Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tiny Tina's Assault is Halfway Decent

The trend I've noticed with the Borderlands 2 DLC campaigns is that they're all kind of "meh." In each case, the three preceding BL2 DLCs offer mostly just "more of the same" and don't offer a whole lot of truly unique, interesting content. Speaking as someone who'd spent hundreds of hours in just the base game, playing across multiple characters with multiple friends, the DLC campaigns have all felt like fleeting sideshow distractions, rather than something new and fresh. 

Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep (hereafter referred to as "Tina's Ass") is the last of four originally planned DLC campaigns, and it's by far the best one. Boasting totally original landscapes to explore (no more boring desert wastelands) with a nice variety of aesthetic themes, entirely unique enemy types to fight (no more boring bandits), and a compelling narrative premise of being set inside a Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing campaign, Tina's Ass feels like a proper expansion, and not just a bloated cash grab. 

By far the most interesting aspect of Tina's Ass is the story. With Tina as dungeon master, the three surviving vault hunters from the first game (Lilith, Mordecai, and Brick) sit down to play Bunkers & Badasses, a tabletop role-playing game in the style of D&D. Almost everything you do is narrated by Tina in real-time as it happens, which leads to a lot of interesting changes in the environment, with NPCs and enemies spawning in and out of existence as she flippantly makes up her mind about the campaign. Lilith, Mordecai, and Brick talk with each other as the game goes on, sometimes just making small talk, but mostly reacting to Tina's eccentric DMing, which is nice because it provides a realistic premise for dialogue. At times in the base game and other DLCs, the dialogue often feels forced and unnecessary, but it feels natural and appropriate in Tina's Ass

The game, meanwhile, makes reference to numerous icons of geek culture, ranging prominently from Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings to Dark Souls and A Game of Thrones. In one major side-quest, you receive a request from a blue "Crestfallen Player" sitting by a bonfire to collect souls. So you light various bonfires, kill enemies, and collect the souls from their corpses, and fight a black phantom invader. In another quest, you get to slap King Joffrey in the face numerous times. Besides all of the amusing references, though, the story also incorporates (or reincorporates) numerous characters from the base game, like Sir Reginald von Bartlesby and Butt Stallion. Since it's a made-up fantasy world and Tina can do whatever she wants, we're also treated with the return of characters like Roland -- and the story itself actually deals quite heavily with accepting and honoring his loss. 

As with any bit of Borderlands 2 content, though, the real appeal is the shooting and looting, and Tina's Ass does a decent job on this front as well. There's not a whole lot of unique loot to acquire in this DLC (at least, not that I encountered), but there's a gun that shoots swords, and grenades that let you shoot fireballs and lightning bolts, presumably referencing that one LARP video. Being set in a traditional fantasy realm, however, is what makes Tina's Ass so refreshing, because it features a lot of totally unique environments that have never been present before in a Borderlands game or DLC. Things like dark forests, underground sewers, ruined gothic cathedrals, and majestic castles all make an appearance, which just offers a nice change of pace from the usual boring, uninspired environments we typically get to explore in these games.

In terms of enemies, Tina's Ass throws entirely new enemy types our way. Gone are the obnoxious bandit varieties, spiderant varieties, and hyperion loader varieties -- now we get to fight things like skeletons, orcs, treants, mimics, golems, dwarves, and armored knights. Some of these enemies come with a few unique twists to help spice up the combat, like certain types of skeletons requiring you to pull a spectral sword from their corpses when they die to prevent them from resurrecting, or crystal skeletons that reflect attacks back at you. While not deviating from the typical enemy mechanics of the base game too radically (nearly every fight still plays out exactly the same as ever before), this new assortment of variety brings with it a few fresh twists on the formula, while simply making the combat a little more fun because you never know what new thing you'll encounter next. 

Another complaint I've had with Borderlands 2 and some of its DLC campaigns is the relative lack of NPCs and townships. The first game was almost completely lacking in society -- basic NPCs who were also surviving on Pandora and whom could inform you of the game's lore through incidental dialogue. Gearbox stepped their game up in this regard with the main town of Sanctuary, but all other townships in the base game were verified ghost towns with some clever excuse to only have one NPC. This continued in Scarlett's Booty with Oasis consisting on one deranged NPC voicing various mannequin-like corpses. I was very pleased, therefore, to encounter Flamerock Refuge in Tina's Ass, which features numerous NPCs going about their business, talking with you about the queen, the Handsome Sorcerer, Flamerock Refuge, and various other elements of the game's setting.

Besides that, Tina's Ass also offers a fair amount of value for your dollar. Whereas other DLCs (Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt in particular) offered a relatively sparse amount of content that could be exhausted in just a few hours (roughly two play sessions, in my case), Tina's Ass took me over a week of semi-nightly playing to complete the main questline and primary side-quests. I'm still working on some of the post-game side-quests. Overall, it feels like the most polished and well-rounded of the DLCs, which makes it the easiest to recommend of them all. Still, I ran into various glitches and bugs (like walking through walls, getting stuck in the terrain, finding invisible collision mesh four feet higher than the rendered terrain, and two quests that wouldn't progress until I quit and reloaded the save), all of which would ironically suggest that Tina's Ass is less polished than the other DLCs. 

Either way, I enjoyed Tina's Ass quite a bit, which is a lot more than I can say about the other DLC campaigns to date. Let's see what Gearbox has planned for these additional DLCs and how much longer they can milk their sole cash cow. Oh, and I really like the music for Flamerock Refuge:



    1. But Among the Sleep isn't even out yet. Unless you were referring to the alpha demo...