Everything's different but nothing's changed: that's the reassuring message Borderlands 2 is sending with Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon's Keep. It's also, rather fittingly, a reminder that Gearbox's cyber-hick shooting party now resembles one of those special long-running TV shows, like Moonlighting or Community, that can contort itself into all sorts of weird shapes without really damaging the essence of what makes it work.
You know? Regardless of what Maddie and David got up to - apologies, I'm old - you could count on sexy bickering and lots of shoulderpads. No matter where the Greendale study group head on their next adventure, you can draw strength from the fact that Pierce will say something inappropriate, Britta will get self-righteous, and Abed will bust the fourth wall to pieces. It's entirely possible you haven't seen either of these programs. Doesn't matter: what I'm getting at is that some formulas are so reliable you can fiddle with almost all the peripheral elements, and none of it will cause any problems. Everything's different but nothing's changed.
So in Borderlands' latest DLC campaign, rugged space-truckers sci-fi is swapped out for Tolkienesque fantasy, and you won't so much as skip a beat. The Hyperion robots have become orcs and tree-people, ammo crates are replaced by smashable clay jars, and Handsome Jack's transformed into a Handsome Sorcerer, but you still take on the same sorts of missions, pick through the same procedurally-generated shotguns and SMGs - Dragon's Keep is unprecedentedly generous in this regard - and you're still blasting everything you see and then listening out to catch the next meme-savvy one-liner when the dust settles.
Mission objective: Find creature lab.
Oh, Borderlands, never relent. Keep throwing me into weird DLC offshoots where Pandora becomes home to buccaneers, professional wrestlers and armour-plated Bullymongs. Keep sending me up against monster-of-the-week bosses and the deranged lunatics that created them. Keep churning out new continents to add to this dusty, extravagantly devastated world, and keep stocking them with loot chests, Eridium drops, and, well, mission objectives like Find creature lab.
None of which is to say there isn't room for a little experimentation beyond the blood-splattered confines of that lab, of course. A central element of Borderlands is the broad, scattershot riffs the whole thing offers on the lunatic excesses of American culture. Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt shifts the focus somewhat, however, packing you off to a new area called Aegrus to take apart the local wildlife as noisily and destructively as possible.
It's the revenge fantasy of every developer wounded by a ruthless critic: a side-quest in which you send your player off to murder an unsympathetic game journalist. It escalates, of course, as all revenge fantasies do. At first your task is merely to take down the author of a mean-spirited 6/10 review for a game beloved of Mr Torgue, your quest-giver in the second add-on storyline for Gearbox's hick-chic shooter Borderlands 2. (He said it sucked, but then gave it a mark that implies it's above average. KILL HIM.)
When the deed is done, Mr Torgue hears the pleas of the other reviewers at ECHOnet (a wry dig at the seeming herd mentality of game review sites?) and bids you spare them. Until, that is, one makes a barbed remark about the stealth sections in another of Mr Torgue's favourite games while you're making your exit. Enraged with the unique force and immediacy of the angered internet commenter, Mr Torgue sends you back in to kill every last writer, finishing with the final, spindly target known only as Game Critic.
It's an optional, decorative mission bolted onto the side of Campaign of Carnage, but it serves two purposes. The first is to send up the hysteria that surrounds review scores and the tinderbox tensions that exist between snooty game critic and suspicious game fan - a satirical riff on a taboo theme familiar to both Gearbox and its audience. The satire works because of the exaggeration, the suggestion that a 6/10 review is motive enough for a killing spree. It's also there to fill out the character of Mr Torgue, the kind of man that would send a hitman to settle a review score - the personification of a particular type madness, one both remote and familiar.
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.
Dishonored wasn't the only game to get a Game of the Year Edition last week; Borderlands 2 also saw the release of a complete edition featuring all the DLC campaigns and other add-ons, including two character classes, the Mechromancer and the Psycho. Here we present our original review from 18th September last year with, down the left-hand column, links to reviews of all the DLC and some further reading.
If you want to understand the spirit of Borderlands 2, close your eyes and imagine a swamp. In the middle of the swamp is a little shack that sells soda pop and tickets to an alligator zoo, and on the roof of the shack stands a wiry old duffer in denim britches and a dirty cap. He's made wings for himself from rusty trash cans, though, and he's rigged up a rocket engine from parts of an old moonshine distillery and the motor of a 1967 Ford Galaxie. With the squeeze of a jerry-rigged throttle it powers him up out of the swamp and high into the sky, where he tears through the Earth's atmosphere and then bellyflops explosively into the heart of the sun.
Borderlands 2 is still a hillbilly moonshiner sort of game, then, but it's the hillbilly at his canny, tinkering, big-dreaming best. It's the hillbilly at the peak of his powers. It's the hillbilly made majestic.