Gaming Audio Spotlight: Borderlands 3

Xbox One X Screenshot taken by the author.

Borderlands 3 sounds amazing. The long-running franchise isn’t explicitly known for its audio design; usually the cel-shaded visuals and over-the-top random weapons take center stage of presentation discussions. And that’s fair, honestly. While the sound package in the first several entries is competent, it changed little from game to game, with guns that sounded more like science fiction library sound samples than “real” armaments.

The third game kicks everything up several notches. Its sound mix is epic, explosive, and dynamic. Guns have a dramatic punch and snap that makes them feel more realistic and more frightening. The music is varied and sweeps across several genres while still hearkening back to a few classic twangy guitar themes from the original game. Voice work is well-recorded and far greater in amount, with the cast of player characters and enemies having a lot more to say out in the game world. And even the UI beeps have had an overhaul to make every button press and navigation a little bit more satisfying.

Xbox One X Screenshot taken by the author.

Combat sound is the most-obvious of the sonic improvements. The game goes from quiet serenity to loud chaos with a deft hand. You’ll easily be able to hear where enemies are attacking from, and with what type of weapon. And as the more-dynamic AI moves around the world, they’ll shout at you…though this is often more goofy than threatening. Each of the game’s millions of random weapons now feels more fun to use thanks to a punchier and more layered audio presentation. Each category, brand, and style of gun now has its own unique audio and that’s really amazing. It’s a big step up in variety from the earlier games, where every manufacturer’s assault rifle, pistol, and shotgun sounded more or less the same.

A good gaming sound mix doesn’t just get the big battle moments right, but also remembers to include all the little details that make a world feel a live. Borderlands 3 is full of containers, boxes, and chests you can open, and the little sounds these make as they clang open and as their contents magically float into your pockets are wonderful. Different types of ammo and weapons fly into your inventory with their own little clicking and clanking noises, and it makes this common interaction satisfying each and every time.

The game benefits from a surround sound speaker setup, but if you don’t have one you’ve still got some other options for quality audio. The game’s menu has different dynamic range modes for different types of speakers, and also has a dedicated headphone mixing mode, and also a separate preset for the Logitech G Pro gaming headset. If you’re playing on an Xbox or PC, you can use the Windows Spatial Audio platform to play the game with full 3D sound over headphones using Windows Sonic or Dolby Atmos.

PS4 Pro Screenshot taken by the author.

In 3D audio mode, the game’s environments take on even more depth and subtlety. You’ll hear wind whistling around the dust and rusty metal of the buildings. Distant gunfire and beast noises entice you into heading towards enemy encounters. When driving a vehicle, you’ll hear every roar of its engine and ever scrape of the tires against the ground, and if you get close after hopping out you can even hear the telltale clicking of the metals cooling down.

PS4 users don’t get access to a spatial audio mode at all unless they own a Gold or Platinum headset…but the game’s included headphone mode still does a reasonable job of providing an open spatial soundscape. And frame rate performance in that version of the game is a little bit better right now than when I last looked into it, though it’s still not quite where I’d like it to be. If you’re a big fan of surround audio, you’ll have the most options on a Microsoft platform.

The Borderlands franchise is one of my favorites, and each time I load up the third game I’m astounded by how much better its whole presentation package is compared to the earlier entries. The audio is a big part of that. Every moment of the gameplay is made much more fun by its thrilling audio mix, and it’s more-talkative characters give the game the most personality of any Borderlands title. That personality is weird and over-referential and divisive, but this is the strongest it’s ever been for better or for worse. Borderlands 3 brings the game’s audio package in line with other popular AAA action games, and it has a sense of variety and space that’s rare in game mixes. It’s a sonic delight and a perfect match for showing off nice speakers or headphones.

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