After three huge DLC expansions, an extra character and a level cap increase, the Borderlands 2 Season Pass is finally about to stop giving – and it’s closing down with style. The fourth and final campaign add-on (at least, the final add-on covered by the Season Pass) sees the Vault Hunters transported into a living version of tabletop fantasy game Bunkers & Badasses, controlled and narrated by everyone’s favourite psychotic 13-year-old, Tiny Tina.
Playing alongside Lillith, Brick and Mordecai, Tina is dungeon master and plot director, acting as a kind of sugar-hyped omnipotent deity able to change the story and landscape at will. A prime example is when, upon first setting foot on The Unassuming Docks of Potentially Little Importance, you’re immediately faced with a dragon as strong as a raid boss. After you’re instantly squished, Tina takes pity on you and changes the boss. Considerably.
It’s this unpredictability that keeps Assault on Dragon Keep fresh for the full 8 to 10 hours that it lasts. You never know what’s going to be over the horizon, and you’re never quite sure if Tina is going to change it on a whim once you do know. The storyline involves rescuing the Queen of a troubled fantasy land from the titular Dragon’s Keep, where she’s being held by the Handsome Sorcerer (a returning Jack, on top villainous form). You’re aided along the way by other favourites, including Torgue, Claptrap, Moxxi and – in a surprisingly touching way – Roland.
The art style is fantastic throughout, and the fantasy landscape presents a welcome change of scenery even more extreme than the danger-laden swamps of Aegrus. From dark forests and craggy mountain pathways to an expansive subterranean forge and the Colossal Keep itself, the new areas are brimming with personality, colour, and tongue-in-cheek humour.
In the same way that the main game riffs continuously off sci-fi’s, westerns and action movies, Assault on Dragon Keep is unafraid to poke fun at pretty much every fantasy convention ever created. In a jibe aimed at Dark Souls, you’ll meet a Crestfallen Knight by a bonfire whose game has been “invaded” by another player, and who warns you to hang on to your humanity, while Warcraft takes a ribbing as you gather with three other adventurers outside a tomb and wait for a boss to respawn. Everything from Tolkien to Game of Thrones is lampooned somewhere along the line – so much so that few but the dedicated fantasy geek will fathom more than 75% of the references. Gearbox run the risk of alienating some gamers here, but their target audience will be well and truly satiated.
The gameplay remains almost exactly the same, but moulds itself effortlessly around certain fantasy hallmarks. Grenade mods change your hurled explosives into magical spells like Fireball and Magic Missile, special loot chests are adorned with D12′s that can be “rolled” for epic loot at the cost of Eridium, and the land is plagued by orcs, dwarves, killer trees, and giant spiders. Oh, and dragons. Did I mention there are dragons? Aside standard reptilian enemies, the new raid boss (or bosses) takes the form of four incredibly powerful winged lizards that will challenge even the hardiest foursome.
Loot comes in spades, too, with a higher percentage of epic and legendary drops than the previous three add-ons. There are even a few unique guns, such as one that fires exploding swords (or “SWORDSPLOSIONS”, according to Mister Torgue). The difficulty is more manageable than Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt, and caters best to those around the level 30-35 mark or above. Some of the boss battles can be quite trying, and there are a handful of new enemies that change things up a little, like flying pixies, Golems that “level up” like Goliaths, and skeletons who need the magic sword removing from their backs before they stay dead.
Aside hunting down missing crumpets, burning airships and slaying dragons, you’ll be taking part in some of the more inventive quests Borderlands has ever produced. But, in all honesty, the missions aren’t really the true star of the show, and nor are the interesting locales you’ll visit, including new hub, Flamerock Refuge.
The true star is Tiny Tina, and in a rare move for the franchise, Gearbox have injected a dose of emotion into a handful of the gallumphing story beats. From her inability to accept that Roland isn’t around anymore to a surprisingly moving finale, it’s nice to see one of Pandora’s most interesting characters fleshed out, albeit in fairly subtle ways. Similarly to Torgue in the Campaign of Carnage DLC, Tina’s narration makes such an impact that you miss it when she goes quiet – although luckily a host of new effects and dialogue bites help to alleviate this. The Vault Hunters have new lines, and even the New-U Stations will bang on about healers, clerics and necromancers when they reconstruct your battered corpse. It all amounts to far, far more than a simple re-skin or a hastily tacked-on series of quest-lines.
VERDICT: Frankly, this is DLC done right. While Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt failed to resonate with many, there was still the Campaign of Carnage and Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty to live up to, and Assault on Dragon Keep storms such lofty heights with ease. New enemies, new locations, new loot and new guns – lots and lots of new guns – are enticing enough, but it’s the little things that count even more here, with an undercurrent of emotion beneath the thrashing, chaotic, comedic surface and the smorgasbord of references and Easter Eggs that serve up treat after treat to fans of the genre.
Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is the pick of a series of top-notch add-ons, and the best Borderlands expansion since The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned. If you own Borderlands 2, this is totally, utterly essential.
SUPERB. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.
Available as pc games download from GMG.