I was going to start by saying that Mr. Torgue's Campaign of Carnage feels like the Borderlands 2 experience ramped up to 11, but I realise that's a foolish claim to make. Borderlands 2 twisted the dial on its own amplifier far past 11 long, long ago. At some point that dial fell off, was kicked under the sofa and was chewed by a drooling bulldog, while the valves in the amp are close to bursting from the endless power chords hammered out on a grimy Les Paul.
To give an appropriate extension to that metaphor, the guitar, the amp, the bulldog, the sofa and the house they're all in are tumbling down the side of a mountain in an avalanche of their own creation. This is the Borderlands 2 experience and, if you're a fan, you'll not only have climbed on to join this ride, you may even recognise the man who's been playing those power chords. It's the game's writer, Anthony Burch, and with this latest DLC, Mr. Torgue's Campaign of Carnage, he's now doing his best to set that guitar (and that house) on fire.
The overdriven growl of Campaign of Carnage echoes the second DLC release for the original Borderlands, Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot, hitting the same notes with its horde mode, but playing them much, much louder, underscoring them with a campaign and complementing this arrangement with a variety of side quests. The horde mode is presented as a tournament to determine Pandora's best warrior, though it this isn't the fairest of competitions and things aren't likely to go as planned.
“The Campaign of Carnage takes that same style of horde mode,” says Burch, “but that's only about 50 per cent of the DLC. The other 50 per cent is the campaign, the plot. The first game was like, 'Here's a horde mode, do it over and over again.' This is more of a campaign that, if you want to treat it like a horde mode, with repeating rounds and increasing difficulty, we have those side quests there. Some people thought [Underdome Riot] got a little too repetitive.”
Burch and his band-mates at Gearbox have adopted a policy of inclusion, trying to incorporate a great deal more into the mix and rarely turning away ideas for new weapons, new quests or new jokes. He says the game's design very much lends itself to disparate content and a great variety of side quests, but concedes that that the result of this is that with the Campaign of Carnage (as was the case with Borderlands 2), so many team members have tossed in ideas that nobody is completely certain what's in there, not least because they enjoy surprising one another. Even Burch doesn't know all the game's secrets or Easter eggs.
“There are definitely secrets in the DLC, but they're a little more subtle than before,” he says. “There's a weird thing about the Easter eggs: the legal department knows the full extent of them, as everyone tells legal, but everyone else? Nobody knows. They're actually secrets to a lot of us. When the Dark Souls Easter egg came up, a lot of people in Gearbox were like, holy s**t, we have a Dark Souls Easter egg?! That's cool.” Of course, there's Minecraft in there, too.
"“There's a weird thing about the Easter eggs: the legal department knows the full extent of them, as everyone tells legal, but everyone else? Nobody knows. They're actually secrets to a lot of us."
“I think a very large percentage of Borderlands 2 is a bunch of different people doing that thing that they thought nobody would notice,” Burch continues, “but when everybody does a lot of that it becomes this crazy confluence of 'Why is there a creeper here?' Why is there a gun that screams?' It becomes this crazy pot pourri of insane ideas that, if they were excised and put into any other game, would be the craziest thing in that game, but because we have all of them it's just an non-stop barrage of surprises.”
It sounds like a lunatic approach to game design, perhaps until you remember that the Borderlands poster boy is a lunatic. Burch is clearly a fan of this way of working, believing it gives the game much more character and personality.
While surprises await Burch as much as they do the rest of us, what is certain is that the Campaign of Carnage will see the exuberant Mr. Torgue becoming a sort of sponsor-cum-coach for the player, a role he fulfils by hurling an ongoing and ever more brutal stream of abuse.
The writer describes him as “the most American character ever, someone who just won't shut up, doesn't know what he's talking about and is actually incredibly stupid,” and he never seems very satisfied with your progress, alternating between updating you on your ranking, in what turns out to be a rather crooked tournament, and berating you for, well, for existing.
“I had a lot of fun, from a narrative angle, writing for Mr Torgue,” Burch says. “And it's fun for me to write a side story like this that isn't about big, epic, important things changing Pandora forever. It's just a tournament, and there's something comforting about being able to scale down a story in that way, to have side adventures rather than everything being on fire all the time.”
Several familiar characters return for Campaign, including Moxxi, who again takes a role as a mistress of ceremonies, plus someone Burch says is a “personal favourite.” Could that be Tiny Tina, the character voiced by his own sister (and who co-stars with him in their irreverent web series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'?)? “Tiny Tina shows up. I know a lot of people hate Tiny Tina, and I understand why some people would, but hopefully this will bring people into the fold as far as that character goes.”
There's also a special treat in there for all us games journalists, something that's both a nod to Burch's own time as a writer for Destructoid and another target for Torgue's explosive rage. “I got sick of how people get uppity about review scores, so there's an entire quest where Mr Torgue gets angry at reviewers who reviewed games he liked poorly,” explains Burch. “I really hope the games press enjoys that.” Oh, we can't get enough of it.
There's still more DLC lined up for release in the months after the Campaign of Carnage, but Burch won't be drawn on what's coming next. What's certain is that it will be another collection of often disparate ideas, held together by a certain sort of collective madness and likely peppered with obscure references and very subtle touches, something he concludes is “a bunch of people taking innovative things they love and just tossing them in and being like 'Yeah, nobody's probably going to care about this, but I'm going to put it in, just in case.'”
So, are we going to lose the gentle tones of those subtle secrets beneath the din of Mr Torgue's rage and frustration? And will Burch mind if his work goes unnoticed? “I've got into this position where I'm okay with the fact that 99 per cent of the stuff I do, nobody will comment on, just as long as one person finds one particular thing,” he says, and he tells a short story.
“I got an email from our audio guy, Raison Varner, who does the voice of the Psycho, and he found somebody on reddit who had found him doing the big Hamlet soliloquy. You don't make it for everybody to go 'Oh, Hamlet's soliloquy!' You make it for two guys to post about on reddit.'”
So when you're nodding along to those power chords, it'll be worth keeping an ear out. So to speak.
Mr. Torgue's Campaign of Carnage releases on November 20.