Version tested: Xbox 360
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.
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.
Hell-burbia is a clapped out sprawl of buildings built for claustrophobic split-level fighting; Angelic Ruins, with its bleached alien architecture and more open aspects, can seem a bit like an expanded take on Halo's Snowblind at times; and The Gully is an oppressively vertical space where snipers can earn their keep beneath a series of slow-spinning wind turbines.
Everything has the dirty-fairylights trappings of an in-bred circus to it, and all three maps are stitched together from pieces you'll recognise from the main game, delivered in the stylishly ramshackle manner you've likely come to associate with Borderlands by this point.
The whole thing's charmingly merciless, too. After the first round in each coliseum, Moxxi's Maxims kick in, each altering the way the game plays in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who's ever found any of Halo's skulls.
In one wave Moxxi might power up a certain weapon class while downgrading all the others, while the next time she may fiddle with Pandora's gravity, boost enemy health bars or - most chaotically - speed up everybody's movement. As rounds mount, more of the maxims switch on at once, and they provide the perfect jolt of chaos to bring the game's predictable timetable of pain to life.
There's an important caveat, however: if you're a lonely Borderlander, you're going to find Moxxi's challenges tough to solo. Rules like the penalty box (if killed, you sit out the rest of the round in a lofty prison you can still provide sniping support from) are built for co-op, and the sheer ferocity of the waves themselves suggests Gearbox is unsubtly prodding you out of the house to get some friends.
Even played as a group of four this can be a steep challenge, and you'll want to put aside the best part of an hour to race through each coliseum in the first - and easiest - tournament. Attempting the second tournament by yourself, with enemies scaling to your level and no one to help you when you're downed, will be genuinely punishing.
But it will be enjoyably punishing too. By dialling back the experience grind and loot collection, Mad Moxxi not only comprehensively proves that Borderlands is capable of providing sharp thrills by means of its combat alone, it also offers you a chance to stop the ceaseless progression for a few hours and take a good long look at what you've actually become.
Playing as a Siren, I've been happy to discover that, for once, I've been investing skill points almost wisely, with a phase-walk capable of rebuilding practically all of my health in one go before I rocket back out of the astral plane in a devastating burst of electrical energy.
Borderlands' latest DLC has shown me the combat rhythm I've naturally settled into: the regular back and forth between whittling away at enemies with SMGs before disappearing in a puff of magic, to either slink off and let my shield charge up again, or pop up behind an unfortunate bruiser in order to blast chunks out of their neck with a shotgun.
If the Underdome had "merely" been a Horde mode, that may have been fine, but it's a lot more besides. It's a glimpse into the internal machinery of Pandora, a rare chance to understand where you've been, and where you want to go next.
8 / 10