Borderlands‘ sense of humor has always been a celebration of geek culture. It’s a world full of allusions that are somehow equal parts reverence and satire, and is perhaps as well known for that as it is for its gun variety, psycho goons, and over the top freeze frame character introductions. The latest DLC, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, is no exception to that rule. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll do morally questionable things like forcefully intoxicate dwarves in order to crush them and steal the beard-hair from their cold, dead bodies. You’re going to have a wicked good time playing this, and for a good 10 to 20 hours at that.

As a vault hunter you’ve saved the world twice over now, and yet, as impossible as it seems, life somehow still goes on in the Borderlands. The villains have been vanquished, but so have many friends – including some that were very dear to our favorite preteen psychopath, Tina. In true geek fashion, Tina is dealing with her grief by turning to the one place she knows she can hide from a truth that she’s not yet ready to face: Her imagination. Who hasn’t been there? And so our plucky survivors trade guns for dice and set off to start their first campaign of Bunkers & Badasses. This of course makes Tina the Bunker Master, or B.M, a title only to be invoked in the most dire of circumstances.

Your journey starts by drifting into the Flamerock Refuge Docks, a land blighted by an evil and suspiciously handsome sorcerer. The sorcerer’s tower looms menacingly over the small local village, and it’s your quest to defeat him and restore peace to the land. Your adventure will be a veritable theme park of fantasy references ranging from Lord of the Rings to World of Warcraft as you set out to rescue the ubiquitous kidnapped princess. Ordinarily such a derivative plotline might feel clich√©, but the game is self aware enough to make it feel like an inside joke, turning what could have been boring into something quite funny instead.

You’ll encounter a host of new warriors and weapons to mow them down with, though the new mix of weapons isn’t anything to write home about. Orcs, dragons and all manner of classic undead minions will slink out from the shadows to ambush you in force. Some of them will spring from unexpected places, like the Mimic that resembles a chest until you try to loot it: The worst nightmare of someone hooked on that box opening kick. It’s similar to the main game’s loot midgets, but slightly more terrifying as the container itself morphs into a creature resembling the classic 80’s version of The Thing.

This is the fourth expansion in this game’s lifespan, so if you’re still playing it, then chances are you’re a pretty high level by now, and you might be thinking of playing this DLC in Ultimate Vault Hunter mode. If that is the case then you should know that, just as with real D&D, it’s dangerous to go alone. You’ll want to fill out your party with reliable friends, otherwise it’s easy to fall prey to the many wraiths and monsters that lie in wait for you along some darkened path. If you’re really going for the heroic vibe then you may want to jump in using a previous playthrough and squash all the skeletons into a fine bone chalk. Should you choose to have your first taste of this journey alone with a character at max level, at some point you’ll begin to wonder whether the creators intentionally worked constant death into the game in order to reinforce its explicitly morbid theme. While this added difficulty doesn’t diminish the enjoyability of the experience, it definitely slows down your progress considerably, a challenge many endgame players will likely welcome.

A more assuredly intentional and pain-free use of game mechanics, however, is the presence of live environmental transitions. The world you see around you will change dramatically in response to the discussion going on between the vault hunters playing B&B: In one moment an invincible, towering behemoth will loom over you, only to be replaced at the last moment by a more manageable C-grade monster, as Tina is reminded not to kill off the entire party before the campaign has even begun. Though this effect doesn’t ultimately alter gameplay at all, it does tell a better story, and it’s very entertaining to watch.

On its most basic level, this expansion is about your avatars playing with avatars of themselves, which you in turn also control. You’re living in a reality three layers deep; Gameception, if you will. What’s more, the game adds context to that depth by making an effort to remind you of the way in which you relate to your fellow gamers, touching on subjects like inter-party dynamics, getting along with strangers in persistent shared worlds, and the mainstreaming of geek culture.

Quite frankly this is the best Borderlands content released to date, both in terms of playability and wit. It gives you the same slapstick humor and haphazard violence you’ve grown to love and still touches on the very real and unique ways that we can use games to work through issues we may not feel able to confront in our real lives.

Bottom Line: Extremely funny and surprisingly poignant, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is the Borderlands 2 magnum opus.

Recommendation: A must play for fans of the franchise and anyone that revels in their love of escapism.

[rating=5.0]

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Borderlands 2
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Gearbox
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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