Borderlands 3 co-op hands-on and interview – ‘I do love working on Borderlands’

GameCentral gets to play several hours of co-op on one of Borderlands 3’s new planets and talks to creative director Paul Sage.

Borderlands 3 was obviously always going to be a hit, but we don’t think even developer Gearbox realised there’d be quite this level of rabid anticipation for the long-awaited sequel. It was the biggest game by far at E3, with fans queuing up for hours to play just a 20-minute single-player demo. To be honest, we found that a little underwhelming, even without the wait, but last week we got to play more than four hours on two separate sections of the game and got a much clearer picture of what it’s all about.

We started off right at the beginning of the game, skipping only the intro, and playing in single-payer as robotic vault hunter FL4K. We weren’t clear on his backstory but all his skills revolve around one of three different pets that you can swap in and out. One’s a giant spider-thing, one’s more dog-like, and the other is basically a monkey with a gun.

The three separate skill trees work similarly to the previous games but now everyone has three special abilities instead of just one, which again you can switch between at any time. FL4K’s are all related to his pets (and yes, you can stroke them) and we found the one that teleported the dog, called Mr Chew, to a specific location and powered him up to be especially helpful.

As was obvious from the first annoucement Borderlands 3 isn’t any kind of radical change from the first two games and both looks and plays very similarly to the newly remastered versions of the originals. But whereas the first game was a risk that no-one thought would be a major hit it’s obvious developer Gearbox are now much more confident that the mix of first person shooting, a constant supply of loot, and an anarchic sense of humour has a very substantial audience.

There are notable improvements though and beyond the expanded skills the gunplay is a lot more enjoyable than the previous games. It’s still not up to Destiny standards but it’s certainly now in the upper echelons of first person shooters. As we mentioned to creative director Paul Sage in our interview we also really liked the melee combat (more so with FL4K than Amara, who we played as later), which feels very satisfying and more than just a last ditch alternative.

It’s not just that using the guns is more fun than it used to be but that they’re more intrinsically interesting. The original games made their name by offering a gazillion different weapons but they were all just minor variations on the standard archetypes of first person shooters. There’s also a lot of pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles in Borderlands 3 but the rarer ones all seem much more unique.

We had one that shot out pink and blue lasers like the laser from R-Type, another that looked like a discus and shot out heat-seeking bullets, a freeze gun, one where you have to power it up for a second to shoot fireballs, and another that can be thrown and used as a turret – like the laptop gun out of Perfect Dark. Even though they are all still randomised they give the impression of all being hand-crafted and that’s an impressive trick.

The second part of the demo was played in two-player co-op, with the other jurno playing as Moze, whose skills revolve around a mech suit that the other players can jump on the back of to use its turret. We opted for Amara the Siren, who to be honest was a little disappointing after the pleasures of FL4K. Even though we were playing at level 22, and so could unlock a lot of extra skills, none of her abilities seemed all that interesting and that move with all the magic glowing arms never really feels like it’s doing all that much damage, and neither does the area of effect one.

The single-player demo was on Pandora, from the original games, and we had a lot of fun on our own picking up side missions and driving around in the various vehicles – which control very much like the Warthogs out of Halo. But the co-op demo was on the swamp planet of Eden-6 and even though it’s filled with dinosaurs it still didn’t seem as much fun.

Maybe it was because one of the main story missions involved traipsing through the boring sci-fi corridors of a crashed spaceship but even with another player in tow the action did all start to seem a bit one-note towards the end of our session. The story involved two bickering AIs, one of which is voiced by Ice-T and stuck in the body of a cuddly toy, but after a while you begin to realise that, regardless of accent, almost everyone in Borderlands 3 talks like a Californian teenager and that can get pretty obnoxious.

Now that Gearbox know how successful the games are the nervous energy of the originals seems to be giving way to a smug self-satisfaction, at least in terms of the dialogue. It wasn’t enough to detract too much from the overall experience, but it is going to be interesting to see if Eden-6 and the other new locations prove as popular as Pandora.

We’re sure they probably will, especially as we only saw a very small proportion of the whole game and developers do have a strange habit of picking less interesting missions for previews. Even with those qualms we definitely enjoyed the game overall and were particularly impressed by the guns and the combat. And as long as you can experience that with your friends that’s what’s Borderlands is all about.

Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Stadia
Publisher: 2K
Developer: Gearbox Software
Release Date: 13th September 2019

GC: As a cynical journalist I feel like I should be complaining that this looks and plays too similarly to the previous games. But actually it was a lot of fun, you’ve clearly got a formula in place and you know what fans are going to be expecting in terms of this sequel. Although I doubt that makes your job easier, probably just more daunting?

PS: Just speaking for me, I was excited. There is a challenge to making something new in a series that people love, because you know what their expectations are. Player expectations are something that are just this incredible… either challenge or weight depending on how you view it. So the things that excites me are creating four new vault hunters from player fantasies that we’ve never hit before. So FL4K… who you got to play today, right?

GC: Yeah.

PS: One of the original ideas was, ‘How do we get people who like to nurture, who want pets around, interested in Borderlands? How do we bring that fantasy to life for them?’ And so the pets, they do things like they stick around all the time, whereas when we had them before with Gaige, she would summon Deathtrap and then he’d be gone but FL4K has the pets out all the time.

GC: At first I thought you couldn’t pet them, but then I realised you can and I have to admit I would’ve been upset if that wasn’t an option.

PS: Right! And that was all key to that player fantasy we wanted to bring to the game. Our art director, Scott Kester, said, ‘What if FL4K is a robot?’ And he had this concept and we’re like, ‘Yes!’ Because there’s a certain mentality there where FL4K doesn’t really trust humans but trusts the pets that he has. So that was key to us in developing that. And that’s kind of how we approached other characters like Moze, a soldier character. We’ve had Axton and we’ve had Roland before, and they had turrets, but what’s better than having a turret? Well, what about a turret that you can use? What if you could drive the turret? Even better, right?

So there’s an excitement in that, that the team has to bring, and also that freedom that comes along with it. We know that we have to create missions and characters that defy expectations for people.

GC: I was fascinated by the fact that you’ve had five million sales across the franchise in just the last quarter, even though it’s been seven years since the last mainline sequel. That’s extraordinary, I’ve never heard of anything like that. How do you explain that?

PS: I’m gonna to use a word and you’re free to shake your head at me and say, ‘Nah’. But I would use the word fun…

GC: Why would I say that?! What’s wrong with the word fun?

PS: [laughs] Because I think it’s such a cop out to use that word.

GC: Pfft! If only more games were more worried about being fun!

PS: [laughs] Maybe, but it’s the ability for us to relax with you, as game developers. We poke fun at ourselves, our characters will do outlandish things. There’s – I hate to use the word joke – but there’s real humour in our games. We have a mission where a guy gets trapped in a toilet based off of an AI that keeps them trapped there, right? So the toilet has an AI and it keeps them trapped there for violating certain codes. That’s dumb. [laughs] But at the same time, that kind of fun allows somebody to relax.

And when you go home to play games, a lot of times, a lot of people like to be challenged. So if you can combine the challenge and yet still relax people where they feel comfortable, that’s a key element to people wanting to come back to your game and feel great about it. And I think that’s something Borderlands does well.

GC: With the long gap since the last one many expected you to be taking more than a few leaves out of Destiny’s book with Borderlands 3, but that doesn’t seem to have happened at all. But that idea must’ve been raised at some point, why did you decide against it?

PS: Okay. So that was raised in meetings, that’s very astute. [laughs] So I have a background working in MMOs and one of the things that I noticed that… I don’t know if you played World Of Warcraft but for a long time they had people go to dungeons and there’s this physical space to traverse to get there, right? But then they added this thing called a Dungeon Finder, right? Which is a menu that just allows you to teleport directly to it. And players really liked that, because it cut out a lot of the time wasting. And the beauty of even what Borderlands 2 did is it allowed people to get to the fun quicker.

That kind of mentality really stuck with us, of how can I just let people drop in? You heard me talk about level syncing this morning, where you want people to be able to group up regardless of their level. But just the ability to get to the fun as quickly as possible is what a game should be presenting to you. So that’s kind of how we built our strategy. And that is a very determined strategy versus, say, having a hub or something where you can’t really talk to anybody. You can’t meet anybody.

But if you can get into games very quickly through menus and things like that, you get to the fun so much faster. So that’s where we are, we want to pair people naturally but not force them into it. And also really important: offline mode. What if you’re not hooked up to the Internet, should you still be able to play the game? Yeah, of course.

GC: But what about all the various tricks Destiny and other games use to keep people coming back daily and weekly? Things like strikes and time-limited events? Do you not have the equivalent of them?

PS: So, in a couple of weeks we’ll talk more about our veteran game, right? Like, what it is that you do pass that.

GC: You didn’t need any of that with Borderlands 2 though and, as we see, people are still playing it without any of that sort of Destiny style incentivisation.

PS: Right, but for us what we’ve been doing is we’ve been watching what we think brings those people back. What things in the game are they doing that compelled them to want to come back and play? And can we build our strategy around what they did. That’s versus… of course we look at other games, we look at those things, but what is it that players are doing? And a lot of it has to do with wanting better loot and wanting to keep going with their character. So they’re attached to the characters, they’re getting better loot. And so our strategy that we’re going to talk about… hopefully if we talk again, you can ask me and you’ll be like, ‘Oh, I see what you’re saying!’

GC: Is what you’re planning fundamentally different to these other games?

PS: I think there is some difference. I think when you see the strategy, you’ll understand. We want people to be able to play the content that they like.

GC: Without knowing what you’re talking about I’m tempted to say that the secret is just a big chunk of free story-based DLC. Which is a very old school kind of approach.

PS: [laughs] It does work! But also people are smart and they want value for their money, right now. I will say to you outright, we will absolutely have that same DLC strategy because people want to have content that they can go back to, but there’s so much more that we’re going to add to that as well.

But yeah, I love DLC… if I want to opt into it. So it’s very important to make sure that we pay close attention to the value of it. And our DLCs do tend to be large and they tend to have a lot of content in them. And I think that’s a strategy that works because people say, ‘Yeah, that’s valuable to me’. Or they can look at it and say, ‘You know what? I’m not sure I’m interested in that. I’ll wait for a while if I need to on that.’ And I think that’s a good thing.

GC: Just getting into the mechanics for a bit, what I was worried about going in, is whether the guns would feel unique enough to be worth all the variation. I think of older games like Turok 2 or Perfect Dark that had all these weird and unique weapons and that seems very difficult to replicate in a game where you’re also randomising all the components.

PS: Challenge accepted! [laughs]

GC: I did pick up a number of good ones, I will admit, but I’m still curious about how different they can be.

PS: So you were asking earlier about influences from other game. You named Turok 2 but there was an Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath game that I liked, that had different types of weapons, there was Ratchet & Clank – I just think those guys are brilliant about how they do it and there’s inspiration there. You probably heard me mention this morning that manufacturer identities help to describe gameplay differences and not just stat differences, like the shields and things like that. And so we looked at what could we do more with that. And I remember early on we talked about Torgue weapons. And Torgue weapons were cool because they sent out little micro-missiles.

So they felt different in Borderlands 2 but we thought, ‘Well, what if those attached to you and then you could detonate them later on?’ And that was something where the team wasn’t even really sure that was a good idea. But we started playing with it and it’s like, ‘Oh no, that feels really good’. Because one of our weapons designers said, ‘Well, what if they can attach to the ground and you can still blow them up?’ So you can lay them as a trap or you wait till a guy wanders back in. And it became an emergent gameplay element that was really fun.

So the more we tended to embrace the emergent gameplay from the guns I think the broader the spectrum got. Now the reason that’s so critical for this game in particular is that I want people to finish the game, right? That’s always a difficult trick. People will very often turn out of a lot of games and I’d love people to finish it, but if they don’t feel like there’s a surprise coming in that, if the pacing isn’t good enough, they probably won’t.

GC: Just how randomised are the rare ones? I picked up a lot of suspiciously good ones from some of the mini-bosses.

PS: [laughs] They’re randomised, but I will tell you exactly how that works. There’s a part system, so each gun has a stock, a barrel, and so on. So those are the different parts and each of those parts have stats. But we reserve certain parts, with certain functionality, for certain rarity levels, right? So we have the whites, the greens, the blues, and the purples. You only see certain guns as you get to the higher rarity levels. And we increase the frequency with which you see the rarity levels – the upper echelon rarity levels – as you level up. So that’s part of it.

GC: One looked like the laser from R-Type, I really liked that one. And with the colours and everything it was obvious it was a purposeful homage.

PS: That’s actually pretty cool that you found that, I didn’t realise you’d find that. I think that’s an E-tech, Cool.

GC: One minor point, but I was surprised that I was running out of ammo quite a lot in the game. Is that purposeful or was I just being rubbish?

PS: Well, I didn’t watch you play [laughs] but I would guess not. But what I can tell you is there is an effort sometimes to have you try out the different weapon types, like whether it’s a shotgun or a pistol or something. So the ammo… there is a little bit of a limit at first. It’s one of those pacing things and then as you get to Sanctuary you’ll start getting those SDUs, which are the storage deck upgrades, and those give you more capacity to carry more ammo. And as you gain those, that becomes a reason to spend your cash in the game and work with the economy.

So all of those things are built in at first, so you feel a little bit of pressure but not too much. And also it’s an encouragement to explore because we put ammo all over, crates and things like that. And we do have cheat mechanisms where we will drop a little extra ammo if you’re low on a specific type.

GC: Changing the odds behind the scenes, that’s very in with publishers at the moment.

PS: [laughs]

GC: But because I kept running out of ammo I used more melee combat than I expected and that was actually a lot of fun.

PS: Well, thank you. Because on our end that, that’s very intentional. We’re always asking are you doing too much melee damage? Is it not enough? How, how does that feel? And as you play more, maybe you and I could come back and talk about how there are other synergistic elements between action skills and your other abilities. We want to make Borderlands different from other games, not just in the weapons but in all the systems.

GC: That’s good to hear because, like when we were talking about the guns, I hate to see everything just be the same, or feel it has to restrict itself because of some silly notion of realism. But it seems like one of the reasons you’re doing this is to purposefully avoid those restraints.

PS: It is, it definitely is. It’s a passion to be able to break the boundaries, so to speak. I do love working on Borderlands. I love the freedom that it has, to kind of expand the… [exasperated sigh as he realises he’s not allowed to talk about something he wants to – GC] we haven’t talked about artefacts yet and the reason I gave you a sigh there is artefacts do things to your melee or to your slides that are a lot of fun.

So I’m going to give you an example, rather than just hinting at it, but I had an artefact in one of my playthroughs recently that shot out buzzsaws. So every time I would slide, buzzsaws would go out in front of me.

GC: I won’t ask where they came from.

PS: Don’t! [laughs] But that freedom is fun and it makes it a lot of fun to develop for.

GC: Remind what Gearbox has said so far about microtransactions.

PS: What we will have is the DLC I mentioned before. And that’s all I can tell you right now. I would say that we’re committed mostly to, err… not…

GC: Being evil?

PS: [laughs] Yes, definitely that! But I can tell you as a player, I hate when you have a pay-to-win scenario. I think most players hate that stuff and we’re very cognisant of that. So I can guarantee you there would be nothing that we’d introduce that would ever be that way.

GC: I don’t ask that as a gotcha moment but because the industry is so split on the subject at the moment. Did you see that Rocket League has removed loot boxes completely?

PS: Oh, no I didn’t. That’s interesting.

GC: So you have some companies trying to do the right thing and then others sneaking in microtransactions after launch so they don’t get mentioned in reviews or by ratings boards.

PS: [laughs]

GC: But it makes money. If I was some soulless marketing guy I’d be egging you on to do it.

PS: You know, you’re always gonna face that pressure. But look at me, I’m a developer, right? My job is to make a game as fun as I can make them. People will come back if they feel like they got good value.

GC: I do wonder whether someone has worked out that if you’re fair and honest with players you can make the same, or almost the same, amount of money as if you’re not, and that’s why we’re seeing these different approaches.

PS: I’m in it for the long haul. I want to make sure that people feel like they have great value for their money and I’m far more interested, as a developer, in developing content than I am in developing monetisation methods. So definitely expect DLC and definitely expect free things coming in as part of our long-term plan.

GC: Have you ever considered having a dedicated competitive mode to the game, especially now the gunplay has been improved?

PS: Sure. There is duelling in the game and duelling can be fun, but the heart of the game is co-op. We want you to feel powerful and have all these amazing abilities but translating that into competitive can be really hard to do.

GC: That’s probably the reason why guns have got so boring, because they have to be balanced for competitive.

PS: Yeah, yeah, exactly. But our freedom enables us to make sure that it’s a great, great co-operative experience. I think there’s a lot of great competitive games out there, I really do, but being great cooperatively is actually something that’s not out there as much. And I’d like to see more of that. So if we ever had that influence in the industry, of people saying, ‘Yeah, man, cooperative games are the way to go’, I’d love to see that.

GC: Do you have any thoughts as to how long this game will last, because one thing I’m not clear on is whether the large gap between two and three was intentional or not.

PS: It wasn’t intentional. [laughs] But everything is probably intentional at some level. Right?

GC: Well, I’m sure it was part of God’s plan, but did you mean to do it?

PS: [laughs] Whether we meant it to be seven years… the team are a bunch of creative people. So they want to work on new projects like Battleborn and other things like that. But it was the right time for us to get there. We moved to the Unreal Engine 4 three years ago. Changing an engine, if you know anything about the industry that’s actually a challenge to get there. And so that was something that was just going to take that amount of time.

But our character design really benefited from Battleborn because we had so many characters in Battleborn that you could see the experience the team gained of, ‘How can we improve that?’ And so there was benefit to that, for sure.

GC: Okay. Well that’s great, thanks a lot for your time.

PS: Hey, thank you so much. It’s a pleasure meeting you.

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