Borderlands: Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot

Moxxi music.

A couple of nights ago I hit the jackpot. Borderlands had been quietly chucking the odd new gun my way for the past few weeks, of course, but suddenly, wandering around Crazy Earl's Scrapyard, it started lobbing them at me with dangerous abandon.

This wasn't the cheap stuff either: after months of dusty repeaters and initially-alluring SMGs let down by duff scopes, Gearbox was now tripping over itself to give me the arsenal I'd always wanted. I found myself knee-deep in massive crit boosts, elemental powers, roomy clips and speedy reloads - all with a nice blade whacked on the front to increase melee damage.

It was delightful, obviously, but it was also a little worrying. If you ever suspected that beneath the hillbillies and crosshatching Borderlands buries you alive in experience points and new weaponry to distract from the ceaseless grind, it would be easy to perceive a freakish spell of generosity as a confirmation of your fears. Beneath the wit and character of the delivery, could Borderlands really just be the game that bribes you to keep playing?

Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot, Gearbox's second downloadable content pack, has answered that for me at least. On the surface it may seem like - yawn - a simple arena mode, no different from recent offerings in Halo 3: ODST or Gears of War 2, but what's more interesting is what Gearbox has all but removed.

Because while you still earn experience points for completing gauntlets of rounds that are treated as missions, you won't earn XP for the hundreds of enemies you'll be killing within Moxxi's garish coliseums otherwise, and the ceaseless loot drops flung out from corpses have also been replaced with far less regular end-of-round presents from Moxxi herself.

If Borderlands really was hiding behind nothing more than generosity all this time, in other words, this is the chance to find out.

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On top of Moxxi's wave conditions, you can always try setting your own too. I recommend trying Horde Wave, Angelic Ruins, with nothing but SMGs, for example.

So what do you get for your 800 Microsoft Points? You get a series of three arenas in which waves of enemies come at you in breathless formations. Five waves make up a round, and five rounds make up each arena's tournament.

The waves themselves are smartly themed: Starter Wave lures you into the carnage relatively painlessly, before Gun Wave, Horde Wave, Badass Wave and Boss Wave gradually ratchet up the pressure with different strains of enemies. In between each burst of slaughter you get the briefest of breathers that you'll probably spend chasing down the ammo and health drops that fall from the sky, while the enemies get more aggressive each time they return.

The whole thing's presided over - and brilliantly so - by Moxxi, a supersexy wild-west good-time girl with a painted face, a blood-red suit, and a bullhorn where her conscience should be. A serial widow and hellbound circus barker, she offers commentary on proceedings in a queasily sexual manner, delighting in double entendres, and she adds a real sense of character to the challenge.

Aside from that, and aside from the inclusion of a new banking system for storing overflow items and an extra skill point available for completing the first of the Underdome's two tournaments, that would initially appear to be it: Mad Moxxi is Horde mode with hicks and gimps, Firefight dressed up in striped stockings.

But it's better than it sounds. In fact, it's often fairly brilliant. Far from the echoing and empty spaces that the term conjures up, Moxxi's coliseums are canny little wriggles of real estate: clusters of houses, teleporters and alleyways that feel more like single-player instances than most games' multiplayer maps.

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