Everything's different but nothing's changed: that's the reassuring message Borderlands 2 is sending with Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon's Keep. It's also, rather fittingly, a reminder that Gearbox's cyber-hick shooting party now resembles one of those special long-running TV shows, like Moonlighting or Community, that can contort itself into all sorts of weird shapes without really damaging the essence of what makes it work.
You know? Regardless of what Maddie and David got up to - apologies, I'm old - you could count on sexy bickering and lots of shoulderpads. No matter where the Greendale study group head on their next adventure, you can draw strength from the fact that Pierce will say something inappropriate, Britta will get self-righteous, and Abed will bust the fourth wall to pieces. It's entirely possible you haven't seen either of these programs. Doesn't matter: what I'm getting at is that some formulas are so reliable you can fiddle with almost all the peripheral elements, and none of it will cause any problems. Everything's different but nothing's changed.
So in Borderlands' latest DLC campaign, rugged space-truckers sci-fi is swapped out for Tolkienesque fantasy, and you won't so much as skip a beat. The Hyperion robots have become orcs and tree-people, ammo crates are replaced by smashable clay jars, and Handsome Jack's transformed into a Handsome Sorcerer, but you still take on the same sorts of missions, pick through the same procedurally-generated shotguns and SMGs - Dragon's Keep is unprecedentedly generous in this regard - and you're still blasting everything you see and then listening out to catch the next meme-savvy one-liner when the dust settles.
The justification for this is twofold. Firstly, Borderlands has always been an RPG anyway, so bringing things back to fantasy - even if you retain a focus on futuristic weaponry - just feels like coming home. Secondly, Borderlands now resembles one of those special long-running TV shows, remember? It can use a DLC episode to spin a yarn about Tiny Tina trying to entertain the gang with a game of Bunkers & Badasses - it's definitely not just like Dungeons & Dragons - and you know that next time around everything will be back to normal.
As conceits go, it's not at all bad, actually. While there's much the same thrift and asset re-use you might expect by this point, the Borderlands visual style makes the transition from factory silos and moon bases to dwarven mines and craggy battlements surprisingly well, while the art team has a field day with reskins that include shambling skeletons and terrifying knights. Story-wise, Tiny Tina's novice dungeon-mastering allows for a few comic reversals and rug-pulls as she changes details at the last moment, swapping bosses in and out to witty effect and messing with the landscape as her story gets away from her, while the designers even chuck in the very occasional new idea, like an undead foe who can only be defeated when you move in close to pluck the magical sword from his ancient ribcage.
Elsewhere, there's everything a Borderlands episode should provide by this point: side-quests with theme-appropriate jokes (this time covering the likes of Dark Souls, Game of Thrones and Warcraft), a combat arena where you can work through waves of foes, a fresh raid boss (or bosses, in this case). There's even a new hub, in the form of the quaint village of Flamerock Refuge. It's brimming with missions that lead you to spooky forests, hellish underground metalworks, and a high tower on a ravaged cliff where a narrative awaits that cleverly compresses the main campaign plotline into a self-referential two or three hours.
New U stations now babble about necromancy, loot chests can hide mimics and often come with many-sided dice stuck on top, there's a really great joke about punching stuff, and you're carried through it all by that endless ebb and flow between shooting things and picking over their corpses. Is Dragon's Keep fun but lacking surprises?
Almost, but not quite. Woven into Tiny Tina's narrative is something that actually feels like a bit of a reach for this series - an attempt to add a little more heart and soul to the characterisations as this strange game of B&B builds towards an unusually emotional climax.
Without spoiling anything: does it work? Not entirely. But it is, unsurprisingly, just the kind of trick one of those special long-running TV shows might try to pull now and then - a bit of heavy-handed schmaltz to break up the glib anarchy, a lunge at tonal variation to bring depth to some increasingly harshly delineated cast members.
Nice try, Borderlands. Where next?
7 / 10