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We head back to Pandora with a first look at the new ‘Borderlands 2’ DLC

Against all odds, Borderlands 2 is going to grow yet again in fall 2013. Sure, the game’s made a crapton of money and there’s no Borderworlds headed our way in the immediate future, but games don’t typically extend into a second year of downloadable content. And yet that’s exactly what’s happening here.

Digistruct box artGearbox Software’s 2012 “looter shooter” is due for another round of DLC drops, starting on September 3 with the Ultimate Vault Hunter Upgrade Pack 2: Digistruct Peak Challenge. A series of pint-sized “Headhunter” packs will follow, starting in October with the Halloween-themed mission-and-a-boss-fight, TK Baha’s Bloody Harvest. We scored an opportunity to try out both packs during a visit to Gearbox’s Texas offices. Read on for some impressions, and be sure to take a peek at our deep dive looks at Borderlands 2‘s story DLC and character DLC when you’re done.

Story/Concept

Climbing Digistruct Peak. The Ultimate Vault Hunter Upgrade Pack 2 breaks down into three basic components: you’ve got a level cap bump up to 72, an entirely new system of “Overpower” levels, and the titular Digistruct Peak Challenge. That last one is a repeatable mission built around sending players through a Crimson Raiders training program. You can tackle it as many times as you like, but it’s best taken on by level 72 characters in Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode, since every successful runthrough of the challenge unlocks the next Overpower level (eight in all).

There’s nothing subtle at all about the Challenge: it’s a straight-up gauntlet. A group of four players – you can tackle the Challenge with less, but it’s designed with full teams in mind – follows a winding mountain path to battle arena after battle arena, facing off against a broad cross-section of familiar enemies. There’s no coming back from death here: if you can’t be revived out of “Fight For Your Life” mode and have to respawn, you’ll find yourself back at the Challenge’s starting point with the entrance locked. You can support your squaddies from the respawn area’s elevated platforms, but you can’t reunite with them until the mission is over. It’s a little like the vanilla game’s Circle of Slaughter, but replace the wave-based arena with a straight-up gauntlet of death.

A harvest of pumpkins and DEATH. TK Baha’s Bloody Harvest is the first of three confirmed “Headhunter” packs. The basic idea with these packs is simple: give players a mission that tops off with a boss; defeat the boss, and you get to add its head to your collection. Bloody Harvest has a Halloween theme, with players paying a visit to TK Baha in Hallowed Hallow. Our old friend from the first Borderlands has seen better days. He’s still very dead, and a bit more desiccated now than he was when we last saw him in The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned. He’s riled up though, because of some jerk named the Pumpkin Kingpin.

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TK wants you to take out this scourge of Hallowed Hollow, but in order to do so you’ll first need to unlock the gate to his pumpkin patch. So begins a relatively straightforward fetch quest that sends you off to explore a series of spooky locations – you know, a graveyard, a ghost town, that sort of thing – in a search for the three pieces of the gate key. You then fight the local blacksmith – a miniboss – for the magical hammer that is needed to assemble the key. A variety of skeletons and pumpkin monsters pop up to fight you (and each other) along the way. The Kingpin himself looks like a giant-sized pumpkin patch that’s taken the rough shape of a humanoid. He’s challenging, but more in the vein of a standard Borderlands 2 boss than one of the fearsome raid bosses.

Gameplay

Overpowering up. Completing the Digistruct Peak Challenge while at level 72 on Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode (ie playthrough #3) unlocks the new Overpower levels. Think of each Overpower level as a standard character level without the skill point. Unlock Overpower level 1 and you can use level 73 gear; max your character out at Overpower level 8, and you can use level 80 gear. Simple, right? What you’re probably wondering is how you actually get your hands on such high-level gear when, even with this new DLC pack, the level cap in Borderlands 2 is 72.

Once you’ve unlocked one or more Overpower levels, you have the option when loading up your Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode game to set the “world” to whichever Overpower level you’ve unlocked. It works the same as it does with high-level gear; a world set to Overpower level 1 is filled with enemies balanced for level 73 play, while a world set to Overpower level 8 is meant for level 80 play. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s the point. Gearbox hopes that fans with hundreds of hours logged will appreciate the extra challenge of climbing the literal and figurative mountain that Digistruct Peak Challenge represents.

A blood harvest of… candy? TK Baha’s Bloody Harvest is standard-issue Borderlands 2 play in a lot of ways. It’s a somewhat condensed mission, but it hits every beat that a fan could want: new enemies, a miniboss encounter, a couple of small puzzles to solve, and a hulking brute of a boss. There’s one additional bonus as well, a Halloween-themed treat that players will only encounter in Haunted Hollow: candy!

Downed enemies sometimes leave behind a colorful candy pickup. Much like the Eridium-eating altars from Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, collecting a piece of candy bestows your character with a limited-time buff of some sort, stuff like faster movement speed or higher weapon damage. It’s not immediately obvious what each piece of candy does, however. You can either gobble them up and try to figure it out, or you highlight the pickup and read its item description, which takes the form of a short, funny rhyme that hints at what the buff is.

Presentation

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Coming down the mountain. When you first walk into Digistruct Peak, you find yourself on a platform overlooking most of the battle arenas in the mission. This is the spawn area, the place that downed players are sent to if they’re not able to break out of Fight For Your Life mode while the challenge is in progress. The series of platforms offers a sniper’s-eye view of the Digistruct Peak’s training ground for Crimson Raiders, a series of winding mountain pathways with sheer death drops on either side and large, open arenas where much of the heaviest combat takes place.

On the ground, Digistruct Peak resembles the rockier areas of Pandora, with some scattered ruins that suggest something once existed here long ago. It is a distinct space, make no mistake; there’s no asset recycling going on here. It’s familiar though; it feels like it belongs in this dangerous alien world, as it should. The early sections of the challenge are much more open and feature fewer deadly drops for you to worry about. Falling off the mountain to your death is still a concern, but less so than it is as you progress further.

Trick or treat. You can feel the DNA of the Zombie Island DLC from the original Borderlands in every shadowy corner of Haunted Hollow. There’s less of a jungle vibe in the Headhunter pack than there was in the earlier game’s DLC, but the ever-present dead-of-night atmosphere and shambling hordes of undead – skeletons rather than zombies – feel immediately familiar. Trees don’t close in quite as tightly as they did on the zombie-infested jungle island, but the two locations are linked by the spooky vibe they both exude.

As you explore Haunted Hallow, you’ll visit a graveyard (‘natch), a ghost town (duh), and spooky windmill (…oooookay), TK Baha’s little shack (woo hoo!), and a possessed pumpkin patch (now we’re talking). It’s a large stretch of Pandora real estate, but not nearly as sprawling as some of the other locations in the game. All of Haunted Hollow is contained within a single load state; there are no interiors or dungeons to explore, no sidequests that we found. It’s a fun little diversion, however, and appropriately Halloween-themed given the focus and release timing.

Takeaway

At this point, you’re either all-in on Borderlands 2 or you’re not. If you’re in, more content is awesome news. The Digistruct Peak Challenge threatens to consume triple-digit hours with its Overpower levels, especially for those that want to max out their character and farm a whole new crop of level-appropriate loot. TK Baha’s Bloody Harvest is much smaller in both scope and potential, but it seems to deliver on the promise of a tasty Borderlands 2-themed treat for Halloween.

We don’t know the pricing yet on any of the Headhunter packs, but we can confirm that they’ll be cheaper than any of the previous story DLC add-ons for Borderlands 2. The Digistruct Peak Challenge pack will cost you $4.99 when it arrives on September 3.