Dungeons and Dragons for a more explosive ADHD generation.
Dungeons & Dragons was never "cool". I write this with slight trepidation knowing the denizens of the Internet can be a somewhat sensitive bunch, but the quotation marks are important: perspective is key.
A Hyperion employee has been captured, it will take time to violently extract the information they captured him for. In the interim, our brave heroes have some time to kill. It's with a palpable reluctance that they agree to Tiny Tina's demand that they play the Borderverse's version of D&D aptly entitled 'Bunkers & Badasses'. Ok, so, perhaps it's more the concern that the game master is an explosives obsessed hyperactive psycho-child, rather than the fact that D&D isn't as quite as cool as blowing enemies up and looting their still spraying corpses, but the reluctance is noticed regardless.
However, it turns out that B&B is just as much fun as blowing enemies up and looting their still spraying corpses. In fact, it's the exact same thing!
Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep (or 'TTAoDK' for short) is very much a typical set of Borderlands 2 missions and sub-quests, but with a fantasy skin. This isn't to say the familiarity is a negative. When BL2 got it right, it got it hilariously and wildly right, and for the most part this DLC gets it.
The various landscapes are painted like a cell-shaded version of Skyrim. Crumbling castles, dank dungeons, towering mountainside, fiery mines, all the usual fantasy staples are recreated in Borderlands fashion, and each feels passionately inspired and colourfully realised. Chest and breakable urns are designed in keeping with the style, and New-U Stations quip about “healers looking for groups” as you respawn from a hapless encounter.
Enemy types have been replaced with fantasy creature counterparts, or just designed from the ground up for this new universe. Skeleton archers, undead warlocks, giant dragons, orcs, and lumbering tree-beasts, all populate this new take on familiar environments and breathe a little bit of Tolkien style wonder into proceedings. Little touches, like skeletal warriors with glowing swords in their backs that need removing to keep them dead, give combat a slightly fresher feel.
Well known NPCs have also been given the fantasy makeover. And while most simply perform the same roles they do in the vanilla experience but with a different skin, some are well realised alternative counterparts that feel alive in this universe. Claptrap, for instance, plays an inept and neurotic wizard with insatiable glee, and while the actual meat and grind of his side-quests involve the standard kill, fetch, loot, and collect that we're used used to, his vocal cues and interactions are entertaining and push his sections forward at a fun pace.
However, other previously well-delivered characters seem a little hollow here. The Handsome Sorcerer played (SPOILER ALERT) by BL2's Handsome Jack, feels a little hollow in comparison. He's underused, and as an antagonist seems lacking in motivation and presence. And while this adventure really isn't about that (it's much more about the delusions of a sad and frightened child - it actually gets a little emotionally heavy at the end), there never really feels like any kind of motivationally dangerous threat. It's very much a series of cool (yes, I admit it, D&D style is killer!) and amusing alternative takes on well known characters and battle sequences instead of an intensely narratively driven chapter.
The main character here is of course our dangerously demented GM, Tiny Tina. This game is set entirely inside her deranged mind, and it shifts and contorts in keeping with her colourful psyche. Entire environments morph from brilliant daylight to gloomy darkness as she decides, on the fly, to change up the tone. Ridiculous creatures spring to life and implausible happenings occur as the little minx wings playing games-master with little care for convention or indeed physics and the absolute basics of reality.
Yes, its the interactions of the characters and our borderline insane GM are what matter here, and Tina's inability to process certain preceding events is what adds the real weight to the push and pull, but as most of this emotional stuff happens at the very end of the campaign, the majority of our time spent traversing and destroying this alternative universe feels slightly detached.
Some segments feel alive and well paced, with well scripted encounters and engagements, but others feel drawn out and repetitive, with wave after wave of seemingly never ending mobs and very little interactions beyond point and click and collect. And while this Serious Sam style rush of enemies is inherent to the very nature of the brunt of BL2s shoot-em-up segments, and is indeed as much expect as it is adored by the followers of the title, a very large part of the allure is the plundering of ph4t l3wt (that's "phat loot", for anyone not cool enough to translate), and this is one of the areas that TTAoDK feels like its skimping.
The fact is, this instalment comes long after much of the player-base have explored all of the content previously available, and while the fresh fantasy spin will add a new feel to the familiar, these adventurers will likely be stuffed to the gills with rare weaponry and unique equipment, and as even the new chests that allow you to spend some of that hoarded Eridium on an extra chance for rares only seem (for us at least) to hand out a few non-unique purples and pinks, hardcore looters may be disappointed. For a game that sells itself as something of a loot dispensing simulator, this is a curious design choice.
At its core, TTAoDK remains as true to past instalments as it does reinvent itself. The changes are mostly cosmetic, but they're implemented with such an obvious love of the lore (of the parent game, and the universes and events it cheekily references) that many of the interactions are a joy to take part in. Some of the segments feel drawn out, while others pull you along with hilarity and charm, and this leaves the campaign feeling a little imbalanced at times. However, the overall appeal and the generous content (I played around 10 hours exploring as much as I could) swings the balance in favour, and, despite a few shortcomings, the game's final campaign content DLC leaves things on a satisfyingly bittersweet note. And while the game doesn't directly sate our vault hunter's greed, the actual gameplay content is reward in itself.