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Exclusive: Upcoming ‘Borderlands 2’ DLC powers you up and sends you hunting for heads

After four chunky content packs, two add-on characters, and an assortment of downloadable character skins/heads, not to mention a core game that can easily consume 50 hours or more, you’d think that Gearbox Software would be ready to move on from Borderlands 2. Nope. There’s another level cap bump incoming on September 3, 2013, complete with new playable content and three more “Headhunter” packs, the first of which is the Halloween-themed TK Baha’s Bloody Harvest, due in October.

Digistruct box artThe September 3 release is much more than a boost to the level cap. That’s there too, giving players the opportunity to reach as high as level 72, but the Ultimate Vault Hunter Upgrade Pack 2: Digistruct Peak Challenge also introduces a new area and mission that links to an entirely new ranking system of “Overpower” levels. We’ll get to that last bit shortly.

The location is Digistruct Peak, a mountaintop training ground for the Crimson Raider. When you first arrive, the slightly psychotic researcher-turned-freedom fighter Patricia Tannis is waiting to give you the rundown on what’s in store. The mission, which is balanced for a full team of four players and takes roughly an hour to complete, winds through a series of twisting mountain paths and open spaces, all of which function as battlegrounds in which you’ll meet the full rogue’s gallery of Borderlands 2 baddies. At first, the types, numbers, and locations of each enemy you encounter is static, but an element of randomness is introduced as your Overpower level climbs higher.

“It truly is a very challenging area,” Gearbox designer Jason Reiss says of Digistruct Peak. “I’m hoping that the fans are prepared for it and willing to take it one step at a time. It’s about learning the area and learning the encounters. Until you get to the higher ranks, when we start mixing it up and add the randomness.”

Even though the new cap is 72, the new ranking system creates an opportunity for players to take on monsters and collect loot rated up to level 80. You’ll have to max out at the new cap first and get yourself to the earlier level cap bump’s third playthrough in order to enjoy the over-leveling in Ultimate Vault Hunter Upgrade Pack 2. “The idea there is you complete this arena and, if you’re at level 72, then you’ll unlock Overpower level 1,” Reiss explains. “You’ll exit the map and when you re-host the game, you’ll have a prompt that will let you decide what Overpower level you want to play at.”

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The entire world is affected when you load up a game set to a certain Overpower level; monsters are more deadly, and they drop more powerful loot. Your skill advancement still caps out at level 72, but the eight Overpower levels allow you to use this higher-level gear. Once you’ve unlocked all of the Overpower levels and jump into a max-level game, you’ll face monsters at level 80+ and find gear rated for level 80 that you can now use.

You’re probably wondering at this point why Gearbox is even bothering with the new Overpower leveling system when the new level 72 cap could just as easily have been a level 80 cap. “If you look at our skill tree, you’ll definitely notice that we’re running out of skill points,” Reiss says. “We’re trying to keep the diversity there. We do want players to level up and get more skills and have a lot of fun with that, but Digistruct Peak adds the icing on top of the cake, pretty much. More challenge, more adventure, more gear to collect.”

“I’m hoping that the fans are prepared for it and willing to take it one step at a time. It’s about learning the area and learning the encounters.”

After the release of Digistruct Peak Challenge comes TK Baha’s Bloody Harvest, due in October as the first of three planned “Headhunter” packs that are all scheduled for release by the end of 2013. There’s no price yet, but we can confirm that these will cost less than previous story add-ons. The basic idea with these content packs is simple: defeat a boss, get that boss’s head added to your collection of wearable heads. These are smaller content offerings than the four previous story DLC packs that Gearbox released. Bloody Harvest amounts to a single, medium-sized environment that’s been built around a fetch mission and the aforementioned boss fight, in this case with the Pumpkin Kingpin. If the boss’s name and the October release didn’t give it away, there’s a Halloween theme here.

A much smaller take on Bloody Harvest was first conceived in 2012 as a Halloween treat, level designer Josh Jeffcoat tells us. It was an idea hatched by Borderlands 2 art director Jeramy Cook and lead creature designer Ruben Cabrera. “They sat down for a couple weeks [to work on the DLC] and then they realized that even if they were to ship it right that second, with the time it would take to get through certification, the soonest it could be released would be about two weeks after Halloween,” Jeffcoat says. “So we were all real sad about that. It went back onto the shelf and just sat there for awhile.”

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Jeffcoat started on the DLC in early 2013, after being asked to finish off what Cook and Cabrera started for an eventual release. He worked on it by himself until he was pulled away to join the Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep DLC team, and Bloody Harvest was shelved once again. It stayed that way until July 2013, when half of the Tiny Tina crew, including Jeffcoat, was tasked with polishing the first Headhunter pack up for a Halloween 2013 release.

“The original version of [Bloody Harvest] was just the pumpkin patch and the pumpkin kingpin. TK Baha was sitting about 20 feet away from the pumpkin patch.”

“It’s actually had a really long history, and because it’s seasonal, we couldn’t just release it when it’s done,” Jeffcoat says. “The original version of it was just the pumpkin patch and the pumpkin kingpin. TK Baha was sitting about 20 feet away from the pumpkin patch and he just said, ‘Hey, my friend kingpin here. He’s messing with everybody. Go kill him.’ And that was it. It was literally [a situation where] two people spent about a week and a half throwing this together as quickly as they could before they realized that there was no way we could do it fast enough.”

The fetch quest, which involves fighting your way through a graveyard and haunted town as you assemble the pieces of a key to the Pumpkin Kingpin’s pumpkin patch, wasn’t constructed until the development pile-on that started last month. The heart of the original Halloween-themed idea is still the focus: the boss fight arena, a zombified TK Baha as the mission-giver, and ability-enhancing collectible candy.

Downed enemies in Bloody Harvest occasionally leave behind a little piece of candy that you can collect for a temporary boost to some aspect of your character. Each morsel of candy is a different color; highlight it in your crosshairs and you see a rhyming item description that hints at what sort of ability boost you can expect. You might recall that the recent Tiny Tina DLC also offered temporary boosts from a series of color-coded, Eridium-consuming altars, and that’s not a coincidence.

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Not a new image, but appropriately epic

“The concept of the candy was originally created by Rob Heironimus, who is actually our grenade guy. He’s the guy that builds all the grenades in Borderlands,” Jeffcoat says. “They originally didn’t look like candy, but [lead writer Anthony Burch] wrote little rhyming poetry to suggest what they do, because we didn’t want to just say ‘gives you [bonus] damage’ or ‘speeds you up,’ because that’s boring.”

“That actually was implemented for the original version a year ago and it sat on the shelf. We took the candy concept and that got rolled into Tiny Tina as those little altars that give you temporary buffs. Those actually came from the Halloween candy, but now the Halloween candy is coming out after that.”

We recently paid a visit to Gearbox Software’s Texas home base for an up-close look at the team’s approach and creative process for DLC. Stay tuned for plenty more exclusive Borderlands 2 content this week, including deep dive looks at how the team assembles both add-on story content and new characters. And if you’re headed to PAX Prime, be sure to visit the 2K booth if you want an early hands-on shot at taking on the Pumpkin Kingpin. 

Check out or next article from our Gearbox tour, Pirates, ninjas, and robots: Expanding ‘Borderlands’ $10 at a time

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