When Gearbox Studios announced Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, a fantasy-themed Borderlands spinoff, during this week’s Summer Game Fest, it anticipated fans’ comparisons to the Borderlands 2 DLC Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. But Gearbox clarified that while Wonderlands would keep the same conceit – Tiny Tina is the dungeon master of a game of “Bunkers and Badasses” and is constantly changing the game around the players — Wonderlands takes place in an entirely new world with new characters (other than Tiny Tina) and incorporates new battle mechanics, like spellcasting.
With Wonderlands so obviously taking cues from Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, one of the best and most impactful DLCs of all time, I’m worried that Gearbox is doomed to repeat the same mistakes it made with Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and Borderlands 3.
Gearbox has a tendency to reuse and recycle the same Borderlands concepts and characters that previously resonated with players. Handsome Jack, the baddie in the extremely well-received Borderlands 2, is considered to be one of the greatest video game villains; knowing this, Gearbox constructed the less-well-received Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel around Jack’s origin story.
Though The Pre-Sequel arrived after Borderlands 2, it wasn’t the third main-series game that fans were looking for. That arrived in 2019 under the (apt) name Borderlands 3, which faced the titanic task of living up to the narrative and gameplay heights of Borderlands 2, not to mention almost seven years of player anticipation. Sure, the game was fine, but that was the problem — it was just fine, not amazing.
Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep was a different story, though; there’s nothing quite like it in the franchise. For most of Borderlands 2, players are stuck on Pandora, which has very similar-looking landscapes and enemies. By the time you finish the base game and all the other DLCs – Assault on Dragon Keep is designed to be played last – you’re looking for something new. The Dragon Keep DLC not only provides all-new enemies, locations, and weapons (spells instead of grenades!), it presents something that the Borderlands series doesn’t have a lot of: Genuine emotion.
Besides giving players more of the humor and crazy antics that they’ve become accustomed to over the course of the game, Assault on Dragon Keep explores Tina’s grief over the death of Roland, a playable character in the first Borderlands and a central nonplayable character in Borderlands 2. Tina, refusing to believe that Roland is really gone, makes him a character in the DLC’s universe. The other NPCs, who are playing the game as Tina DMs, are looking for a way to tell her that Roland isn’t coming back … but of course, this is Borderlands, and what should be simple just isn’t.
The storytelling is silly and inane, but there’s something much more powerful and profound lurking just underneath the surface. Unlike almost everything else in the franchise, this aspect of the story isn’t overdone – it’s quiet and understated, a meditation rather than an explosion.
Though it takes place in a new world with new characters, Wonderlands looks to take strong cues from the incredibly positive player reaction to Assault on Dragon Keep. Though I was initially excited at the opportunity to return to a fantasy Borderlands setting, the more I thought about it, the more concerned I became. One of the reasons Assault on Dragon Keep works is because it’s really two different stories merged together – the story of a group of friends playing a tabletop game together and the story of a young girl processing grief. If you take away Tina’s story, the DLC would simply be another reskinned Borderlands adventure – albeit an extremely creative and fun one. What gave the story power was its emotional resonance and the difficult reality it forces Tina to face.
Gearbox likely chose to spin Assault on Dragon Keep into its own game because of its critical reception and acclaim from players. If Wonderlands wants to rise to the level of its DLC predecessor, it has to remember what made the original great in the first place – and it’s not dragons and guns.
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