Borderlands 2: Captain Scarlett and her Pirate's Booty review
Five reasons why Gearbox is getting DLC right.
Downloadable content and the concept of the "season pass" are now apparently permanent fixtures of the gaming landscape, even if nobody exactly welcomed them with open arms. It's so easy to focus on the negatives of the situation - the price gouging, the on-disc DLC, the sly doubling of the price we pay for our games - that the good stuff doesn't get celebrated.
Know this much: Captain Scarlett and the Pirate Booty is good stuff. The first downloadable expansion for the wonderful Borderlands 2, it should serve as a template for other developers and publishers to follow.
How does it achieve this lofty goal? Let's break it down.
1. It's perfectly timed
With so many other things to grumble about, the importance of timing an add-on often gets overlooked. Some games shovel their add-ons out as soon as they launch, or lock them away on the disc for those who buy more expensive editions, leaving players feeling like they've bought half a game. Others wait too long, dropping downloadable content a year later when most have moved on.
Captain Scarlett's timing, in contrast, is impeccable. Borderlands 2 came out just over three weeks ago, and while the addition of DLC so soon after launch would usually be cause for consternation, in this case fans are genuinely excited rather than wary. Why? Because they're ready for it.
This is a game designed at a deep level to loop around, rewarding continued play. Almost everyone who picked up the game at launch is now on their second play-through, either with a new character or in True Vault Hunter mode. That means discovering new twists on old missions, but they remain old missions. The brilliant nuts-and-bolts appeal of the gameplay remains, but the thrill of discovery has gone. We're just starting to feel hunger pangs for something more, and Captain Scarlett delivers, right on cue.
2. It's the same, but different
This is crucial, and it's a tricky balancing act. You want DLC that feels like an expansion - a natural extension of the existing game - not a random offshoot that drags it away from the gameplay you enjoyed. Captain Scarlett doesn't try to make Borderlands 2 fit into a new genre. It doesn't focus on vehicles and try to squeeze a racing game into an RPG box. It doesn't ditch the levelling and skill trees to become a pure shooter. It sticks with what works, but gives it a tweak.
Some of the differences are purely cosmetic, subtle changes to familiar landscapes that force you to look again. There are plenty of run-down townships across Pandora, yet Oasis manages to stand out, its faded seaside whimsy and rotten boardwalks highlighted by mutant palm trees and pock-marked volcanic rock. Familiar enemies return in new guises. Stalkers dwell here, as do Spiderants and Crystalisks. Sandworms are technically new, but are clearly Threshers with a new lick of paint.
"If you've fallen into familiar combat rhythms, Captain Scarlett will shake you out of them. Just how it should be."
The new sand-skiff hovercraft vehicles could have been a simple reskin of the Runners and Bandit trucks from the main game, but they have their own unique handling style. The slight change in control means your muscle memory isn't allowed to get complacent. New assets, new physics, new sounds - it may not have an impact on gameplay, but when lazier developers would have looked at their budget and schedule and stuck with what they already had, it shows that Gearbox is willing to invest extra effort even where it's not needed.
It's the human foes who change things the most, however. The lower-level enemies are essentially bandits in pirate garb, but it's a mistake to get complacent as there are nasty surprises to be found. Skull-faced Cursed Pirates will dash in, unleash health-leeching melee attacks, then run away again, rapidly draining your life from a distance. Fast and agile, they're often the last ones left after a battle and it's hard to pin them down in Fight For Your Life. They can be the death of an unwary warrior.
Maritime-themed variations on the Goliath and Nomad models also catch you off guard. Anchormen lash out with their anchors and chains, dealing damage and reeling you in for the death blow. Depthchargers stand back and lob enormous mines with troublesome accuracy, while Whalers throw harpoons. All require a change in tactics, so if you've fallen into familiar combat rhythms, Captain Scarlett will shake you out of them. Just how it should be.
"Captain Scarlett doesn't stack its chips in one pile. It enhances every single one of the overlapping systems tangled up in the marvellous guts of Borderlands 2."
3. It adds to the game at every level
Too often, DLC takes a narrow focus. You want more story missions? Here are some story missions. Multiplayer? Have some maps. Captain Scarlett doesn't stack its chips in one pile. It enhances every single one of the overlapping systems tangled up in the marvellous guts of Borderlands 2. Once you've beaten the story, just like the main game there are two optional raid bosses, Hyperius the Invincible and Master Gee, both of whom are strictly for maxed-out co-op teams to tackle.
They in turn feed into some of the eight new Badass Challenges to complete, opening up a whole new after-game economy based on rare seraph crystals and weaponry. Anywhere that Gearbox could add content, the studio has seized the opportunity with both hands.
4. Gearbox knows exactly what you want
For all the systems and stats powering Borderlands 2, Gearbox understands that what pulls most players forwards is the dangling carrot of increasingly powerful weapons, and Captain Scarlett has been designed to offer an embarrassment of riches in this area. Each map area contains a hidden message in a bottle, which in turn leads to an area where X marks the spot. Find the treasure and you get a rare weapon from Captain Blade, the legendary sea dog whose stash forms the backbone of the story.
Your reward for beating the story is even more generous, a veritable trolley-dash of loot chests brimming with valuable and awesome weaponry. Brutal quick-loading shotguns. Devastatingly powerful and accurate rocket launchers. Vicious sniper rifles. Suffice to say, by the time you return to the main game and the battle against Jack, you'll be packing a lot more firepower than if you didn't take this pirate-themed diversion.
"You're getting an outrageous amount of gameplay for your money."
5. It's really, really big
This is the clincher, and it really can't be stated often enough. Captain Scarlett is a massive expansion, generous in both scope and content. The six new map areas are huge and numerous, filled with secrets and hidden corners waiting for inquisitve players to break away from the narrative path. There are more than 30 missions spread across the campaign story, character quests and bounty boards.
These aren't lazy throwaway quests or leftover scraps from the main game, either. Some are epic in scale. Others are short and perfectly formed. All feel like they've had care and attention spent on them. Those yellow exclamation mark icons are a constant joy, a reminder that the fun's not over yet.
If, for some weird reason, you're the sort of person who plays Borderlands 2 only for the story missions, you're still looking at an experience that's as long, if not longer, than most blockbuster single-player campaigns. I downloaded it at lunchtime and played it solidly through to midnight when I finally completed the Captain Scarlett story - and that still left around half a dozen optional missions still to complete. Add in the additional Badass Challenges and more Vault symbols to find, and you're getting an outrageous amount of gameplay for your money.
"This is a vast, generous offering: a true expansion from a developer that obviously cares."
Captain Scarlett gets so much right that it's hard to squeeze criticisms past its formidable shield. Some of the later missions become a bit too fetch-questy, perhaps, as a horny old hermit sends you scavenging for ECHO recorders then sends you off again to collect a special ore. That's the only point where it feels like the missions are stalling for time and the whirring cogs of the busywork mechanisms that power Borderlands are, briefly, too exposed.
The final boss battle is disappointing as well, a rote mini-game of "hit the glowing weak spots" that has you trapped in a small and bland arena with convenient ammo crates around the edge. It's too much of a 1990s shooter cliché for a genre hybrid like Borderlands, and a clumsy segue into the end credits means that an otherwise excellent adventure limps over the finish line rather than sprinting.
Also, Captain Scarlett herself is a bit of a let-down. Another highly strung psychotic female, she's too reminiscent of existing characters like Dr Tannis and is often overshadowed by the far more enjoyable Shade, the demented, corpse-loving Hunter S. Thompson lookalike who is the sole living occupant of Oasis. In any other game, she'd be a stand-out. Alongside some of Pandora's more fully realised residents, however, she fails to make much of an impression.
In the face of the many things this DLC gets absolutely right, such quibbles are quickly trodden into the sand. This is a vast, generous offering: a true expansion from a developer that obviously cares deeply about its creation, rather than a corporate cash-grab mandated by the boardroom. More please.