It seems oddly fitting, given the ramshackle charms of Gearbox's trailer-park masterpiece, that DLC clearly built around a Halloween theme should creep up on us as we lurch towards Christmas. But if you're expecting an endearing, rough and ready rush-job, Doctor Ned has a lovely surprise in store.
The narrative may hinge, rather smartly, on a joke about lazy palette swaps, and some of the new monsters are clearly reskins, but the game's story is involving and - more importantly - genuinely funny, and the art design is amongst the very best the development team has yet turned out. This is DLC as it should be done, then: a self-contained episodic experience that enhances the main event but wisely chooses to keep itself separate. Like Borderlands itself, it's a proper treat.
Accessing Doctor Ned's island couldn't be easier, with a fast-travel option available from any vehicle-spawning spot in Pandora, even if you haven't unlocked the fast-travel network itself yet. Like a ballistically-inclined funfair ride, there's a level-10 minimum entry requirement, but that appears to be the only real limitation outside of the surprisingly large 1GB download.
It's a delightfully non-broken handling of new content (hello Fallout 3), and the auto-levelling of the island's monsters to match its players seems pretty smart. Wading in with my level-20 Siren - she was level 22 by the end of it all: get me, eh? - saw most of the monsters spawning at around the 15 or 16 mark, ideal for succumbing to a single shotgun critical hit - get them in the head and their brains pop out, rather charmingly, for easy collection - and more than high enough to provide a challenge when the game throws hordes of the undead at you all at once.
The episode takes place in the sinister town of Jakob's Cove, where the mysterious Doctor Ned - "who is totally not Doctor Zed from the last story at all" - has accidentally unleashed a full-on zombie apocalypse on the local populace. From the moment you first emerge into this creepy midnight landscape, riddled with tombstones and grinning jack o'lanterns (how Christmassy!) a nippy little narrative joyride awaits.
While you can race through the main quest chain in around an hour and a half, I urge you not to: Borderlands is essentially a very bloodthirsty form of window-shopping, and it's best when you take your time. There's lots of enemies to blow apart, lots of loot to subsequently pick through, and all of that's even before you take into account a decent range of oddball side-quests from Jakob's Cove's own bounty board. On top of that, the handful of new areas are large and intricate, and there's plenty of lovely crates to waste time searching for as you go about your zombie-pummelling business.
Doctor Ned's island is also very beautiful. From the first time you warp in, with a moody lagoon spread below you and bright lights glowing in the distant stilt houses perched over the water, the rickety moonlit ambience conjures up strong memories of The Secret of Monkey Island, and there are creepy visual delights sprinkled throughout, including the rotting arms of a towering windmill, a derelict hospital stood at the top of a scrubby hill, wedged nicely in front of a huge cinematic moon, and - Ned's own gaff - a rambling mansion slung between the branches of a giant tree.
Like Monkey Island, Doctor Ned will constantly make you laugh, too. From the brilliantly vicious fairytale opening to the hilarious fake-out ending, Gearbox has been fairly haemorrhaging one-liners, and highlights range from learning the fate of a lab assistant who wouldn't stop making popcorn all the time, to a very nasty business with an escape rocket request that may or may not have become tangled up in the wires of some wretched futuristic bureaucracy.
It's worth bearing in mind that Jakob's Cove is a corporate town, owned by one of the in-game weapons manufacturers, and it handles the zombie outbreak in a very corporate manner, offering plenty of euphemistic instruction on how to interact with the "living impaired" as you head off into the wilds. I imagine Microsoft or Apple will behave in much the same way when the end days finally arrive.
Enemies range from standard zombies (slow-moving melee machines), and Defilers who gob on you, rather winningly, to slow you down and impair your vision, to lumbering beasts like the Loot Goon, which comes with a gun-chest strapped across its back, and - at the absolute top of the scale - the Badass Tankenstein, a monster accompanied with a seemingly endless supply of burning oil barrels.
While most of the nasties you'll meet are hardly that functionally different from those you'll find elsewhere in the wider game, they lurch up out of the ground bringing some truly sweet design touches with them, from flattened Herman Munster heads, to rotting beer-can hats complete with grungy piping.
The quests themselves aren't the most complex affairs - a familiar Borderlands muddle of opening gates and tracking down various multi-part targets - and the game has a limited handful of set-piece ideas, such as asking you to keep the horde at bay while a slow elevator/door/elevator door wheezes to clanking life behind you, but such moments are always handled with smart dialogue and knowing asides, and the arrival of a delightful parade of quirky hick characters, all of whom require their heads punched off.
As for distinctive loot, I didn't pick up anything that beat what I already had with me, but it's hard to see how Gearbox could make something really stand out in a game where almost all the loot is distinctive in one way or another already.
Whatever the time of year, then, Halloween and Borderlands is a great match, and if this is the way the game's DLC is going to unfold, I'd happily have a dozen of these quirky, colourful offshoots to plough through. Zombies were never going to let Gearbox down too badly, of course, but I left Doctor Ned's island with the feeling that somebody had taken real care over the whole experience, crafting the story with love and wit.
If nothing else, it's entirely fitting that a game that's always been brilliantly brainless is now genuinely brain-dead as well. Oh, and I finally got that bloody Mario-themed Achievement. SCORE.
8 / 10