borderlands game from Gearbox. Seven years is a really long time in this industry. People come and go, and it was totally possible that changes in staff and company priorities would mean they wouldn’t be able to recreate the magic of Borderlands 2.
An example of this sort of creative shift would be in the evolution of iD Software. In the 90s they made energetic fast-faced gonzo shooters, and then as the company grew they shifted to slower, browner, more serious games like Doom 3, Quake 4Dangit. Bad example. Quake 4 was outsourced to Raven. Still, the point stands that id Software forgot how to have fun between Quake 2 and DOOM 2016., and the original Rage.
But this sort of creative erosion hasn’t happened to Gearbox. Borderlands 3 reached the market with its gameplay, art style, and oddball personality intact.
3. Anthony Burch is Gone
Anthony Burch was the lead writer of Borderlands 2, and most of the charming moments in the game were because of him and his creative sensibilities. He consulted on Pre-Sequel without being the main writer, and you could really tell. Pre-Sequel tried to imitate the previous game, but it didn’t have the same playful energy. The story wasn’t as interesting, the villain wasn’t as fun, and the characters weren’t as vibrant. I expected the same thing would happen in Borderlands 3.
I guess I was a little bit right about this one. The jokes in Borderlands 3 aren’t as dense or as strong, but the game has gotten a few laughs out of me. It’s fine. Maybe it wasn’t everything I hoped for, but it’s fine.
4. The Publisher Has Microtransaction Fever
Publisher 2K Games still has microtransaction fever. If anything, it’s gotten worse since I wrote the original article. And since then they’ve done a bunch of other really shady stuff that I don’t have time to get into. Publisher 2K Games are loathsome predatory creeps, the exact sort of cruel douchebags that Handsome Jack was designed to satirize.
But for whatever reason, the creeps kept their hands off of Borderlands 3. The game doesn’t have any loot boxes or pay-to-win microtransaction nonsense. It doesn’t have a hint of that stuff. It’s clear that loot boxes and pay-to-win microtransactions were never a part of the design.
Okay, there was some strange sketchy stuff going on with review copies and that was bad, but whatever the faults of publisher 2K Games, they at least had the brains to leave the core mechanics alone.
5. Gearbox has a Sketchy Track Record
I guess I was still a little bit right about this one. The game is a little wobbly at launch and feels like it’s one or two patches from being finished, but it’s not a disaster on the level of Aliens: Colonial Marines. This game doesn’t feel like a mess of cut corners. It doesn’t look like the developer is mindlessly chasing industry fads. They didn’t turn this into an Ubisoft-style open world collect-a-thon, or add a Battle Royale Mode. The game looks and feels like the thing fans have been asking for and what we were promised in the trailers.
So yeah, I was mostly wrong on all 5 counts. Borderlands 3 didn’t make any of the mistakes I expected.
On the Other Hand…
There is just one little problem with the game, which is that the designers managed to muck things up in a way I never would have predicted. They messed up the loot system.
Actually, maybe it’s unfair to say they messed up the loot system. I can’t tell what they were trying to do or even if this change was deliberate or not. So instead of saying the loot is broken I’ll say it’s… weird. And I don’t like it.
A Loot Primer
Here’s a loot-grind primer if you’re not into games like Borderlands or Diablo. In these kinds of games, there are usually several tiers of loot. White items are trash, green items are barely usable, blue items are okay, purple items are really good, and orange items are incredible. Some white items are better than others, but you’re not going to find a white item that beats an orange.
Different games have slightly different scales. They have different names for all the colored tiers and often they’ll have more tiers above orange, and sometimes they switch the colors around, but this gives you the basic idea. Better weapons are more powerful but much harder to find.
The player will naturally want as much of their arsenal to be purple and orange as possible. Maybe they have an orange sword, but their helmet is only blue. So they fight a lot of monsters or psychos or whatever the game has. Sooner or later they’ll get the item drop they’re looking for. By the time they find an orange helmet, they’ve probably gained a few levels. Now that orange sword is a couple of levels below them and it doesn’t have the same punch it used to. And by the time they find a better sword, something else in their collection will be going obsolete. This is what makes these kinds of games so addictive. You’re always enjoying your latest reward while also looking forward to the next. The player can keep gaining power, keep getting rewarded, and there’s always something left to search for.
Borderlands 3 doesn’t feel like the games that came before. I don’t want to say the game is broken or anything, but it doesn’t have the allure that the previous game did. The first problem is that orange items are way more common. On my first trip through Borderlands 2, I found just two legendary weapons. I leveled up thirty five times over the course of forty hours or so, and got just two legendaries. They were really rare and special.
But here in Borderlands 3, they’ve gone completely crazy with the rare drops, to the point where they’re not actually rare anymore. Orange items are common. I mean, REALLY common.
They’re so common that there’s nothing special about finding them anymore. Finding orange items is just part of the routine.
The second problem is that the power of the various item tiers has been leveled out. Instead of this:
…it feels more like this:
I want to stress that this isn’t based on any hard numbers. I don’t have the source for the game and I don’t know what’s going on under the hood. This chart is just to illustrate how the game feels to me, and it’s based on taking one character to the level cap and leveling the other 3 into their teens and twenties. I’ve put some time into this game, and this is what I’ve observed. There’s more overlap between the tiers and there’s a ton of noise in the system. Good weapons are just as rare as before, but now you can’t tell if a weapon is good or not by looking at the color.
They even added a score to weapons to rate their overall power, similar to the Destiny games. Except, this number is a lie. I foolishly trusted it on my first character by equipping whatever guns the game promised were the most powerful. I had a collection of purples and oranges that were completely weak. It took so long to kill bad guys it felt like I was playingThe Division. Then I wised up and started ignoring the power scores and looked at the stats to realize that the system had been lying to me. Now it’s really common for me to find an orange item at my level, try it out, and then go back to using a blue item that’s two levels below me. That shouldn’t happen. Or at least, it wouldn’t happen in the old games.
With the new system, it’s very hard to tell if any particular weapon is useful. The power score isn’t reliable. Item rarity is too noisy to be a useful filter. You can’t just look at the numbers because there are a bunch of attributes like projectile speed, weapon warm-up, and projectile size that aren’t shown but have a massive impact on performance. If you really want to sort the good from the bad, then the most reliable way of doing that is to try them out one at a time. Maybe that sounds fun, but if everything from green to orange is viable then that means you’re going to need to experiment with a lot of weapons. In the old days, once you had purple gear you could sell everything below that to a vendor and get back to playing. Now, you gotta consider it all.
The problem is that this breaks the psychological loot cycle I talked about earlier. Previously, you were forever chasing the dream of being decked out in legendary orange gear. Now color doesn’t seem to matter and I’m not excited to see oranges. Borderlands 3 is like a slot machine that constantly rings the winner bell even when it doesn’t pay out. Legendaries are really common and rarely impressive, which makes farming them a lot less interesting.
I don’t know why the team made this change. And yes, I’m aware of anointed items. That stuff makes the end-game grind a little more interesting, but it doesn’t help the problems I discussed above. You spend more time sorting through less exciting loot and you have less information helping you tell the good from the bad. I’m glad the team avoided all those things I was worried about, but I wish the loot system made finding loot a little more exciting.
In particular, I wish that first play-through was more interesting than searching for the next Jakobs revolver. The way it is now, playing Borderlands 3 just made me hungry for more Borderlands 2.
 Dangit. Bad example. Quake 4 was outsourced to Raven. Still, the point stands that id Software forgot how to have fun between Quake 2 and DOOM 2016.
So what happens when a SOFTWARE engineer tries to review hardware? This. This happens.
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
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