The drunken mind meld at Gearbox that must have resulted in the conception of the latest Borderlands 2 expansion, "Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep," deserves to go down in history as the night when the Best Idea Ever for this series was born. And that's saying something, for the franchise that brought us the miraculous Claptrap.
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Release date: June 25
Here's the pitch: Tiny Tina, the psychopathic, pyrotechnic pre-teen we all know and love, invites the vault hunters from the first game (Mordecai, Brick, Lilith, etc.) to play a pseudo-Dungeons & Dragons game called Bunkers & Badasses. You, as the player, act out their game for them as Tina plays dungeon bunker master.
You'll explore locations with names like "Unassuming Docks of Potentially LIttle Importance," "Hamlet of Swiftly Passing Through" and "The Lair of Infinite Agony." Every quest and enemy comes straight from Tina's deranged prepubescent mind. The world changes based on her whims; if Tina says the sunny village was suddenly struck by a curse of everlasting twilight, then the sky turns purple and heavily armed skeletons rise from the earth.
Meanwhile the other characters—the ones playing the game—jest and jape with one another, trying to stay alive in a world born of Tiny Tina's imagination. For the first time in Borderlands, you as the player are not the protagonist. You're simply there to pantomime whatever Tina thinks up for the other characters to do. But even though the game is really just a game now, the stakes are just as high—as Hyperion's New-U stations often remind you, "If you die in Tina's imagination, you die for real!"
More shit to shoot? How about dragons?
If you're simply looking for more Borderlands 2 then "Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep" will do just fine. In fact, even just based on content it's the best expansion for the game by far. Its main quest line spans three lengthy chapters through orc and spider-infested woods, dwarven slave mines and a sorcerer's gigantic tower. The campaign and most of the side quests (not even counting the ones you get once the main quest is done) take several hours to complete.
And this is no re-hash of past environments or themes. You'll find no re-skinned bandits (like the pirates in "Captain Scarlet and Her Pirate's Booty") here. There are dozens of new enemy types, some of which exhibit fairly unique behaviors. Fairies fly around the forest; if you catch them, they give you short-lived stat buffs, but you can also try to fight them. Skeletons and knights come in all varieties, from hulking badasses to conjurors that warp around shooting fire or lightning at you. Necromancers raise corpses to fight for them. Some enemies keep getting back up until you knock them down and pull the enchanted swords from their backs.
You'll see familiar faces, but everything has been reworked to fit the tongue-in-cheek fantasy theme of Tina's Bunkers & Badasses game. Moxxi runs a tavern with rowdy patrons who spurt truly inspired pick-up lines ("I'm surprised you're not orange because that body is legendary!"). New types of chests allow you to roll a die (or two, for some precious Eridium) for better loot. "Shrines" scattered around provide bonuses to defense, speed or ammo for more Eridium. Even all the music is brand new, perfectly fitting with the fantasy motif while remaining true to Borderlands.
In fact, that sums up "Dragon Keep" perfectly: this world could almost have been pulled straight from Fable. It references everything from Game of Thrones to Star Trek, Dark Souls, Doctor Who and Skyrim, but it's still Borderlands right to its dual-wielding, face-exploding core.
And so our adventurers reach their conclusion
There's more to it than just more enemies to shoot (though we've got to admit that we love nailing dragons with double shotguns). Gearbox hasn't announced any more Borderlands 2 expansions beyond this, and it seems like "Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep" will be the last DLC for the game. If so, it's a fitting farewell to the series so far.
Tina's adventure is steeped in denial; the denial of the real world that all fantasy-lovers enjoy when they embark on an epic quest, of course, but also the denial of a young girl who won't (or can't) admit that she's lost some dear friends. Characters who die in Borderlands 2's main game are alive and well in Tina's fantasy world, and despite the other characters' attempts to ground her in reality Tina seems determined to keep them alive in her game.
It culminates in a truly touching ending (after a fucking epic boss fight, thankfully). And not just touching by Borderlands' standards; we're talking real issues like the stages of grief and acceptance of death, with some tear-jerking moments for fans who've invested even a little bit in these characters.
Along the way Gearbox demonstrates how in-tune it is with gamer culture while also tackling controversial topics like "fake geek" bullying (just because Mr. Torgue takes care of his body doesn't mean he's not into geeky shit!) and the rampant sexism in our little slice of society. As hilarious and on-point as most of the writing in the Borderlands series is, "Dragon Keep" elevates it to surprisingly emotional heights. Or in D&D terms, it rolls for initiative and scores a 20 nearly every time.