Borderlands 3 Has Great Combat
And shameful performance on the PS4 Pro
I love the shotguns in Borderlands 3.
They’re meaty, powerful, loud, and impressive. And unlike the earlier games in Gearbox’s long-running action series, the shotguns here are also tied directly into the physics model. They break down cover objects in the environment. They send rocks and dust flying into the air. And they blast enemies right off their feet and into elaborate movie-stunt cartwheels, before they topple to the ground.
All of this means that shotguns now expand your tactical flexibility as a player. You can use one to knock an enemy out of a fight by sending him tumbling to the floor or over the top of a barricade, then switch quickly to a faster weapon and take on the rest of the room. Their physics magic works at any moment, even against enemies who are mid-air in a jump, and they have limb-based hit reactions as well. You might clip the arm of an enemy who is about to get the drop on you, then run in and finish him off with a melee attack.
“It has a great shotgun” used to be the hallmark of quality for a first- person shooter. In a rare moment of modern design success, the shotguns here stand proudly next to iconic spread weapons of gaming history like those found in Doom and the original FEAR.
This level of deep combat design extends to every weapon in Borderlands 3, but the shotguns show it off the most dynamically. The sheer number of real-time physical interactions in every combat encounter makes the game way more fun to play than the older titles. In Borderlands 1 and 2, shotguns simply had increased damage number output with a wider spread. It was entertaining to run up to a guy and do increased damage, but they didn’t materially impact the gameplay like in Borderlands 3.
The injection of physics into every moment of combat is the single greatest improvement to Borderlands’ design…but it came at a terrible cost. When the game launched last year, its performance issues were heavily discussed. Bizarrely, the older base consoles fared the best, but all platforms were plagued with different issues.
Erratic frame rates and frame pacing, laggy menus, and slow texture loading were some of the lesser offenders, with some players reporting full crashes and hard locks of their systems. Whether you owned a base console, an upgraded console, or a gaming PC, your chance of running into performance issues and irregularities was high.
I bought the game at launch on Xbox, and while I didn’t experience any hard crashes, it definitely felt like it could shake itself apart at any moment. Sometimes the shiny new menus were a slick, fun experience, and other times simply opening them would grind the whole game to a halt. I got about ten hours into the game, and decided to sell my disc and wait until it was patched up a bit.
Currently, my PS4 Pro occupies the attention of the figurative Eye of Sauron that lives in my brain, and so when I saw that new retail copies of the game were on sale for about $25 bucks, I dove back in.
I made a mistake.
PS4 Pro performance is shockingly poor. It feels nigh-identical to the Digital Foundry video above, in spite of the game getting several patches since launch. Whether I set the game to its “Performance” or “Resolution” mode, performance is poor, with a muddy frame rate and weird random graphical issues.
The Performance mode is the closest to feeling like a finished video game, though its lower quality visuals are noticeably inferior to the cleaner look of the Resolution option. The frame rate hovers up and down around 40 frames per second with plenty of screen tearing during combat. In the Resolution mode, the game looks amazing when not moving. But while I’m actually playing it feels broken. It doesn’t come anywhere close to a stable 30 frames per second unless I look at the sky or the ground, and just stutters along as though it never received any sort of optimization.
It’s so messed-up and janky that I thought something was wrong with my system, and so I went to watch launch coverage and refresh my memory. From what I can tell, the performance of the game hasn’t improved since launch, at least on Sony’s upgraded console. The menu system doesn’t lag as much I guess? But the main game just falls apart any time a thing is happening.
This is all a frustrating shame because the combat is some of the most fun I’ve ever experienced in a shooter. The game is undeniably pushing Unreal Engine 4 very hard, so I’m not saying this is an easy task to fix. In spite of its similar aesthetic to the older games, it’s a technical powerhouse. It retains the vast draw distances of the earlier titles. It has gorgeous realistic lighting all over game world, and isn’t afraid to aggressively use color and simulated light bounce to make the environments pop.
Characters have dynamic CPU-crushing AI, recalling the original FEAR just like the shotguns do. Enemies jump around with a vast array of animations. They take cover, talk to each other, try to flank you, and taunt you with a huge library of phrases. The whole aesthetic of the game’s universe gels in a way that makes it feel like a lived-in place, and not just a fun playground of numbers going up, cover objects, and random loot.
I have some hope that the performance will get some more attention once all of the planned DLC expansions are out. The game is one of the fastest-selling titles in the history of 2K Games, and that large customer base deserves a fully polished game. The combat design here is not to be missed, and it’s a bummer that you still have to dig through a bunch of technical muck in order to see it, especially on the more- affordable platforms.