Platforms: PS3 | Xbox 360 | PC (version tested)
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Gearbox promises that the last piece of Borderlands 2 season pass DLC will be the "biggest yet," and it's certainly set to be the most imaginative by far. Rather than taking us to another Pandoran continent, this new expansion sees Lillith, Brick and Mordekai take time away from Crimson Raiding to play a tabletop RPG hosted by foulmouthed youngster Tiny Tina. Our current vault hunters (Maya, Salvador and co.) are just the player characters in a game within a game - Bunkers & Badasses, no less - set in a grand old land plagued by the Handsome Sorcerer and his hellish minions. Skeleton warriors, longships, dwarves, dragons and orcs are fair game for some serious killing, all narrated by our omnipresent dungeon master who's queen of all she surveys... and makes half of it up on the fly.
Sadly, no-one has the heart to tell her why Roland hasn't turned up to play. We'll explain it when she's older.
But back to the task at hand, we've got a fantasy world of half-timbered hamlets, haunted forests and crumbling castles to look forward to from Tiny Tina's Assault On Dragon's Keep. As our eponymous host commands: "roll for initiative, suckas!"
The fantasy setting certainly gives Gearbox scope to introduce some zany new enemy types based on all our flavourite cliches. Skeleton warriors attack with swords and arrows, while tough Immortal Skeletaurs can only be killed by removing a magic sword from their back, forcing players to think tactically and take the advantage. Hulking golems attack vault hunters and foes alike with rocky fists and fireballs, though can be unbound from their masters by carefully targeting their magical innards. In the aforementioned forest environment, you'll encounter several varieties of Treant and even a psychopathic fairy who temporaily buffs players while encouraging them to commit as many atrocious acts of murder as possible. Dragons and midgets also make an early game appearance, though we can probably expect some knights and maybe the occasional unicorn if Gearbox takes the obvious tack.
However, the tabletop RPG premise is also a neat way to continually break the fourth wall, and provide a hilarious take on what happens when a dungeon master goes into a game session without doing anywhere enough preparation beforehand (I've rolled my fair share of dice and scripted scenarios aplenty, so I definitely feel for Tina here). Upon arriving in a beautiful pristine coastline complete with double rainbows, Tina announces that the "handsome sorceror" has ruined everything, and is quickly reminded that the world should therefore look much gloomier and atmospheric.
Quickly remedying the situation, the skies suddenly darken, the rainbows become looming thunderclouds and the air "smells like butts and dead people." Similarly, Tina panics when introducing players to the singularly boring Forest Of Tranquillity, which instantly changes into the "Forest Of Being Eaten Alive By Trees" in an effort to keep Brick and Mordekai engaged. Watching characters and environments change at a moment's notice freshens up the Borderlands 2 conveyor belt, while also letting us listen to the original characters having a bit of a laugh in the process.
This isn't just an aesthetic flourish, mind, since it also presents some fun gameplay opportunities. Tina's first boss turns out to be an undefeatable dragon who's armour class is nigh impervious, and who always critical hits. After a frustrating minute, the entire party is rendered out of action, before the players threaten to revolt against their draconian (heh) DM. Deciding to give the party a second chance, Tina revives everyone and deletes the dragon in favour of a tiny skeletal midget with delusions of grandeur. Though Tina's narration won't be dynamic in the vein of Bastion, it certainly helps to make Tiny Tina's Assault On Dragon Keep feel totally distinct from the original game and its subsequent expansions.
We can also expect plenty of cameos from our favourite characters. As an example, the sensational Mr Torgue interrupts the game session with a call on Tina's mobile, demanding to become a character in the game who he voices via speakerphone. A creepy gatekeeper suddenly transforms into the musclebound gunsmith, who proceeds to order players around on some insanely badass, totally nonsensical and tone-killing objectives before being hung up on with extreme prejudice. Tiny Tina's Assault On Dragon Keep is already laugh-out-loud funny, and potentially a high point for the already hilarious franchise.
An hour was barely enough to scratch the surface of Tiny Tina's Assault On Dragon Keep, so many questions remain unanswered. Promising the most extensive DLC campaign yet is all well and good, but delivering on that is another matter entirely, not to mention ensuring that it feels fresh throughout multiple playthroughs. I daresay that some players will be annoyed that the campaign won't explore more of the story or attempt to flesh out some more of the universe rather than creating a self-contained spinoff (though, of course, character progression will be persistent).
What we can tell you, mind, is that Tiny Tina's Assault On Dragon Keep feels vibrant, fun, referential and totally new. For fans of Borderlands 2 seeking something fresh to get stuck into, or looking forward to ending the season pass content on a high note, we reckon that Tiny Tina's Assault On Dragon Keep is probably going to do the business. Naturally hold off on a purchase until we can give it the full review treatment ahead of June 25th.