It’s been a long and bumpy road for Borderlands 2 DLC. Captain Scarlett and her Pirate’s Booty was a bit bland. Mr Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage was pretty damn good, but with some atrocious boss fights and a number of rather rubbish quests. Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt was tedious, and featured horrible new enemies. And now, with Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, we’ve got what’s probably the final campaign DLC for the game.
Fortunately, it’s probably the best of the lot, and – despite an unabated torrent of humour and pop-culture references – it’s a surprisingly touching send-off to the main game and the events that transpired within.
Now, I’m not going to discuss spoilers, but the game certainly will. If you haven’t played Borderlands 2 through to completion, then be aware that Assault is set after it. I’m not sure if it’s possible to play Assault before completion, but this does spoil most of the big plot twists, so consider yourselves forewarned.
More specifically, Assault is set in a fictional world of psychotic 13-year-old Tiny Tina’s creation. While the second game’s protagonists are busy beating up a Hyperion agent for information, the Vault Hunters from the first game have nothing to do, leading to them playing a game of Bunkers & Badasses with Tina as Bunker Master and the Borderlands 2 characters as the player classes. Or, to put it another way, they’re playing a tabletop fantasy RPG with Tina as the GM. To put it yet another way, this entire campaign is set in Tina’s head. Oh dear.
As such, you’re tasked with saving the world from the Handsome Sorcerer, who has cast a terrible Crumpocalypse spell that has made everything dark and rubbish and smell like butts and dead people. The only person who can break this curse is the queen, but – alas! – she’s gone missing. It’s up to you to find her, and probably smack the Handsome Sorcerer in the face.
One of the best things about this DLC is that it gives Gearbox a chance to really go off the rails. You’re no longer stuck on Pandora, because you’re in a fictional world. You’re no longer nailed to any sort of laws of reality, because the entire thing is a creation of Tiny Tina so – in a manner akin to Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – everything can and will change at a moment’s notice based on her whims. It gives Gearbox free rein to more fully reference all things nerdy: tabletop RPGs, MMOs, Dark Souls, and A Song of Ice and Fire/A Game of Thrones, amongst others. Finally, it also gives them a chance to show off Tina’s take on what happened in Borderlands 2, since her story mimics its beats in a number of ways, and it’s this that really provides a fantastic bookend to the original game.
Let’s talk examples, because for once there’s enough wonderful stuff that I can actually afford to spoil a few brilliant moments. The DLC opens with you turning up on a beautiful shoreline with clear, rainbow-filled skies… until Lilith points out that this doesn’t make any sense, considering the spell the Handsome Sorcerer cast. Cue the skies suddenly darkening and everything turning drab.
There’s a quest which comes to an unceremonious close when the questgiver is suddenly crushed by a D20, followed by a shout of BRICK, YOU BROKE ONE OF TINA’S MODELS. Wandering off track at one point leads to a bunch of level 80 monsters, with Tina apologetically stating that she didn’t have time to balance the combat outside of the critical path. The very first boss fight is impossible to win because Tina didn’t think it through. Etcetera.
That said, barring these early jokes (and these are all from the first two areas of the DLC, so I haven’t spoiled much), you might actually be a bit disappointed with the way it opens. The first area is a slog through a dreary seaside village, and the second – which forms this DLC’s town/quest hub – isn’t much of an improvement. Things mostly pick up from there, with the middle section of Assault balancing out the references and jokes with some fun quests and some decent shooting, and then it all comes crashing down towards the end for a long, humourless trek through a couple of massive areas.
Which might make it sound like I didn’t enjoy it, but barring those few areas, I really did. Despite the fact that I’ve played Borderlands 2 for, ooh, 100 hours, this DLC actually felt fresh. It’s a new, completely unique location, with completely unique enemies, some neat twists on weapons (spells like Fireball take up the grenade slot, but regenerate your grenades over time), and a completely different theme. There’s a huge amount of attention to detail, exemplified by the fact that even the vending machines have different art and different dialogue lines. It would’ve been so easy to leave in, say, spider-ants, and keep the vending machines the same, but… they’re not. They’ve all changed. There’s little here that was in the base game, and that’s pretty damn impressive.
Considering how godawful the Witch Doctors of Hammerlock‘s DLC were, I should probably talk a little bit more about the new ones here. Most are fairly analogous to standard Borderlands enemies – the obligatory giant spiders are reasonably close to spider-ants, and foes like knights are pretty similar to melee psychos – but a few are genuinely new. Burning skeletons leave behind a suicidal flaming skull on death, while skeletaurs will revive on death unless you take a moment to remove a big glowing sword from their back. The most original are pixies, which can be nasty antagonists but can also heal and assist you if you “catch” them instead of shooting them. Nothing too new, but welcome twists on the BLAST EVERYTHING FOREVER combat.
Still, there are some minor balance issues with a few of these new foes. A fight against multiple conjurers led to me being trapped in Second Wind hell; I’d die, and as soon as I killed something to revive I’d be completely blinded, slowed, and damaged by so many spells I’d just die again. Orc Warlords are considerably worse, though, considering that – if you don’t notice them and kill them fast enough – they’ll quickly become five levels higher than you (as they can level themselves up apropos of nothing) and will just shut you down unless you get them stuck on terrain or manage to run circles around them. Fortunately, both of these are rare occurrences; most enemies are fun to fight.
Still not entirely sold? Well, there are two things that might change your mind. Firstly, if you like Tiny Tina or want to hear lots of dialogue from the Borderlands 1 stalwarts (if you simply want to hear Brick playing a tabletop RPG, say) then you’ll adore this. Both the players and the demented GM talk constantly and regularly riff on whatever’s happening in the game. Conversely, if you thought Tiny Tina was annoying and one-note, you won’t like this. And you’re weird.
But more than that, this really does feel like a proper send-off to Borderlands 2. Tina herself gets a degree of character development, and the last few scenes of the game are genuinely heartfelt and touching, providing some wonderful closure to the Borderlands 2 arc. Gearbox can do pathos when they need to – certain plot twists in Borderlands 2 proved that, and considering that the game is usually pretty light-hearted, that’s a hell of a trick – and they reach deep into that well here. Plot points from the main game are referenced and skewed repeatedly, both for comedy and for drama. Most popular characters have at least a cameo in this strange fantasy world. This is a buffet of Borderlands‘ best.
It’s been a long and bumpy road for Borderlands 2 DLC, and regardless of your feelings on the previous expansions, this is well worth your time. The developers have had a lot of fun breaking free from the restrictions of Pandora, and have said goodbye to the game in the best way possible: by making a funny, touching, and heartfelt finale. It’s certainly not necessary – there’s no secret, extra ending to the game locked away in this DLC – but the character development and the extra weight added to bits of the base game’s plot make this stand head and shoulders above the other, more missable DLC packs. Torgue was great, but this is the DLC that matters.