Hands-on: Borderlands 3 is still Borderlands in all the ways that matter

Last night, at a secret location in Los Angeles that may or may not have been a supermarket a few months ago, the good people at Gearbox and 2K Games unveiled the first batch of details about Borderlands 3, which will be released September 13 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.

We were able to get some hands-on time with the game, as well as spoke with the game's Art Director, Scott Kester.

Suffice it to say, spoilers incoming.

Living in the Borderlands

For those unfamiliar with the Borderlands games, here's a quick primer: Borderlands, Borderlands 2, and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! are open world sci-fi first-person shooter role-playing games playable both solo or co-op. They're also known for having an irreverent sense of humor, as well as a massive arsenal of weapons that would be overwhelming if it wasn't dwarfed by how much looting you get to do.

As for Borderlands 3, Kester explains that this sequel, "...takes place seven years after Borderlands 2. A new threat has come with the Kalypso Twins, who have rallied all of the bandits around them, and are trying to find all these vaults in a quest for more power. You play as vault hunters who have to stop them."

Except where the previous games were all set on the planet Pandora — and, in The Pre-Sequel, Pandora's moon, Elpis — Borderlands 3 has you hunting for vaults on a number of other planets. "At the end of Borderlands 2," Kester reminds us, "there were hints that there were vaults on other planets. Well, in this game, we're going to some of those."

Kester explains that while the parts of Pandora you explore in Borderlands 3 will be smaller than the ones in the previous games, the game will actually be larger thanks to those other planets. "I'm not allowed to say by how much," Kester admitted, "but it's considerably bigger ."

It was on one of the other worlds that our hands-on time with Borderlands 3 took place, a planet called Prometheon. Which, apparently, has a pest problem, because the first couple minutes of our time there were spent shooting bugs on the outskirts of a city. Though it wasn't long before we found ourselves outside shooting some of the human residents as well.

Very quickly, it became apparent that Borderlands 3 was not straying far from what made the other games so much fun. The controls were just as solid, the enemies just as persistent, and the guns just as varied and sadistic.

Except now some of them are even more effective. As was explained during the live demo, some guns have alt-fire options that can, for instance, swap the bullets for micro missiles, or launch a homing dart that sends every subsequent bullet to the same location. Some guns even have built in mini-shields that activate when you use iron sights, while some of them have shields that grab bullets when struck and deposit them in your ammo clip.

This isn't the only slight change to the gameplay in Borderlands 3. As we mentioned, you visit other planets. To get there, you travel on a spaceship, one that serves as your main base, as well as your local bar, shopping center, and place to get both main missions and side quests.

Like the law of the jungle

Back on Prometheon, we eventually made our way to the edge of a spillway, where we were met by our old pal Lilith, who led us to a vehicle station so we could get some wheels for the next part of the journey. In other words, this was the part where we were reminded that Borderlands games have vehicular combat.

It was also where we learned that Borderlands 3 has a new kind of vehicle called the Cyclone, which is a large, single wheel you sit inside, like the mechanized unicycle in Men in Black III and the IT from South Park (well, except with a seat). While we didn't get to test drive it until later, we did see, even from a distance, that this was a rather nimble mode of transportation.

This was also the part of Borderlands 3 where we got to see another gameplay addition in action. At times in the game, you'll team up with another character. Not only will they help you fight bad guys, but if said bad guys injure you to the point where you're lying on the ground, bleeding out, your cohort can revive you.

Speaking of co-op, while Borderlands 3 offers that as an option as well, it actually has two different flavors to choose from. In "Classic" co-op, the normal rules apply: players level up individually, and if there's a disparity between them — say if you're at level 4 but your friend is level 25 — enemies will be at various levels in between. Which means that you'll struggle while your friend will kick butt. Also, in this mode, any guns or other loot is first come, first serve.

But in the new co-op option, enemies are scaled in such a way that it's like level 4 people are shooting at level 4 enemies while level 25 players are taking on level 25 bad guys. Similarly, any guns or other items you find also match your individual levels. Even cooler, you need not fight over them; everyone can loot the same gun, you just get one that has the same power as you. Which means that if an enemy drops a pistol, level 4 players can pick it up and get a cool gun that's around a level 4 in power, while level 25 players can pick up the same gun — even if someone else has already taken it — and find it's around a level 25 weapon.

Sadly, we weren't able to test either co-op mode during our time with Borderlands 3. Instead, Lilith sent me on a coffee run, one that had me running through enemy territory. But the joke's on her; I ran into Zero from Borderlands 2, and instead of Starbucks, we went to a weapons depot. There, we took on some security robots, and then some guards, and then a bunch of dudes in Iron Man-like mech suits.

The number of enemies that Zero and I faced during this encounter perfectly illustrated something else that Kester had noted was new for Borderlands 3.

"While there are a lot of changes to the art direction," he explained, " they're subtle. A lot of it is just improved fidelity, things like better lighting and better textures and more atmospheric effects. But with the power of the new consoles and PCs, we were also able to have more enemies on screen, as well as more complex behaviors for the enemies."

With the end of that fight came the end of my time with Borderlands 3. While the game does offer a whole new adventure, and some new mechanics, it's still Borderlands in all the ways that matter. Whether that will be enough, of course, will have to wait until the game is released September 13 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.