Platforms: PS3 | Xbox 360 | PC (version tested)
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Of all the enemies we've faced in Pandora's dangerous wastes, the Psycho is easily the most famous. Gracing both games' box art and constantly burbling all manner of vaguely threatening nonsense, these depraved lunatics charge into combat with no self-preservation whatsoever, gleefully bringing sharpened sticks to a gunfight and setting themselves on fire at the slightest provocation. They've certainly got a bit of a reputation for brainlessness, but you can't argue with the results.
However, after getting hands-on with Borderlands 2's latest vault hunter, it appears that we've grossly underestimated their intelligence. Krieg The Psycho may look every inch the tactless goon, brandishing an enormous chain axe and continually bellowing all manner of insane epithets at the top of his lungs, but he's an advanced character designed for Borderlands veterans looking for a nuanced and surprisingly tactical gameplay experience.
In essence, Krieg boils down to one simple rule. To defeat your enemies, you'll need to hurt them as much as possible... and go out of your way to hurt yourself in imaginative and masochistic ways. Before tactically - and voluntarily - setting yourself on fire.
Buzz Axe Rampage is a killer name for an action skill and broadly does what it says on the tin. With massive axe in hand, Krieg charges around at a constant sprint and deals out massive melee pain to anyone stupid enough to stand their ground. Holding the left trigger allows him to aim and throw the blade - apparently he has an unlimited supply - which can damage and stagger foes at range.
This sounds fun (and it is), but it comes at a price. Buzz Axe Rampage has by far the slowest cooldown of any action skill, but the recharge rate increases when you take damage. You'll therefore need to indulge your masochistic side to avoid spending several laborious minutes without your game-changing ability, and voluntarily put yourself in the line of fire. It's an entirely new way of playing that takes some getting used to.
The idea that getting hurt is a good thing is further underlined by Krieg's Mania skill tree, which focuses on heavy melee. Krieg can start earning powerful damage-buffing stacks by taking health and shield damage, an initially counter-intuitive concept that makes some skills seem totally pointless at first glance. For example, you can optionally enable friendly fire, or delay your shield's recharge time with Feed The Meat. Erm... what? When you realise that skills like Empty The Rage can massively boost your damage when your shields are down, however, this tree starts to make a macabre kind of sense, and allows you to experience Borderlands 2 in an advanced new way.
Mania's one-point wonders include Light The Fuse, which replaces Fight For Your Life with an entirely new downed state. Once his health depletes, Krieg whips out two stacks of dynamite, ramps up his movement speed and can optionally detonate by holding the X button. Should you kill anyone in the ensuing blast, you're back in the action. Not only is this a fun new take on the tired out of action mechanic, but it's potentially a viable combat that will make veteran players . The top-tier skill, Release The Beast, takes this idea to its illogical conclusion by letting Krieg transform into a hulking badass Psycho when his health hits 33%. It takes some time to get used to, but after the paradigm shifts, you'll develop a sense of intelligent recklessness. A pool of slag becomes an opportunity rather than a dangerous obstacle, and an impossible situation becomes an orgy of delirious destruction.
Krieg's Bloodlust skill tree riffs on the Mechromancer's Anarchy skills, in that it's all about accruing stacks of bloodlust that improve your damage output. It's a simple enough premise, but upon closer inspection, you'll have to carefully balance fire rate with the raw numbers. Bloodlust decays quickly and can be recharged with each individual bullet impact (1 stack per damage impulse) rather than damage, while many of the skills require you to carefully use certain weapons to increase the power of other weapon classes. For example, dealing melee damage can temporarily amp grenade damage for a short time, meaning that you'll need to constantly perform feats of mental arithmetic to maximise your slaughter potential.
Bloodlust's one-point wonders are utterly gorgeous. Blood Axe Bombadier adds a stick of dynamite to Krieg's Buzz Axe, turning its ranged attack into a home-made bomb, while the wonderfully-named Bloodsplosion! has to be experienced to be believed. Every enemy you kill creates a massively damaging explosion based on the element they were killed with, and can set off insane chain reactions that reduces entire hordes to a mass of slag, electricity and kibbles. Satisfying is an understatement, and getting caught in these blasts works wonders for your Mania skills.
Finally, the Hellborn skill tree takes inspiration from the burning Psychos that you'll meet across the Pandoran wastes by turning you into one. In another example of risk vs reward mechanics, the basic skills give Krieg a chance to light himself on fire when he inflicts fire damage on foes, which in turn confers him powerful buffs to damage reduction and defence (and even more self-inflicted damage for the Mania skills). The Hellfire Halitosis one-point wonder overrides standard melee attacks with the ability to breathe fire, which is as awesome as it sounds, though it pales into comparison next to Raging Retrubution that sends homing fireballs speeding off against your attackers.
In essence, you'll keep setting enemies on fire... which sets you on fire... which allows you to more easily set enemies on fire... and continually feed your pyromania in an insane never-ending loop of pain and pleasure. The three skill trees also constantly intertwine, with Mania and Bloodlust skills all earning you stacks the more damage you take and deal, all building up into a masochistic, sadistic wheel of endless torment as Krieg shouts vile obsenities to no-one in particular.
Sounds fun? Well, that's because it is. If you're looking for a surprisingly advanced and deep new take on Borderlands 2, or an excuse to play through the campaign again in a totally different way, the Krieg vault hunter DLC could well be a worthwhile investment.