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Borderlands 3 preview: Expanding horizons

The series expands its universe -- literally -- by heading off-world.

Gearbox / 2K Games

It's been almost seven years since Borderlands 2 took gaming by storm, and now it's ready for another round with fans and newcomers alike. I spent about an hour playing Borderlands 3, and it's already shaping up to be a fantastic installment in an already excellent series. 

The game was announced at PAX East this past March, with an eye-popping trailer kicking things off.

Now that I have some more information (and a bit of play time under my belt), here's what we know about the newest chapter.

It's both familiar and new

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FL4K commands "beasts" in Borderlands 3.

Gearbox/2K Games

Four new vault hunters are available to choose from. Here's developer Gearbox's breakdown of each: "Moze is a gunner who can digistruct and pilot a mech. Amara is a siren who can summon and smash enemies with ethereal fists. FL4K is a beastmaster whose pets prey upon bandits. And Zane is an operative who uses gadgets to cause chaos on the battlefield."

Each hunter can be customized in just about every way possible, including loadouts, appearance and skill trees. It's unlikely you'll run into an identical vault hunter online (even if you're playing the same character), and Gearbox hinted at plans to offer new options for every new hero after the game's release.

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It's way, way bigger

Borderlands 2 stuck to its classic, post-apocalyptic wasteland for the most part. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but as BL3 Creative Director Paul Sage says, "There gets to be something called visual boredom, right? That you can hit if you spend 6 hours looking at the same environment." 

BL3 looks to change that up by heading off-world. Not only will you be able to go to other planets besides Pandora (you'll be hunting down some of the vaults you might recall opening up at the end of Borderlands 2), you'll also be able to visit smaller objects like asteroids. My time with the game was spent on a planet called Promethea, where a beautiful, futuristic city was the backdrop for the mayhem I gleefully caused.

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Lillith makes another comeback in Borderlands 3. 

Gearbox/2K Games

Your spaceship, Sanctuary III, will ferry you around, and it's teeming with NPCs both new and familiar. Fan-favorite Moxxi has a bar on board, for example, and Lillith is back for the third time. Your quarters have some minor customization available, and the ship updates as you take down bosses and progress in the game.

Speaking of bosses…

There are a lot more boss encounters in Borderlands 3, and they're apparently longer than the ones players might remember from previous games. "We've added more bosses than we've ever had in a Borderlands, and that's something I really like," Sage excitedly relayed to me. "We have all these different boss encounters." My time on Promethea was sprinkled with weird bosses throughout the demo, each deploying unique patterns and abilities for me to puzzle together as I sprayed them with bullets and did my best not to die.

Fortunately, this is a looter-shooter, and there's a lot of loot. It's everywhere. If you run out of ammo, or find yourself low on health, help is always nearby. Borderlands 3 offers a co-op option, too, so your online cohorts can revive you if you should fall in battle (and NPCs can now also come to your aid). And if you're worried about some rando snatching all the best guns, well...

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A classic Psycho poses pretty for the camera. 

Gearbox/2K Games

Loot ninjas are no more

Borderlands 3 is introducing instanced loot to the franchise. In an April interview with Sony's PlayStation blog, the game's art director Scott Kester explained, "Regardless of your respective levels or mission progress, you and your friends can play together online or on the couch, and not only will each of you deal a meaningful amount of damage, you'll also receive your own discrete loot stream."

That also applies to disparities that would usually make it frustrating or even impossible to play with a friend who vastly outlevels you -- if you join a game at level 25 and your friend is level 10, you'll engage with enemies at an appropriate difficulty for your level, and they'll be shooting at the same enemy but calibrated for theirs. When loot drops, you'll see weapons and items only available for you to grab, making it fun and easy to jump in with a friend or family member, no matter how good or bad they are at the game.

Players yearning for the Borderlands 2 loot-level model -- where drops were a free-for-all and you could powerlevel a friend quickly by hosting a higher level game? Don't despair. A classic mode will remove loot instancing and lets you play using old-school rules.

It's still really, really fun

I had a blast checking out Borderlands 3 and I think the addition of loot instancing will help open the game's co-op mode to a much larger group of gamers. Making it so hardcore fans can play with even the most casual of their friends is a great step forward for the series. I predict it will be a major selling point for a lot of folks curious about trying Borderlands for the first time alongside their more seasoned pals. 

The new vault hunters and the continuing tradition of including characters we love from previous installments makes Borderlands 3 feel fresh yet familiar -- almost like a modern take on your favorite comfort food. Think of it as a delicious bowl of macaroni and cheese... but more explodey.

Borderlands 3 drops on PS4, Xbox One and PC (which is a timed exclusive on the Epic Games Store) on Sept. 13, 2019. 

Read more at GameSpot: You can totally solo Borderlands 3 and it's pretty great

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