Now I’ve played a lot more of Borderlands 3 and experienced some of its end game, I have thoughts about how Gearbox have designed the systems you engage with.
End game Borderlands encompasses two systems that stack on top of each other; True Vault Hunter and Mayhem mode. True Vault Hunter Mode is simply new game+, you replay the story at your level while retaining all your gear with better loot as your reward. This is a staple for the Borderlands franchise and in a lot of ways feels like the ‘real’ playthrough you kinda should have been doing from the beginning. Legendaries drop with relative frequency, the last few collectibles that have been taunting you are finally obtainable and enemies and quests are scaled much closer to your level. The one cardinal sin it commits is having unskippable cutscenes, which is absolutely painful considering how bad the story and characters are the first, let alone the second time round.
The thing I don’t like about TVHM is it does feel required to play if you want to properly experience endgame, as loot is improved by playing in this mode. Immediatley reexperiencing a story is never something I’m super eager to do, even in a game where it’s good, but farming bosses in your normal game is always going to be inefficient, so the game feels like it’s forcing my hand. I wish TVHM was something that activated at the completion of the story, and you could just choose to replay the story if you wanted to, through a chapter select or something. As it stands my honest recommendation is if you’re playing to dive deep into Borderlands 3 is speed through normal as quickly as possible while skipping everything you can get away with, in order to make TVHM a fresher experience than it is for me currently.
Mayhem Mode is a new addition for the series and is the second way to crank up the difficulty, although it’s got some major issues. It’s basically torment levels from Diablo 3 or world tiers from Division 2, you choose from level 0-3 and enemies are tougher the higher you go. What it also applies is a number of random modifiers to your play session, how many and how strong they are depends on your mayhem level. These modifiers affect everything from reducing various elemental or general gun damage you deal, to buffing enemies damage. I have a particular problem with the former. Basically a bad roll of modifiers can take you from comfortably killing enemies on Mayhem 3 to being unable to make a dent in even the most basic minion. Take a look at the modifiers I have in this screenshot below:
With these modifiers not only does every enemy have 45% extra health on top of the regular Mayhem difficulty buffs, but non elemental and incendiary damage is reduced by 50%. My main character is Moze, and a huge focus of her skill tree is focused on doing extra incendiary damage, along with the simple fact that my best guns are non-elemental, so these modifiers make for frustrating if not impossible gameplay. Some of the modifiers even boost some of your damage types at the cost of another so a good set of rolls can make you extremely powerful. To re-roll your modifiers you simply have to quit to the main menu and jump back in, so one might argue it’s not a big deal, but when you’re already quitting and reentering the game to farm bosses there have been times I’ve had to do it like three or four times in a row just to get a set that I can actually use.
Gearboxes attempt at altering the world to promote variety in gameplay is good on paper- other games have done it to great effect- but in the context of Borderlands it makes no sense. Endgame builds are all about doing one specific thing and doing it extremely well. If I’m playing as Fl4k using that extremely powerful stealth crit build I see people talking about, and I enter the game and see ‘do 50% less damage on critical hits’ I’m not going to change my game plan to work around it, I’m quitting out and hoping for something better. Borderlands just doesn’t work with these harsh conditions thrown at you, and it’s confusing that the developers implemented a system that’s so at odds with how people engage with the game.
Just to really nail this point home, there’s a few modifiers that literally have no place in the game. The first of these is one that amps your action skills at the cost of your weapon damage. As it stands there’s simply no way to scale these builds to be viable in the endgame in Mayhem 3, and speaking from experience I haven’t jumped into Moze’s mech and survived for more than three seconds on that difficulty. This isn’t even the worst of it though, there’s a modifier so bad it boggles the mind as to why it exists. The one in question is ‘enemies have a 30% chance to reflect your bullets back at you.’ Seriously, if you see this pop up on Mayhem 3 just reload your game and get rid of it. If you ever intend to shoot a gun while this modifier is active you’re asking to die over and over. Unless maybe you’re running the Amara melee build (I have no idea if it really is ‘pure’ melee or not) you’re firing high damage guns at enemies with a lot more health than you. When these shots bounce back at you, it’s comical how fast you go down. It’s insane that Gearbox thought this was a fair and balanced modifier to put in the game, and really highlights how half baked this system is.
The frustrating thing about all of this is Borderlands already has the perfect template to follow. If Destiny is the pseudo-MMO of the looter shooter genre then Borderlands is Diablo. Diablo 3 already has a scaling system with their Torment levels and the greater rift system, and they didn’t mess it up with modifiers punishing people for running specific builds that aren’t flexible. All anyone wants to do is push their build against enemies with more health that deal more damage with better chances at loot dropping. Get rid of the modifiers and add like, ten more mayhem levels with maybe some cool rewards if you can compete in the higher tiers. Don’t reinvent the wheel where you don’t need to.
Borderlands 3’s end game grind has some fun, creative weaponry to chase, but they need systems to match it. True Vault Hunter Mode is an unnecessary barrier for people who don’t want to replay the story, rather than being a fun, optional addition. On top of this Mayhem mode functions as more of a hindrance to end game grinding than expanding it in exciting ways. Gearbox hasn’t put any thought into how these modifiers actually affect end game play, and players are more likely to spend time in the main menu rerolling the bad combinations than playing around them. If Borderlands had just embraced being the Diablo of looter shooters and replicated their systems more or less wholesale they would have an engaging end game loot grind.