Once upon a time, it seemed like Borderlands could’ve been just a fad. But between the hot new game, the hotly anticipated upcoming game, and the forthcoming silver screen treatment, it’s safe to say Borderlands is having its biggest year ever. The series is now cemented in video game canon. You know what that means: As we previously did with Halo, two of us — staff writers Ari Notis and Zack Zwiezen, with feedback from the rest of Kotaku’s masthead — have decided to rank all of the entries in Gearbox’s indomitable series of loot-shooters.
Borderlands Legends (iOS)
Ari: C’mon, man, are we seriously considering the phoned-in mobile spin-off? Really? (I refuse to apologise for that pun.)
Zack: Hey, if you tried to re-release this game without 2K’s permission, they would send lawyers after you so fast it would make your head spin. If they consider it Borderlands, then so do we. But uh… it goes here.
Ari: Some games port well to VR. Some don’t. Some seem like they won’t but actually end up being the best versions of the game. (Hi, Mario Kart.) Others seem like they would be perfect but, sadly, miss the mark. Borderlands, unfortunately, falls into that last category for one reason: It doesn’t have multiplayer! For me at least, the entire draw of Borderlands is the co-op.
Zack: I’m a believer in porting games to VR. But Borderlands in VR isn’t ideal and — wait… it didn’t have co-op either? Bleh. Let’s just move on…
Ari: Compared to its successors, the game that started it all is, in hindsight, kinda skeletal. The marriage of FPS gameplay with Diablo-style looting was a fun gimmick, and the creative decision to pivot from realism to cel-shaded visuals cemented out an art style that’s proven to stand the test of time. But it lacks the grand vision and overarching narrative — the unassailable feeling that what you’re playing is part of something bigger — of its sequels. Solid foundation, though!
Zack: This might not be the best one in the series, for the reasons laid out by Ari above, but it probably has the best intro of all of the Borderlands games. I’d also recommend folks check out the fantastic PS4/Xbox One port of the original looter-shooter that started it all as it helps clean up some of the rough edges and packages all the DLC together into a nice, complete game.
Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep
Ari: Some say it’s the best DLC in the series. Maybe. But after Gearbox released Assault on Dragon Keep as a standalone game in November 2021, ahead of 2022’s Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, it ascended to the level of “actual game.” And sure, I absolutely loved how Assault on Dragon Keep explored the tragic death of a mainline character, and painted its titular hero as much more than just a walking series of profane punchlines. Impressive stuff — but it’s still a bit too brief to stack up to some of the mainline releases.
Zack: One of the best parts of any Borderlands game is exploring all the various and varied maps and worlds. And sadly, as a result of being a DLC-turned-into-a-stand-alone-game, Dragon Keep doesn’t have a lot of narrative or visual variety. It’s still great and I definitely recommend folks play it if they have never experienced this adventure before, but probably as part of Borderlands 2 and not a short, one-off shooter.
Tales From the Borderlands
Ari: I haven’t played this one, but fans love it — and completely lost their shit at this year’s announcement of an impending sequel. Zack tells me Tales From is probably the best-written game in the series, though he also noted it was buggy. In that sense, I suppose it really captures the essence of Borderlands.
Zack: Without a doubt, Tales is the best written game in the series. On the other hand, like so many other Telltale Games of that era, it’s a buggy mess that often feels like it’s just a moment away from crashing entirely. Still, the tale of corporate idiots Rhys and Vaughn meeting up with the con artist duo of Fiona and Sasha is so good, it’s worth suffering through all the technical hiccups. Also this game introduced the world to Loader Bot, the best Borderlands character ever. So wait, why is this so low? Oh, yeah, it’s also an oddball and not really a Borderlands game, which holds it back from moving higher up this list. (Sorry Loader Bot.)
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands
Ari: Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is so, so close to being the best in the series. The looting and shooting is better than ever, but freshened up by a fantasy-inspired respray. It does away with the series’ notoriously tedious driving segments. It’s got a banner cast, too, and a ridiculously compelling endgame loop. But the roadmap for DLC pales in comparison to previous games, particularly when you compare dollar-for-dollar with what you used to get. And while the ability to create your own character is a welcome change of pace, I’ll be honest, I miss having unique personalities for each class. Bad ending, too.
Zack: I’ve not beaten Wonderlands yet, so I have no idea about the ending. However, everything else Ari says, I agree with. The fantasy reskin of Borderlands 3 works better than I expected, thanks in large part to some seriously funny dialogue and the star-studded cast that includes Will Arnett as the big bad guy of the whole thing. I’ll admit I also miss the unique characters that you played as in past games, but I miss the driving more than anything. Tedious? Uh, I don’t call anything that involves big machine guns and turbo-charged jumps tedious. That’s a fun time in my book!
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
Zack: Sure, it’s got a really silly name, but I think Pre-Sequel is the hidden gem of the franchise and a game that a lot of people skipped because it seemed like filler and not a proper new Borderlands instalment. But hold up! Don’t skip this adventure. It features some of my favourite playable characters and classes in the franchise. It also is set on Pandora’s moon, letting you hop around in low gravity while killing endless goons. And if you are someone who cares about the lore and world of Borderlands, Pre-Sequel is filled with fan service, hints at future storylines, and answers lingering questions and character origins. This is how Handsome Jack becomes the big, bad villain we see in Borderlands 2. You telling me you don’t want to play that game?
Ari: Low gravity! Ice powers! You get to play as Claptrap! On the freakin’ moon! In terms of pure gameplay, The Pre-Sequel had a whole lot going for it. I do, however, think this is the first instance of the Borderlands franchise starting to go off the rails a little bit. The end of Borderlands 2 teed up a vast galaxy full of wonder and possibility. And then the series just…left that thread dangling for seven years. In a vacuum (sorry, sorry, I’m trying to delete it), The Pre-Sequel stands on its own. But considered as part of a larger whole, it felt like a stopgap meant to maintain interest in a popular series before the more important stuff could come out.
Ari: Pretty much the only knock on Borderlands 3 is how frequently it doles out high-powered gear. By the end of the game, the drop rate of legendary weapons is so high that it totally devalues the joy you’d get from finding one. Since it’s a loot game, yeah, that’s a pretty big deal. (I’m glad Gearbox took this to note and turned it down for Wonderlands.) But the game itself is mechanical bliss, and makes good on the narrative promise sketched out in Borderlands 2’s finale. Plus, it even features the darkest expansion of Borderlands history: the haunting, beautiful Bounty of Blood.
Zack: The only thing, in my book, that keeps Borderlands 3 from the top spot is that Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2 is such a strong villain. There’s a reason he kept coming back in various forms after this game. Hell, even one of Borderlands 3’s amazing DLC packs features Handsome Jack, or at least his legacy. Nearly everything else in Borderlands 3 is an improvement on the past games. Movement feels better, guns have more oomph to them and the entire scale of the game feels bigger and more exciting. But there is a better Borderlands game and if you can count (or have read the rest of this list…) you already know what took our top spot.
Ari: No question, Borderlands 2 should be considered up there alongside Mass Effect 2 and Uncharted 2 as one of the best-ever sequels in video games. It took a plainly ridiculous premise — treasure-hunting your way through the cosmos — and turned it into something real, with stakes and compelling characters and, as Zack mentioned, a ridiculously strong villain. It expanded the lore in a way that felt natural. And it did it all without losing a grasp on the charm and humour that defined the first game.