Death Stranding (2019)

As someone who values creativity, innovation, and uniqueness in games, Death Stranding was one of my most anticipated titles of 2019. It boasted Hideo Kojima’s signature style, yet it promised to be even stranger than the Metal Gear Solid series. It would be an understatement to say that Death Stranding is divisive. It firmly falls into the category of “love it or hate it” type of games. Kojima’s over the top and campy dialogue, the bizarre and confusing story, and the seemingly uninteresting gameplay were all either panned or praised depending on who you asked. I consider Death Stranding to be an important milestone for the gaming industry. It’s triple-A, yet it’s incredibly niche; it’s a game with a high production value yet the creators knew that the game would not appeal to everyone. Fortunately for me, this a niche that I really enjoyed, and I am solidly in the “love it” camp.

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You play as Sam, a delivery man in a post-apocalyptic world. Earth has been decimated by a phenomenon known as the “Death Stranding”, a sort of disease that causes dead bodies to transform into anti-matter and destroy entire cities in violent explosions. The anti-matter ghosts that are created when a person dies are known as BTs, and if these BTs come in contact with a living person, the explosive “voidout” occurs. BTs tend to show up during bouts of “timefall”, which is a toxic equivalent to rain. Timefall causes anything it touches to rapidly age, decaying any living thing it its wake. The world has been devastated by the appearance of the Death Stranding and timefall. Voidouts annihilated major cities before they even knew what was happening.  Now, there are few remaining communities, and many people choose to live alone in doomsday shelters.

Sam plays the critical role of being a porter. He delivers packages from shelter to shelter, city to city, bringing necessary supplies between the scattered remnants of humanity. Since the dangers of timefall and BTs are unavoidable, most people refuse to leave the safety of their underground bunkers. Porters like Sam are the lifeline of civilization, undertaking the dangerous task of journeying in treacherous conditions to facilitate trade between the few survivors. Sam’s job is even more important, as he was given the task to link these scattered shelters via the chiral network. This advanced network allows people to communicate, share data, and ultimately become a global community again. Sam’s job is to rebuild America by bringing vital resources to people across the country and to connect them to the chiral network.

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Death Stranding transforms what is considered downtime in most games into its core concept: walking. As a porter, the player must travel between shelters, delivering packages and avoiding danger along the way. Death Stranding does something very unexpected, it flips the universal notion of how inventory works on its head. In typical games, you have an inventory in which you can store items, sometimes up to a certain weight threshold. The inventory is a magical beast in most games, there is no physical representation of it, just a menu for easy access to things that you have collected. In Death Stranding, every single thing you decide to place in your inventory is physically on Sam. For every piece of cargo you bring with you, there are draw backs. You will move slower, you will be easier to spot, you will lose balance more easily, you will gain uncontrollable momentum, and it will be harder to fit into small gaps. This turns what is usually an implicit feature of most games, the inventory, into an important management aspect.

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The core gameplay in Death Stranding revolves around being a porter in a disjointed America. You travel from coast to coast, delivering packages and connecting survivors to the chiral network. There are numerous dangers when traveling in the desolate environment of Death Stranding. Some areas are ripe with BTs, which require the player to stealthily avoid these mysterious ghosts. Moreover, terrorists are looking to intercept Sam and steal his cargo at every turn. There is also the obvious environmental factor when trekking across long distances. There is always a risk of running out of stamina, resources, or taking too dangerous of a path that inevitably damages your cargo beyond repair.

Each delivery in Death Stranding is a balancing act. You must examine the map to work out the best route to reach your destination. Avoiding BTs, terrorists, and choosing a path with manageable terrain is crucial to having a good experience. If you try to head straight up or down a cliff, or trudge through a river, Sam is going to be very hard to control. Picking an efficient route is then followed by deciding what cargo you want to bring along. There are tools to deal with the environment and enemies; ladders, climbing anchors, and a variety of other devices are critical to a delivery’s success. However, every tool you bring has a weight, which as mentioned earlier will make it harder to balance, move, and be stealthy. Choosing an effective route and bringing the correct tools is vital to Sam’s success, and to the player’s enjoyment.

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Trekking through the wilderness is a supremely lonely experience. The seeds of civilization are few and far between, and the solitary journey between these bunkers of hope is one of silent contemplation. As Sam slowly makes his way across the gorgeous yet eerie vistas of desolation, the player is left alone with their thoughts. Death Stranding is a slow burn, action is tense but sparse. The majority of the game is spent wandering through scenic landscapes, but the few moments when you do encounter enemies are all the more tense due do their rarity. Music is also used to its greatest possible effect, when a song begins playing it is as if the player is transported into a movie. The visual of Sam hiking in the lonely wilderness with a calming and ambient soundtrack playing in the background creates some unforgettable and picturesque moments.

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Despite the isolation of the lone porter, Death Stranding is a game all about connections. Reconnecting the people of America, the connections of personal relationships, the connections between life and death, and the connections between players. This game implements a unique form of cooperation with players around the world. Even though you will never truly meet the other players, you will help each other through treacherous world. When you connect a region to the chiral network, you will also be able to see what other players have built in that region. Bridges, roads, storage boxes, safehouses, vehicles, ladders, and various resources are shared among players. You can contribute resources to other player’s structures to complete them or upgrade them. The player base is collectively working together to make the game easier for each other. You can leave signs of encouragement, or warnings of danger to come. And you can always drop some “likes” to show your appreciation for what other players have built.

The transformation of the world in Death Stranding is an incredibly satisfying experience. Watching an empty wilderness gradually fill with player structures as you connect the chiral network accomplishes the effect that you actually are rebuilding America. I was absolutely obsessed with efficiently connecting each location on the map via a network of roads, bridges, and ziplines. I wanted to make it simple for myself and other players to quickly travel across the landscape. Donating resources that I had collected to reestablish the world made it feel like I was contributing to the greater whole.

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Death Stranding made me feel like I was working with other players, rather than just playing in isolation. I was worried that player structures would make the game too easy, as you could just use previously placed roads and bridges to complete any mission, but this is not the case. The player structures only appear once you connect a location to the chiral network, so each trek to a new place is still difficult and lonely. Each of the main deliveries is “pure” in the sense that you will play it exactly how the developers designed it: with no external assistance.

Hideo Kojima is known for his absolutely convoluted stories, and Death Stranding is no different. Just describing the basic idea of the world earlier in this article was difficult. As previously mentioned, Sam is traveling across America, delivering supplies and reconnecting people as he goes. Ultimately, he is trying to reach his sister on the West Coast, who is being held hostage by an anarchist terrorist group. Moreover, Sam carries around a “Bridge-Baby”, affectionately referred to as BB. Little BB acts a connection between the worlds of life and death, allowing Sam to sense and see BTs. There is a ridiculous amount of moving parts in Death Stranding, many of which may seem random and disconnected. It all comes together by the end of the game. In true Hideo Kojima fashion, there are plenty of plot-twists and unexpected explanations for what may seem nonsensical at first.

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Despite the convoluted nature of the story, and what may seem like an incoherent world, Death Stranding manages to contain one of the most emotional stories in the medium of video games. Sam begins the game as a cynical, standoffish, and antisocial man who is just doing what he needs to do to survive. Witnessing Sam’s transformation as he travels with BB is one that I highly empathize with. Occasionally, I was taken out of the moment by some of the campy dialogue that Hideo Kojima has become known for. At this point it’s expected, but that doesn’t excuse some of the really goofy writing. It’s odd because there are absolutely masterful scenes with amazing dialogue, but then once in a while Kojima will throw in some ridiculous one-liner that just makes me scratch my head.

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Much of the game’s emotional impact has to do with how well the game was acted. Kojima brought in an all-star cast of actors to portray his vision. Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Guillermo del Toro, Lindsay Wagner, and many more all were critical in the story of Death Stranding. Norman Reedus as Sam and Mads Mikkelsen as Cliff Unger were both absolutely phenomenal portrayals of their respective characters, filling them with life and emotion. Cliff in particular has become one of my favorite characters ever, from any medium.

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The core mantra behind Death Stranding is connections. The entwined thread of humanity is one of love, compassion, turmoil, and misunderstanding. Kojima famously stated that this is the first “strand-type game”. In a traditional game, you use a stick to beat the obstacle in front of you. Instead of using a stick, in Death Stranding you use a strand, connecting people to overcome the obstacle. There is traditional combat occasionally, but the game is primarily focused on connecting the remnants of humanity. The strands connecting people can get tangled, causing anguish and agony. The unrelenting love of a parent, the fervent hunger for revenge, and the desire to watch the whole world fall apart all are key components to Death Stranding. The main point that the game gets across is that everything is connected in some way, and we should be attempt to form positive strands rather than face life as a lone warrior.

My solitary gripe with Death Stranding is that the game is too easy. Despite there being multiple difficulty options, even the hard difficulty did not present any form of challenge. The early portions of the game are by far the most difficult, but the game only gets easier as you progress. Early on you have low carrying capacity, limited equipment to build, and are unfamiliar with the controls. The game is divided into 15 chapters, and by chapter 3 you are essentially given all the tools you will need to defeat the majority of the threats in the game. Sure, you get more powerful equipment as you get farther along, but once you are given a weapon to deal with basic enemies you are set. This is a problem because Death Stranding benefits from those occasional tense moments when you encounter a terrorist camp or a horde of BTs. Once you have a weapon to deal with these threats, the genuine fear and anxiety disappears.

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Moreover, the vast majority of bosses in Death Stranding pose no realistic threat to the player. Some of the bosses are horrifying spectacles, but they are all show and no go. Ultimately, there should have been an extra difficulty level added for players like myself who wanted a bit of a challenge. A “survival” difficulty could make bosses more threatening, and make resource collection more integral to player success. As it stands, the player is given more than enough resources to build any sort of tool that they need. Weapons, exoskeletons, vehicles, and structures (with the exception of roads) are all fairly cheap to build, meaning that you never truly have to scrounge for resources or properly ration materials.

One of my favorite moments in the game was early on before I had weapons or vehicles available; I snuck into a terrorist camp, stealthily dispatching the guards one by one, then I stole all of their precious materials and loaded it onto one of their own trucks to haul away. This was exciting and rewarding, I walked away with a stash of resources and a vehicle. Yet this was a hollow victory as a couple of hours later I realized that the extra resources that I acquired weren’t really necessary, and I could build a truck whenever I wanted. If building tools were more expensive and resources were scarcer it would force the player to scrounge for materials. Additionally, players would think twice about wasting valuable tools when not necessary. Terrorist and BT encounters would remain tense as you would try to get through them without blowing through a bunch of resources. I understand that many players would not want to have to constantly restock materials, so an additional difficulty level would be the best way to solve this issue.

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It is important to understand that Death Stranding is not a game for everyone. Some players are going to click with the game, others are going to dislike it or outright hate it. And that’s ok. The modern triple-A industry is filled with cookie-cutter games in which producers and developers are afraid to take risks so they follow a proven formula. Kojima Productions made something entirely unique, which I heavily appreciate. Being unique doesn’t necessarily mean that a game is worthwhile, but in the case of Death Stranding, I think the game has plenty of appeal and attempts to convey a meaningful message.

This is definitely not a game for everyone, it understandably won’t appeal to a large chunk of players. It’s slow paced, filled with exposition and cutscenes, has a confusing story, and its core gameplay will bore many players. While I personally found a sort of Zen state by making deliveries, I understand that many people will desire high-octane action. I loved deciding what tools to bring, what cargo is important, what route to take, and subsequently traveling along that route. This is not a standard open world game in which the world is your sandbox. You have to follow the guidelines laid before you or you will have a bad time. Carrying too much cargo will mean you will move slow and have a hard time balancing. Traveling across rough terrain will cause you to fall over and lose cargo. Not bringing the right equipment may leave you with no way forward. Players who do not follow these rules are going to get frustrated, you must be patient and play the game the way it was designed.

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Overall, Death Stranding is a one-of-a-kind game. It’s certainly a niche experience, and many people are going to absolutely abhor it. Still, I hope that everyone at least gives this game a shot. It can be an absolutely enthralling journey if it clicks for you. The artistry, narrative, online cooperation, and uniqueness of Death Stranding are second to none. It is for these reasons that I give Death Stranding a 9.5/10. It’s not for everyone, but everyone should give it a shot. Get out there and rebuild America, and don’t forget to keep on keeping on.

 

Yoku’s Island Express (2018)

Indie metroidvanias are extremely common, so I am always on the lookout for one that sets itself apart. Yoku’s Island Express is a phenomenal example of a game that exudes creativity. It is a relaxing and charming adventure which is chock full of personality. While being a short adventure, Yoku’s Island Express is a sincerely enjoyable one.

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While 2D, indie, platforming metroidvanias are abundant today, Yoku’s Island Express stands out from the crowd by merging platforming and pinball. You play as Yoku, a dung beetle who is tasked with being the mailman on the diverse island of Mokumana. Luckily, instead of rolling around dung, Yoku rolls a ball which come in handy on the island full of conveniently placed pinball paddles. You can only control Yoku by moving left and right, but you can trigger different color pinball paddles to launch Yoku through platforming gauntlets. This is quite a unique take on platforming, and I loved just how different it is to conventional platforming.

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Upon arriving to the island of Mokumana, you make your way up to the central hub village where you learn that the protective deity of the island has been injured. It is your job as the postmaster to gather the three chiefs of the island to heal the guardian god and to track down whoever attacked him. First and foremost, Yoku’s Island Express is a wholesome journey. As you traverse the various terrains of the island you encounter numerous species of animals which you cooperate with to achieve your goal. It’s a cute, uplifting story accented by vibrant art and upbeat music.

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I was surprised with just how good the metroidvania aspects of the game were. The game points you in a vague direction to where the three chiefs are located. It is for the player to explore and discover how to reach the goal. Despite this, I never felt lost or confused when searching for the path forward. There is not an overwhelming amount of directions to choose from, so as long as you head in the correct general direction you will eventually find the right path. Moreover, backtracking is made quick and easy. Even though there is no fast-travel which teleports the player between major areas, there is a clever alternative. The “Beeline” serves as an unlockable express route which lets the player quickly travel between important locations once unlocked. Furthermore, Yoku’s Island Express has plenty of shortcuts so you rarely have to repeat platforming sections, making backtracking a breeze.

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Despite being a fairly short game, Yoku’s Island Express makes up for that by encouraging exploring for collectibles. The main collectible in the game are wickerlings. These little guys have no immediate tangible reward, but the game does a great job at instilling a desire to hunt them down. As you collect them, the game will show that the wickerlings are a progression towards hatching a mysterious egg. The overwhelming desire to know what would happen when all the wickerlings were found, and what was inside the egg drove me to 100% this game.

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I rarely 100% games these days as scrounging for collectibles can get excessively tedious, but I never ran into that problem in Yoku’s Island Express. The vast majority of hidden treasures are easily discovered, and the few that I missed were a breeze to find once I beat the game. This is because you can unlock “trackers” that will pinpoint the location of any missing collectibles on the world map, making it a cakewalk to find whatever I missed. I loved this, and I firmly believe that any game which has collectibles should have a similar idea implemented.

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The gameplay of Yoku’s Island Express revolves around pinball-platforming. As you roll around the island, you will frequently enter these pinball chambers which you must progress through to move forward. These pinball challenges usually have the player hit specific spots to unlock the way forward. You could be hitting switches, barreling through tunnels, or trying to make precise shots. Of course, as a metroidvania you unlock new upgrades which will make these challenges more and more complex. The developers absolutely nailed the sense of satisfaction of just playing around in these pinball chambers. Flying around at high speed, hitting targets, and being constantly rewarded with this game’s form of currency: fruit. In Yoku’s Island Express there is no combat, there are no enemies, and you cannot die. It’s a comfy game, it’s not meant to be stressful or frustrating.

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There is something to be said for the fact that the game managed to be occasionally challenging despite there being no enemies or way to die. Just like real pinball, if you miss the bumpers, you can fall through a crack and have to launch yourself back into the level. Like real pinball, which eats your quarters, you will lose a couple of fruit for failing. Luckily, as you bounce around a pinball chamber like a madman, fruit is constantly flowing. So even if you aren’t hitting your intended target, you end up collecting a swathe of fruit completely unintentionally. This is a great way to keep the game feeling rewarding, and to keep the players from feeling discouraged when they can’t quite make precise shots.

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One of my few critiques of the game is how annoying it can be when you are struggling to make a very particular shot. You need to launch off of the correct bumper, at the correct angle, with the correct momentum. A couple of millimeters to the left or right will result in a missed shot. To be clear: this wasn’t a problem in itself, I welcomed the idea of making difficult shots. What grew tiresome was trying to get in position to make these shots in the first place. In some scenarios, transferring from the left bumper to right bumper (or vice versa) is not trivial. Simply getting into a position to make a shot could take a minute or two. Then missing that shot repeats the whole process. This did not happen too often, and it isn’t a big deal, but it highlights why the pinball concept can’t be taken much farther while maintaining the relaxing nature of Yoku’s Island Express.

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Pinball can be a little frustrating, like in the scenarios I just described. For the most part, Yoku’s Island Express does a phenomenal job keeping its platforming simple enough that it doesn’t get to be tedious or exasperating. But what that means is that the game has severely limited itself with how far it can take its main concept. The developers couldn’t make anything difficult or anything that required a gauntlet of challenging shots. They couldn’t push the game’s core concept to its limit because the core concept is pinball, and pinball can quickly grow maddening. This is the antithesis of the cute, quirky, and calming game of Yoku’s Island Express. Ultimately, the pinball-platforming was kept simple, and I felt like it was missing some more complex challenges.

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Despite my gripes, Yoku’s Island Express is still a triumphant success of upbeat positivity. Even in an oversaturated market, it manages to be a fresh and enjoyable experience. The creativity and unique concept really are what made this game stand out to me. It is for these reasons that I give Yoku’s Island Express an 8.5/10. This is a perfect game to just kickback, relax, and explore the wonderful world lovingly crafted by the game’s creators.

Borderlands 3 (2019)

One of my most anticipated games of 2019 was Borderlands 3. As someone who played the hell out of Borderlands 2, I was amped up for the long-awaited new entry to the series. Unfortunately, I was ultimately underwhelmed by Borderlands 3. The game is definitely not bad, but there a few questionable design choices that grow annoying over time. Moreover, as someone who values innovation, Borderlands 3 definitely disappointed be with its lack of improvement over its predecessors.

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It has been a while since the last major Borderlands release. Eight years since Borderlands 2 and five years since Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Despite all of that time between releases, only minor changes were implemented. Don’t get me wrong, I love the core Borderlands looter-shooter formula, yet Borderlands 3 does absolutely nothing that makes me want to play it over its ancestors. Ultimately, it’s more of the same. If you enjoyed any previous Borderlands games, then it’s very likely that you will like Borderlands 3, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing or revolutionary.

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A few minor improvements were made throughout the gameplay that were noticeable, but they are not gamechangers. Movement in general has a few additions such as sliding, mantling, and ground-slamming. These are nice inclusions that make the game feel a bit smoother to play. High-rarity loot seems to be far more common this time around, I was getting legendary drops fairly frequently. Moreover, each legendary piece of equipment has some special effect that makes it fun to use rather than just being a huge stat increase. Boss fights are a far more integral part of the experience in Borderlands 3 than any of its predecessors. There are dozens of full-fledged bosses that are not simply bullet sponges. These bosses have telegraphed attacks and recognizable patterns, making their fights rely a little more on skill than just raw damage. Killing these bosses is also a great way to acquire those rare pieces of loot. Overall, all of these changes are fairly minor, but are nice inclusions that I hope get carried into the series going forward.

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By far my favorite aspect of Borderlands 3 was the revamp on classes. In each of the previous Borderlands games there were 4 characters to choose from, each with a special ability and 3 skill trees to modify that ability. In Borderlands 3, each of the skill trees holds its own ability. Meaning instead of having a single ability with some slight modifications, now each character has 3 completely different abilities depending on which playstyle you want to pursue. Furthermore, as you progress down the skill tree you can unlock equippable augments for abilities, modifying them even further. All of this provides far more customization for how you want to play the game. You can easily reset skill points at any time so you quickly test different builds.

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Despite there being a few positive changes in Borderlands 3, there were far more irritating quirks that were introduced. One of the biggest irritants was how often the game stops the player to spew dialogue at them. In past games, dialogue was often played while roaming around or shooting enemies. It was background noise that would be mildly entertaining, or at the very least you could ignore it entirely. Now, the game forcefully stops you in your tracks to listen. By locking doors, blocking paths, or outright making it so the player can’t move, Borderlands 3 insistently makes sure the player is listening to its writing. The worst part of it all is that the writing in the game is atrocious.

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The undoubtably largest issue in Borderlands 3 is its writing quality, in both dialogue and overarching story. Borderlands as a series has always been known for its bombastic humor and ridiculous jokes. Borderlands 3 tries to follow the same legendary style, but it falls completely flat the majority of the time. With incessant pop culture references and crude humor, Borderlands 3 jokes felt outdated coming out of the gate. To make matters worse, gags go on for what feels like an eternity. Even if a joke is funny, repeating it a dozen times is a surefire way to make it annoying. It’s not just the poor dialogue which hurts the game, but the story itself is completely nonsensical.

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The main villain of Borderlands 2, Handsome Jack, was iconic. Borderlands 3 on the other hand revolves around the twins Tyreen and Troy Calypso. These two are obvious parodies of internet influencers, as they gain followers by streaming their antics. Ultimately, they are trying to open vaults across the galaxy and gain the power within. It’s hard to properly explain why I dislike the story without spoiling what happens, so here are some ambiguous explanations: the villains “cheat”, there are some extremely annoying characters who are pushed to the forefront of the game, some foreshadowed events never occur, vaults feel devalued, and the player feels like a side character. To touch on the last point a little more, the game has the bizarre feeling that the player is entirely disconnected from the events of the game.

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The player is essentially a hero, traveling from planet to planet and stopping an evil cult from amassing power. Yet every time you accomplish something, one of two things occurs: the villains teleport out of nowhere to somehow snatch victory while you aren’t looking, or the characters attribute the player’s accomplishments to other characters who did nothing. After completing a long and grueling quest, I want to feel like there was a point to it. To be rewarded. Something. Instead, there is always something waiting to rip away the feeling of accomplishment. The player’s character is never included in cutscenes or major interactions between the villains and the heroes. It feels like you are a spectator instead of a player.

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There are a few nagging issues which I had with the game as well. For some reason, cutscenes are unskippable. I never skip cutscenes anyway, but the option should still be there. Especially since Borderlands encourages multiple playthroughs with different characters, I wouldn’t want to rewatch the same cutscene. The game has a fair number of irksome bugs, like the inventory displaying the wrong stats for items, or playing through the wrong dialogue when talking to a character. Lastly, when I played the game there was a Halloween event which proved to be frustrating. In game events which provide bonus content are great, as long as they don’t intrude on the rest of the game. This event would spawn ghosts when enemies were killed, and these ghosts would rush at the player, inflict damage and increase recoil. There was no way to turn off this event, so through my entire playthrough I had to deal with these annoying ghosts. Let me opt out of the event so I can play the game the way it was designed.

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Overall, Borderlands 3 had high expectations but it missed its mark. The core gameplay of Borderlands is at its best in this entry, but the game is fairly disappointing in all other aspects. There is nothing that makes Borderlands 3 stand out for its predecessors. Both the dialogue and story are poorly written. And the game has a wealth of minor irritants. It is for these reasons I give Borderlands 3 a 6.5/10. If you like the Borderlands series, or just want to shoot n’ loot, Borderlands 3 is perfectly fine game. If you are expecting anything more, look elsewhere.