Borderlands was once poised to be one of gaming’s biggest franchises, but the house that Jack built seems to be crumbling based on recent form. Can Gearbox’s looter-shooter fight for its life and come back from the brink?
I’ll preface things by saying this: I love Borderlands as a franchise. I was in on the ground floor for the first game and enjoyed it despited its limitations, and Borderlands 2 was comfortably one of my most-played Xbox 360 games, having looted with friends and strangers alike for countless hours back in the day. But since then, it just feels like Gearbox and the other teams who have been pulled in to help out on the series have failed to recapture what made the early days of the series so special, so exciting, so unique. Based on how much joy I got out of Borderlands 2, I genuinely expected this series to grow and evolve into something that would slot in alongside my other core gaming obsessions — the likes of Monster Hunter, Final Fantasy, Destiny, Diablo, and Pokémon — but as the years have rolled on, it’s become increasingly clear that Borderlands simply doesn’t have the consistency to rub shoulders with any of those franchises, and time and again, it has struggled to deliver anything close to the levels of quality that made me a fan in the first place.
There is one notable exception here, of course — Tales From The Borderlands was undeniably superb. I’d go so far as to say it was possibly Telltale’s best game, with the point-and-click-style adventure coming just after players started to see through the smoke and mirrors that made The Walking Dead work so well and leveraging that for some fitting fourth wall breaks and gags which managed to tessellate perfectly with the Borderlands vibe, and mocking the genre without being actively bad in the process… an incredibly rare feat for jokes at a game’s own expense. But that was way back in 2014, meaning it’s been close to a decade since this franchise produced a true top-tier game, although the first signs of rot also started to show that very same year.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel was, frankly, a bit of a mess. We can start with the name, with the game doing a joke before you even get past the boxart, but one that doesn’t make it entirely clear how this thing fits into series chronology — something that more recently didn’t seem to pan out so well when Goat Simulator jumped straight to number three as a gag, but that leaves last year’s game with only around 2% of the total TA players of the original, which is a huge drop even considering the first game is in Game Pass. TPS was also a mess mechanically, though, adding four new Vault Hunters, two of whom could completely ignore the game’s lunar setting and lack of oxygen to just waltz around outside of air pockets as they liked, without much in the way of checks and balances to even this out. Jokes just didn’t seem to land anywhere near as often (cricket gags are a pretty niche field), new weapon elements Radiation and Cryo were just objectively worse versions of Shock and Corrosive respectively, and it just didn’t have that same draw as the first games, despite being thematically fairly interesting. Coming off the back of the hugely successful Borderlands 2, this just wasn’t it.
Even going into Full Sequel Mode, the franchise dropped the ball again with 2019’s Borderlands 3. Like everything that has come after B2, this felt very much like a game going through the motions to try and replicate its prior success. Handsome Jack was always going to be a hard act to follow, but new antagonists the Calypso twins proved just straight-up unlikeable, completely missing Jack’s occasional relatability to just have us face off against a pair of odious self-serving pricks. That’s a running theme for the game in general, actually, with the roster offering up precious few characters that we’re supposed to actually like and most, if not all, being truly detestable. Early games gave us some fan-favourite characters, from the Vault Hunters themselves (with the first game’s returning in 2) to secondary folks like Torgue, Moxxi, Tiny Tina… heck, even Shade and all his Hunter S. Thompson nonsense. Pretty much the entire cast of Borderlands 3 exists to be hated, and it runs against the grain of the previous games that had wanted you to be a part of their ridiculous movements. B3 also made the warning signs start flashing with some of its gags, with one particular bounty to kill Wick and Warty being the kind of low-effort reference that a child might make… if you found it funny then good for you, but I cringed so hard that I almost imploded. Not that it ever really set an especially high bar, but this series should be better than this. DLC deserves a mention too, with Borderlands 3 bringing multiple season passes with only a handful of actually decent content across them — a travesty considering Borderlands 2 had some of the best DLC of all time, and this is something that would only get worse.
I was delighted to learn that we’d get a Borderlands spin-off based on Borderlands 2’s outstanding Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep DLC, but the end product was decent at best. Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands had worlds of potential, especially given how much more popular Dungeons & Dragons — the basis for both the original DLC and follow-up game — has grown in recent years, but the final product missed out on a bunch of what made our first foray into Bunkers & Badasses so good. The original saw us adventuring alongside the familiar faces of the Vault Hunters, showing us new sides of them in how they approached something wildly different to their typical adventures (or doubling down on their one side, in the case of Brick’s insistence on punching everything, even in character), but also managed to sneak in a pretty mature and affecting subtext of the whole game being a distraction from and method of Tina coping with grief. Wonderlands has none of that, with us joined on our adventure by two brand new characters who aren’t even playing the in-game game (and one of whom is just Andy Samberg as Andy Samberg, for better or worse), with only Tina herself and a few expected cameos tying it to the wider Borderlands universe. That’s not to say that it should necessarily have stuck more closely to the source material, but in deviating so little and barely taking advantage of its standalone nature, it fails to get the best out of either approach and just treads an odd middle ground for the most part.
Then came the DLC, and oh boy… I’ve spoken before about just how bad the Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands DLC is, but it bears repeating as it was probably the worst DLC of last year, and one of the worst Season Passes ever. While the mainline Borderlands games offered a series of standalone adventures as their DLC offerings (with some being simpler than others), Wonderlands offers basically four of the same thing — tedious generic dungeons with repeated objectives and evolving bosses at the end. As the kicker, these were designed to be replayed over the course of four weeks to see all the boss forms as a way of padding them out, but by simply going offline, you could rattle through each in about an hour and that was them done. Worse yet, some of the new bosses are dreadful, and defeating them adds them to the pool of potential fights in the Chaos Chamber — the DLC effectively makes the game’s core endgame activity actively worse, even if the extra areas do offer a smidgen more variety to a mode that didn’t really have all that much to begin with.
Most recently, we had New Tales From The Borderlands, which just sort of came out of nowhere with minimal hype and launched quietly late last year. Telltale’s original format would basically serve as a bottomless well for an anthology series set in any universe, but New Tales really feels like it squanders its potential with just the second attempt. I’ll admit that I’ve tried and failed to get into this a few times so I’m only a few episodes in, but once again, it just feels like it’s lacking what made the original so good. As with Borderlands 3, every character is so abrasive or obnoxious as to be completely unlikeable, and while there’s the odd giggle along the way (mostly courtesy of fancy assassin bot L0U13, who is basically just a well-spoken version of KOTOR’s HK-47), so many of the jokes fall flat that it’s hard to stay interested when the game is clearly trying so very hard to be funny. Here, Borderlands’ cultural references get weirder than ever, too, with a notable example being an entire mini-game that sends up Skylanders — a fad of a franchise that has been on the bench for the best part of a decade at this point. Nice timely burn there, guys.
Even the long-planned Borderlands movie can’t seem to escape the franchise’s downward spiral. It was first announced way back in 2015 and didn’t pick up director Eli Roth until some five years later, and it recently came to light that Deadpool director Tim Miller has been brought in to direct reshoots following test screenings late last year… sounds like those went well, then. The cast is wild too, with Cate Blanchett as Lilith, Kevin Hart as Roland, Jamie Lee Curtis as Tannis, and Jack Black as Claptrap, along with some other pretty big names. A movie could certainly help get Borderlands back in the spotlight if done well — it’s an avenue Sony is aggressively pursuing at the moment, with all of its key exclusive franchises set for major TV or movie adaptations in the coming years (yes, even Gran Turismo) — but it could just as easily put another bullet in the series should it flop, and that’s the last thing Borderlands needs at this point.
While it might not tell the full story, looking at TA player counts does at least give a good indicator of just how much Borderlands has fallen off in recent years. The first two Xbox 360 games are both in the top 50 most-played games on the site, with well over 300,000 players a piece (around a third of all registered users) and adding another 350k across the Xbox One rereleases, albeit likely with a fair amount of crossover as fans simply upgrade to the newer versions. When we get to Borderlands 3, though, that drops to a little over 200,000 — still a big number all things considered, sure, but also still a 50% drop-off in player count, and The Pre-Sequel sits at around the same mark across its two versions. For Borderlands 3, we also see only around a quarter of those players get stuck into the DLC at all, dropping to less than 10% for the second season pass’ slim offerings, which certainly soured the series for a lot of fans. Wonderlands, meanwhile, only hits a little over 60k, while New Tales From The Borderlands hasn’t even broken 3,000 yet… for context, Telltale’s original has over 150,000 across the 360 and XB1 versions.
Borderlands is in a bit of a tricky place. The overwhelming success of 2 led to the team repeatedly going back to the well and that ‘put Handsome Jack in everything’ approach wore out its welcome pretty fast, but at the same time, every step away from the franchise’s pillar title has seemingly taken it further and further away from what made it such a success in the first place. It’s similar to the kind of ennui that has set in with the Far Cry series, with every game since FC3 effectively being a retread of the exact same format, and unsurprisingly, it’s getting old, especially with so many other major series showing real growth and evolution, for better or worse — just compare how different Valhalla is to the original Assassin’s Creed, or on the other side of the fence, look at how God of War went from button-mashing gratuitous violence to open-ended mature storytelling. When so many big games are constantly changing with the times, it just makes it all the more obvious when others aren’t, and while ‘more of the same’ is often what fans of something want, we still need something special with each new iteration, else diminishing returns are inevitable. Borderlands, now more than ever, needs to find that something special.
Despite those big slumps in player counts, some horrible DLC practices, and recent spin-offs putting in tiny numbers compared to the series’ highlights, I do still think we’ll see a fourth mainline Borderlands game. It feels inevitable, but at the same time feels like a true make-or-break moment for the franchise. The team needs to find a way to recapture that magic that made the second game so special to so many players, to reinvent the formula in a way that makes it feel like we’re not just replaying the same game over again. And competition is going to be stiffer these days, too. This triple-A title might once have been king of the FPS x jokes scene, but look at how easily Justin Roiland’s High on Life — with a little help from Game Pass, of course — just sashayed in and stole that crown, racking up more TA players in under a month than Borderlands 3 has accrued in over three years. Somehow, against all odds, that Wick & Warty gag just got even less funny.