There are salt flats, twinkling with the bright bones of fish, left behind by a long-dissipated ocean. There are circling hit squads made up of foxy gymnasts, itching to slide a hot pink katana up your nose. And then, at the centre of it all, there is General Knoxx, a suicidal cold warrior, willing you ever onwards, urging you to close the gap and finish the job.
They get downloadable content at Gearbox. It's more than a contractual obligation to this team, more than a wearisome way to keep an old disc in everyone's drive. Many said that the original Borderlands was a little sketchy around the edges; the developer seems to agree. The studio's using the post-release vacuum to provide the mission drops and additional modes that everybody expects from an 800-Microsoft-Point care package, naturally, but it's doing something else, too: turning DLC into a kind of second pass, layering in the detail, and sharpening the focus.
So you're back on Pandora. What's changed? Someone wants to kill you, for starters. Someone always has in Borderlands, of course, but this time it's personal. Two minutes into the game's first real mission, and you're knee-deep in back-flipping Crimson Assassins, fronted by Vulcana (I killed her super-quick, incidentally, and I didn't have a pen nearby, so I can't be entirely sure that was her actual name).
Vulcana: you were, like, totally hot. I dug the shiny black bodysuit, the sultry voice and the nimble moves. It's too bad I had to set you on fire. Worse still that you didn't have any loot worth pinching afterwards. Oh well. XOXO.
The Secret Armory of General Knoxx isn't all about raiding sexy corpses, of course - although, frankly, they had me at hello with that one. Borderland's third DLC instalment is the biggest yet: a decent chunk of adventure, continuing the main story arc as it pitches you into a guerilla war between the invading vanguard of the Atlas Corporation who want to take control of the planet and, on the opposite side, Athena, a rather prickly hottie would really rather that didn't happen.
Spearheading Atlas' mission is the General himself, a winning combination of weary one liners and hulking mech suit, and there are plenty of cheery cameos too. (Gearbox has clearly been keeping an eye on which members of its oddball cast has gone down well with the fans, so resident grease monkey Scooter is back in an expanded role, and Moxxi, the sad-eyed china-doll psycho from the Underdome expansion, makes a devastating curtain call.)
As a very smart acquaintance of mine pointed out quite recently, the setting of Borderlands is actually pretty interesting: a nasty backwoods planet where the population is forced to rely upon the good favour of a handful of villainous megacorps who import everything of value from off-world. Now it seems that, with the Vault business out of the way, Gearbox is starting to experiment with the universe it's created. The boxed game had a habit of making you feel a little irrelevant at times, and as the assassins on your tail suggest, that's all changed here. Because of what you did at the original game's climax, you're Atlas' number one target now. Finally, after months of levelling, you're allowed to take a central role in events.
It's not just a narrative experience, however. If you're after the stats - and, since this is Borderlands, that would be totally appropriate - The Secret Armory clocks in with over 40 new missions, three new vehicles, a bumped-up level cap of 61, a new class of rare weapons, and a brace of new enemies and maps.
The new maps are amongst the best so far. Focused on T-Bone Junction, a figure-eight of tarmac with a surprisingly bustling hamlet threaded into it, ribbons of highway are flung out to both the left and right. They're covered with Crimson Lance checkpoints and lead to nice roomy scatterings of desert, perfect for exploring - and even more perfect for accidentally blowing yourself up on rusting depth charges (this landscape was once underwater, after all).
Highways, being pretty linear affairs by design, mean that there's a fair amount of tooling along in a straight line. But even these sections turn out to have plenty of secrets of their own to discover, and while there's a lot of backtracking involved, there are enough side-quests to fill in while you're going from A to B.
They're the ideal spaces to try out the new vehicles, too. Ranging from the flimsy to the brutally heavy, the three new rides add a much-needed element of variety to the game's barren garage. At the high end is the Lancer, a kind of depraved Hummer with a grinning grill stuck on the front - a fearsome, if lumbering, beast that can likely withstand a direct hit from a nuke. Then there's the Monster, a rugged mid-ranger blessed by a fantastic homing missile launcher and enough flame decals and white-trash piping to make it the kind of thing Evel Knievel would probably have piled the kids in for holidays.
Finally, there's the Racer, its exhilarating boost balanced by the fact that it explodes in an awkward flash of boiling metal and bouncing tyres if you so much as sneeze while cornering. You can fling it off the end of a ramp and watch it tumble through the sky for the best part of a minute, though, even if you don't really want to be inside when it lands again.
Granted, all the vehicles have to contend with Gearbox's bizarre physics modelling - in short, the game can never decide whether you're skidding over the surface of the moon in a bouncy lunar rover or trying to cross a large expanse of gravel on a SMEG refrigerator tricked out with skateboard wheels - but there's been a nice attempt to make each car handle a little differently.
If the vehicles are merely OK, some of the new enemies are genuinely fantastic. Those Assassins pop up every so often to keep you on your toes, flipping in and out of shotgun range and leaving attractive crimson slashes across your vision, while the other Lance corps have been boosted by everything from racketeers, hovering overhead and letting loose with missiles, to the Devastator, a gigantic mech that can take a frightening amount of damage while it shreds your health bar in seconds.
Warping into confined spaces, Devastators are a terrifying presence. They still pail beside the towering Drifters, however. Five-storey daddy-long-legs with glowing slopes of brain and a hideous spindly gait, this latest addition to the Pandoran ecology reminds you that the very best enemy design lies outside the realms of mere artistic appreciation because it freaks you out too much to actually look at it. They're fantastically horrible to contemplate, and whenever I heard one pulling itself out of the sand just around the next corner, I found myself wishing I was very far away. Possibly holding a frappucino.
Assassins, Devastators, Drifters and the rest of them provide the supporting cast for the most polished story Gearbox has yet pulled together. Picking up after the final credits have rolled means Knoxx is aimed at level 35 players and over, and a lot of the focus of the central narrative as you take on the General seems to lie with providing the kind of pressurised end-game the original release fumbled somewhat.
It's witty, vivid, and, at times, brutally difficult. The whole thing starts fairly slowly, with a couple of cut-and-paste roadblock-clearing objectives, but you're soon jetting off on suicide missions, stamping out the worst excesses of the local wildlife, gadding around in cable cars, and raiding a high security prison by precision boosting your car through a tiny knothole in a cliff face. Everything's soloable, but it's worth having a friend around for the brilliant final battle with Knoxx, as, with a chum beside you, respawning health turrets switch from cheap trick to smart secondary objective.
Once that's done - take your time, and you can get a good weekend out of it - there's some final content available only to players who have hit the new level cap. It's unspeakably challenging, but it rewards you appropriately.
Meanwhile, some truly wonderful artwork manages to gives the game's caving spirals of primeval highway the spooky grandeur of ancient Egypt, especially when it sticks them next to a bluff topped with the bones of a giant reptile. But whenever the game threatens to become beautiful but sombre, a gimmick - a billboard advertising a mad scientist's lab for rent, or a tatty roadside attraction named The World's Largest Bullet - yanks everything back towards tobaccy-chewin' hilarity. Like GTA, this is a game with more than just a sense of humour; it's a game with an incredible eye for the shrill Technicolor of hick culture.
All of the above is lovely, of course, but what's truly unmissable about Knoxx is that playful sense of evolution. Along with new toys and new objectives, you're buying into the chance to see developers exploring different directions to take their game in, changing its scope and its balance, moving things around to see what happens, and zeroing in on the stuff that looks promising. This is how Turner used to paint (apparently, anyway - I rarely watched), and it worked out pretty well for him.
It's working pretty well for Gearbox, too. Dr Ned and Moxxi's Underdome may have been about busting Borderlands out into strange new splinters, but Knoxx sees the team returning to the core experience and quietly tinkering. There's more polish - NPCs have lip-syncing, cut-scenes are a little more elaborate - but there's also a sense that you're seeing the future of the franchise take shape, and that makes for a dazzling combination.
The truth is, when it comes to DLC, nobody is doing this stuff as well as Gearbox's team at the moment [apart from Capcom, perhaps - Ed.]. And they just keep getting better at it all the time.
9 / 10