From tabletop to couch co-op, Gearbox brings a new twist to its well-loved franchise.
Borderlands, it’s a game series that popularized the "shoot and loot" genre of video games. A series well known for being at the forefront when people think of co-op, story driven shooters. Starting life back in 2009 the first game in the series, simply titled Borderlands, was received well by gamers and critics alike. Developed by Gearbox Software and published by 2K Games, Borderlands brought a new feel to the classic RPG style of gameplay. The first game in the series saw you picking one of four characters to play as, each with their own skills and abilities that would help you trek through the many dungeons of vast and dangerous planet of Pandora and score as much epic loot as possible. Praised by many for its fantastic gunplay, stunning and unique visuals and simple but effective item management system, it had succeeded where many Diablo inspired games had failed.
In the almost thirteen years since the first game’s release, we have seen the series expand and grow with five other main story games as well as a RTS game for iOS; Borderlands 2 (2012), Borderlands Legends (2012), Borderlands: The Pre-sequel (2014), Telltale Games’ Tales from The Borderlands (2014), Borderlands 3 (2019) and now finally Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. How has the game changed over those 13 years and how does Wonderlands bring a new twist to a well-established formula? Roll for initiative and read ahead to find out what awaits you in the Wonderlands.
You take the role of The Newbie, a faceless protagonist who has found themselves sitting across the table from the universe’s most dangerous 12-year-old demolitions expert, Tiny Tina. You are joined by your companions Valentine and Frette to play a game of Bunkers and Badasses, this is where the real story begins. In a world full of undead creatures, fearsome bandits and fire-breathing dragons, only one person can stand up to the evil might of The Dragon Lord, you! For you… are the FATEMAKER! Pretty heavy right? You have been assigned this task by Her Royal Highness Queen Butt Stallion, for she can not rule over a kingdom in such turmoil.
Along the way you will meet a wide cast of characters including the Bardbarian Mr Torgue, a group of goblins looking to start a revolution, The Fairy Punchfather and one annoying like robot that can’t seem to stay out of trouble. All the while you’ll be given a running commentary by your bunker mates and Bunkermaster as you travel through the beautiful plains, windy deserts, an ancient necropolis and many more stunning locations. But this is just the beginning, there are dozens of side quests to take on that will keep you busy for hours.
If you're familiar with the Borderlands series already, then you'll already be aware of the core gameplay elements. You shoot, you loot, you gain XP and put points into skills as you level up. However, this isn’t a fully main line game in the series. This game started from a concept from the Borderlands 2 DLC "Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep", a DLC where the game's established characters were placed into a Bunkers and Badasses game. Being a DLC, the most they could do at the time was just put you in a medieval fantasy setting filled with easter eggs from D&D to Game of Thrones to Dark Souls. But where they brought Dungeons & Dragons to Borderlands in the DLC, in Wonderlands they brought Borderlands to Dungeons & Dragons.
Unlike the previous games where you choose from 4 different characters to play as, in Wonderlands you choose from 6 different classes based on D&D classes and you then build your character from there. The classes to choose from are Brr-Zerker, based on the barbarian, Clawbringer, based on the paladin, Graveborn, based on a necromancer wizard, Spellshot based on a combination of basic wizard and gunslinger, Spore Warden, based on the druid, and Stabbomancer based on the rogue.
The character creation returns to the usual RPG style where you spend hours creating the right face, height, build, choosing the right colours for scars and facepaint… only for the game to be completely in first person. However, while you won’t be able to see your character for most of the game, you will show up in all your glory to anyone you choose to co-op with. From here you can choose your background, which will add modifiers to your hero stats. Said hero stats are another new feature based on D&D which consist of strength, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, constitution and attunement (replacing charisma). Levelling up awards you with both a skill point to put towards improving your skills and a hero point which you use to increase your stats to give you modifiers, such as strength increasing how much damage your critical hits will do.
Unlike previous Borderlands games, Wonderlands has an overworld that you use to traverse between the different dungeons. This takes the form of an explorable Bunkers and Badasses map that you can actually walk around on. If you think that the overworld is simply a way of getting to your destination, you would be sadly mistaken. Along with the standard dungeons that make up the main locations for the story, there are also bandit encampments to wipe out for XP and loot, there are shrines that give a permanent buff to your characters when you complete them, there are even quests that take place in the overworld as well as collectables to find.
Meanwhile, inside each dungeon area you will find far more than a simple linear dungeon crawl. The main dungeons are their own expansive worlds to get lost in. Each area contains more challenges and collectables to find along with many a loot chest! One thing to keep an eye out for are glowing, golden lucky dice. Taking the shape of a D20, finding them will net you some nice gold and loot. The more you find, the higher your luck will go up netting you better loot with each new die you find. Though with each new area comes new mobs to vanquish, which brings us to the best part of the Borderlands experience.
Much like in the previous titles, the gunplay of Wonderlands is a key aspect of the game. You have the returning weapon types we’ve seen time and time again; pistols, assault rifles, sniper rifles, SMGs, shot guns and launchers, but there is 1 new class of weapon you can find and customize: melee. That’s right! For the first time ever in the series, there is a focus on melee weapons as a true viable option for play. Because of it’s new addition to the series, the first weapon you can actually find and pick up in the game is a common rarity axe. Now while many people would still prefer the gunplay to melee, the strength of these new weapons should not be dismissed. With the right build, it can even be possible to take melee weapons right to the very end of the game.
The gunplay itself is very similar to that of Borderlands 3. Each weapons manufacturer, though with changed names, still have their unique traits. Blackpowder (formerly known as Jacobs) will have the shots ricochet when getting a critical hit. Dahlia (formerly known as Dha) can change it’s firing modes between semi-auto, to burst, to auto. Feriore (formerly Tediore) will be thrown when you reload and the the fallen gun will either explode on contact, or sprout wings and fly around, still shooting at enemies. Stoker, (formerly Vladof) can swap between it’s main gun and an underslung shotgun for some CQC action. Hyperius (formerly Hyperion), will bring up a shield in front of the gun when you aim down site that will give you some added protection. Skuldugger (formerly COV) has weapons with an unlimited magazine size, but runs on a heating system. Finally Torgue (formerly… Torgue) will swap from the usual gun to firing mini rockets at the target.
If you are one of those people who like to question why there are guns in a fantasy setting, fear not because standard guns are more of a rarity in the game. Most of the time the pistol you just picked up is actually a crossbow that will fire bolts into the target that will stick around for a few seconds. Similar can be said for the shotguns, instead of spraying zombies with buckshot, many shotguns with have a container of magic crystals on top that will help fire a horizontal magical wave that can even travel through enemies and objects to hit anything on the other side. Even your equipment has changed to fit the fantasy style! Instead of grenades that you have to replenish from ammo chests, you are instead given spells to cast that will recharge over time. Shields are also gone, instead you are protected by a magical ward. Along with the wards, you can find sets of armour that will give you increased defense and, at higher rarities, buffs to certain class sills, acting much like class mods from previous games. Finally, in place of relics you have access to rings and pendants. These pieces of jewellery will give you different buffs from health and spell regen, to dealing more damage with a certain elemental type.
Elemental damage is back once again. Much the same as previous games, fire is highly effective against health, shock will easily take down wards and poison (corrosive) will reduce armour to nothing. Frost damage makes a return as a mainstay in the series and it’s welcome alongside a new element, dark magic. Dark magic works as a life drain effect, crippling your enemies while replenishing your health.
Finally, each class has their own unique action skills they can use, possessing two skills they can swap between. Brr-zerkers can choose to spin around like a rope and shred enemies with their axe or rage leap towards a group and insta kill anyone at low health, all while doing frost damage. Clawbringers channel their inner fire and slam their hammer onto the ground, erupting a fiery shockwave around them, or they can do their best Thor impression as they hurl an electrically charged hammer at their foes before calling it back. Graveborns can sacrifice part of their life to inflict dark magic on an enemy or they can gain all their health back and start leeching life from others while also losing an increasing amount of health. Spellshots can choose to equip a second spell to their action skill so they don’t have to choose between keeping one spell over another, or they can turn a dangerous enemy into a fluffy little animal. Sporewardens go full ranger and summon a bow that can fire a barrage of arrows or they can let nature do the work and summon a few icy tornadoes. Stabbomancers get to make use of their roguish nature by throwing a spinning dagger at a designated spot or turning invisible and sneaking up on enemies for guaranteed crits. Spoilt for choice and can’t choose what you want to play as? Fear not as later down the line you’ll be given the option to multiclass and get the benefits of both classes you choose.
The first Borderlands visuals can easily be summed up as “every shade of brown”. Being on the desolate planet of Pandora made for very few scenery changes or anything that could standout. For the time it was gorgeous, but many people were more captivated by the cell shaded style than what you were really looking at. Going back to it now makes you wish for a change from the same used desert, cave and junk yard. With each new game, this has changed for the better. Each new iteration brought more vibrant colour to the series. This is no more obvious than in Wonderlands. Wonderlands is the most beautiful and vibrant game thus far in the series. From the roaming fields outside Brighthoof with it’s lush green grass, to the dark and dank sunken ruins of the Drowned Abyss. From the icy landscape of Mount Craw, to the enchanted wilderness of the Weepwild Dankness, every area is still so vibrant. It feels like you’re stepping into another world with each new location.
Extras and Postgame
If you are looking for a quick in and out experience, simply play through the story and not touch anything else. With a story completion of 7 to 10 hours, it’s less of an epic adventure and more of an extended one-shot. If you really want to get more bang for your buck, you can explore and complete the many side quests dotted throughout the game. Completing some quests on the overworld will unlock new locations for you to explore. As mentioned above, you can take your time you collect the many lucky dice to find the best loot, or you can explore the overworld and complete shrines for some permanent buffs. Bosses can be replayed for more of a challenge and award some unique legendary items drop for your troubles.
In the postgame however there is a new area that is unlocked, the Chaos Chamber. Inside the Chaos Chamber the player will be submitted to a rogue-like PvE wave battle. Each new wave the player will have the opportunity to increase the chaos level. Increasing the chaos level will increase the health and damage of the enemies but will result in more XP and far better loot for the player. In true rogue-like fashion, no 2 runs are the same, giving you more variety and new ways to tackle the challenge.
With a legacy spanning almost 13 years, does Wonderlands live up to its predecessors? Yes, but also no. The combat in the game is seriously fun, the guns are responsive and the inclusion of melee weapons was the best thing they have done since the inclusion of Handsome Jack. But it also felt too easy. It was too easy to find a build that would allow a player to breeze through the game on a normal setting, especially being able to multiclass and take the best traits from two classes. It turned most enemies into little more than rats of an unusual size. The game lacked the challenge that the other games provided. While the chaos chamber does improve that, one can only run the chamber for so long before you’re completely kitted out.
The return of established characters is always enjoyable, but only 4 make their return for Wonderlands, though this can be excused as it does seem to take place some time between 2 and 3. This also gives new characters a chance to shine. The Dragon Lord is a return to form for Borderlands villains, though Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2 still stands as the most charismatic-yet-dickish and evil villains in the series. While the same can definitely not be said for the twins in Borderlands 3, The Dragon Lord can stand next to Jack for being evil yet charismatic with dialog that didn’t come off as annoying.
The visuals are second to none in the series, capturing what it’s like playing in a true fantasy world. The one big downside is that there isn’t more to the game. By being more of a spin-off, it resulted in a shorter story with nowhere else to go. Though there is nothing stopping players rolling up new characters with new classes, backstories and skills, giving players much more customization than ever before.
Borderlands has come a long way since those 4 vault hunters stepped off the bus in Fyrestone. With each new game bringing something unique to the table, Wonderlands is a fine edition to a beloved series. It sacrifices the space exploration and epic story of 3 for a sillier and fun romp through a fantasy-filled tabletop game, blending in key elements from the world’s most famous tabletop RPG to give us something new to enjoy solo or playing with friends. What else is there to say except… roll for initiative sukkas!
So, why should you play it?
You enjoy story driven games, even downright silly ones
You like putting in enough time to get your monies worth, while not losing a month to it
You like stunning visuals with a unique art style
Crisp gunplay and weighty melee combat get your motor running
You enjoy both D&D and shooters
You want to wash the taste of Borderlands 3 from your mouth
“EXPLOSIONS?!” ~Mr. Torgue Flexington
Why you shouldn’t play it?
You prefer to play 1 game a month and would rather it last for that time
You prefer serious games, because you are a serious person. With your suit and tie, oh business, business, business
You are actually an undead minion of The Dragon Lord and cannot defy your master
You don’t have the money for it
Mach Speed is a game reviewer and writer whose work features on Qualbert. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com