The fourth significant add-on for Borderlands 2, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep reunites many of the most memorable characters from the series, in an outing into a fully realised take on fantasy CRPG territory. Reload those guns, because it’s time to do battle with skeletons, Orcs and dragons.
Yes, you read that correctly, you’re going to be using bullets against sword- and axe-wielding foes. It seemed completely wrong to me until I took my first steps towards a group of skeletal archers and had my shield depleted in an instant, at which point I switched to a rocket launcher and blew them to bits (before berating myself not to waste ammunition). So that was the first big plus for the DLC: it turns out that an assortment of fantasy villains can actually be quite fun to fight, even when you’re armed to the teeth with the most outrageous weaponry a cartoon future can offer.
Having just recently taken Knights of Pen and Paper to task for failing to establish the context of “a game within a game” correctly, it’s encouraging to see Gearbox get this so right. The game world exists in our hostess’ vivid imagination, with the environment being reshaped as she sees fit, with enemies being swapped out of combat and even a jumping puzzle simply being removed if you struggle to complete it (I actually wished they’d gone further with this and done the same for some of the other parts, but you can’t have everything I suppose), and with everything from vending machines to spawn points getting a vocal makeover for the outing.
If there’s one thing that breaks this illusion though, it’s that you, the player, never really feel part of the discussion. It’s an RPG, but without you making any of the choices, aside from where to go and what to shoot. But even in this regard the game gets a free pass; the shooting as always, is a lot of fun. The enemy design in particular is just superb. Rather than the reskins of standard enemy types we’ve seen in past DLC, here we’re given everything from orcs and dwarfs to spiders and golems. There are even fantasy tropes like knights and wizards that get rolled out towards the end, and the paladins in particular are so well realised I think Dragon Age should sit up and take note (the only bum notes are the vanishing skeletons, but their appearance is rare).
The new content is paced extremely well; I found myself wanting to just keep playing than getting frustrated and going off the beaten track to find other things to do; indeed I spent less time doing optional missions here to begin with as I wanted to see the DLC through to the end. For the first time in the series’ DLC, the boss fights were actually enjoyable (aside from the very last one of course, which denigrates back to utter tedium).
That isn’t to say that this new content isn’t without its share of issues. There’s a completely out-of-place sequence where you must pass through a set of crushers that seems to serve no purpose whatsoever other than to force you to respawn over and over, draining your credits in the process; a boss fight which is entirely winnable without any input from you at all; and some problematic level design.
The levels are sprawling twisty things that are visually interesting, but almost impossible to read and plot a route through, especially when looking at the map screen. There are signposts dotted about in the levels, but these were without labels (whether this was deliberate or a bug I could not say); there were just about enough checkpoints, but quitting the game and reloading would alway dump you back at the start of the level, and with no shortcuts to get to where you were before meant trudging back through the winding paths, forgetting where you needed to go, and having to kill the same goons in order to unlock certain doorways again to progress.
The addon also adds several things to do with Elerium, which you’ll probably have plenty of by the time you play this chapter of the story (you really do have to have completed the base game before attempting this expansion, as many references are made to the campaign’s ending), just don’t do what I did and stupidly buy lots of ammo powerups without realising they were draining my Elerium stockpile.
I don’t know whether Gearbox were simply saving up all their best ideas for this expansion, or whether the well-trodden fantasy RPG landscape is uniquely suited as a platform to launch the silly madness that Borderlands 2 does so well, but there are many things in Assault on Dragon Keep that make this the most interesting, if not enjoyable addon to play so far, and by a significant margin.