The Borderlands 3 demo was one of the least remarkable appointments we had at E3 2019, but that’s not necessarily the game’s fault.
Gosh, the Borderlands 3 marketing team is killing it at the moment. From that stylish teaser trailer to that ambitious reveal event to the brilliant signage and presence at E3, this is a video game marketing department at the top of its game.
I mean, they probably have to be, to attempt to undo the chaos that ensues every time Randy Pitchford goes on a Trump-esque Twitter rampage, right? But don’t let that distract from the fire they’re spitting. It is brilliant.
The latest example: a new trailer, which goes to great pains to remind everyone that Borderlands 3 is a co-operative game.
It sets the mayhem of Borderlands 3 to a choreographed dance, played out to the endlessly chirpy Happy Together by the Turtles. It’s a refrain we’ve seen most recently in the Detective Pikachu trailer, but it’s a simple song that does a lot of heavy lifting whenever it’s used: this thing is better when you do it with friends.
Which, when I saw it, reminded me that I still needed to write up our experience of playing Borderlands 3 at E3 2019. Yes, we are still working through E3 content. We’re a small team and we saw a lot of games.
And when I realised that, I started wondering why the Borderlands 3 demo had been quite so forgettable?
You certainly couldn’t miss the game’s presence at E3 2019. From the massive hoardings on the outside of the LACC to the banners running the full length of the concourse between the South and West halls, its presence was unavoidable. Then you got to the Borderlands 3 area itself.
The screens were enormous, for one thing. Visions in psychedelia, they showed loops of the Borderlands logo and the game’s art and that brilliant moving poster, bathing the queueing masses in gorgeous shades of cyan and cerise. And the masses were queueing. Only Nintendo and Cyberpunk 2077 rivalled Borderlands 3 for the depth and consistency of its lines, from the beginning of the first day to the tail-end of the third. Prospective players snaked around enormous statues of the game’s characters – a bold move, to focus on four unknowns we harbour no attachment to; we might have gone for a giant Lilith, Mordecai, Moxxi, and Tiny Tina – and past demo stations. Meanwhile, Gearbox’s PR folk handed out “psycho” masks and tried to keep the audience buoyant for queues that, at their worst, probably stretched to four hours.
It might have annoyed the patient congregation when press passes – with pre-booked appointments, I must add – checked in at a desk and strolled past the head of the queue. But we all ended up in the same place, happy together, in a plush-carpeted temporary auditorium, staring again at that mesmeric moving poster.
Someone from Gearbox software came out and talked us through some of the game’s features. We heard about the game’s social features and streamer-friendly integrations. We learned more about how to play with your mates, including the fact all players now get the same loot – no more squabbling – and the ability to share and trade items with friends outside of an active session. We heard about new, modern additions like character customisation and weapon skins.
And we were introduced to Moze, the gunner, and her pilotable mech, the Iron Bear.
We got a look at her skill tree and customisation options, and how she plays. We also delved deeper into the design and control of the Iron Bear mech, a sort of rustpunk version of Overwatch’s D.Va, fed through a filter of grunge and Mad Max with a brilliant diegetic head-up display. Even the armour itself, a contrivance of protection so often a selfish vessel – in Fallout 4’s Power Armour or Halo’s Mjolnir or Gordon Freeman’s HEV Suit – has co-operative play in mind. In Borderlands 3, your friends can climb on your back as you stroll about the battlefield, like a rear gunner in a Lancaster Bomber.
So, Gearbox would very much like to remind everyone that Borderlands 3 is a social, co-operative experience, which is why it felt so bizarre that, when we were eventually led out to our demo stations, we were all playing in individual, solo sessions. Dan and I were literally next to each other, playing the exact same sequence at the exact same time, but never the twain would meet. We weren’t ships passing in the night. We were identical ships charting identical courses, being kept apart by some interdimensional contrivance.
You can’t blame Gearbox and 2K for wanting to avoid a live, networked demo during the biggest public gaming event of the year. Or rather, hundreds, thousands of the things. There were maybe 60 demo stations, possibly more. That’s at least 15 concurrent sessions – assuming we were all playing in fours – but not all of the characters were available to select from, so let’s call it 30 sessions at a time. Every 15 minutes. For 10 hours straight. Spread over three days.
It’s understandable. Downright sensible, even.
But the problem is, this is Borderlands 3. It’s a game that builds its house upon a bedrock of sociability, then opens the doors of that house to invite you and your friends inside for tea, and cake, and shooting things in the face.
I don’t doubt that Borderlands 3 will be great to play with friends – or in my case, with Mrs B – when it launches in September. But without the chance to try that specific bit of the experience, the best bit, the one thing that differentiates Borderlands from all the other loot-heavy first-person shooters? It didn’t feel special. It wasn’t memorable. It didn’t really feel like Borderlands.
The marketing team knows: we would have been happier together.