Borderlands 1 DLCs were mostly a transition period in the writing from the original game to the sequel. It’s kind of interesting to watch them go hard on the comedy in the Dr. Ned DLC (the first one) and then pull back a bit for the other three to reach the level they have in Borderlands 2 (although Mad Moxxi, the second DLC, scarcely has any plot or characters to speak of), but there’s not much more to say about it than that. General Knoxx and the Robolution end up being actual plot points in the series going on, but this isn’t a plot recap, it’s a critique, and so far as a critique of those two goes, it’s got Borderlands 2’s writing but Borderlands 1’s gameplay, and I’ve discussed Borderlands 2’s writing in other posts and other people have discussed Borderlands 1’s gameplay enough that I don’t feel the need to rehash it.
And then the Pre-Sequel had a total of three DLC campaigns, two of which were Mad Moxxi style arena DLCs with even less plot or character than the Moxxi DLC for Borderlands 1, and the third was a Claptrap focused campaign. The Claptrap DLC is not bad, although they made the final boss a three-stage mega-boss where both of the final two stages are raid bosses with ludicrously long HP bars that take like 20 minutes to chew through, which really brought the experience down for me. It’s certainly possible to master the arena and boss attacks to the point where you can win a battle of attrition against Shadow-Trap, but the place for such a difficulty spike is not against the Jungian shadow self of the comic relief character.
So that’s the DLCs of Borderlands 1 and the Pre-Sequel, a paragraph each. Borderlands 2 has more meat on its bones, both because it has a total of five campaign DLCs plus five mini-campaign headhunter DLCs, and because the quality of the DLCs actually varies from one another and the main game in a way that I can hopefully wring two thousand words out of to get another post in the queue. Or at least fifteen hundred? I dunno, I like the gameplay of Borderlands and I’m having fun replaying the series through but I’m also struggling to find enough things to say about it to fill in four games’ worth of blog posts.
Borderlands 2’s DLCs follow a similar trajectory to Borderlands 1 DLCs, in that they start off goofing off with stories so crazy that they can only be considered semi-canon even in the Borderlands continuity (Dr. Ned from the first Borderlands 1 DLC is referenced, but nobody ever acts like Old Haven was actually overrun by zombies at any point). The Captain Scarlett DLC is just a treasure hunt with sand pirates, the Mr. Torgue DLC is a parody of professional wrestling, the Sir Hammerlock DLC is…well, I’m not sure what they were going for exactly, but it wasn’t trying to advance any character arcs or set up any sequels. The closest thing to character advancement we get is that Moxxi shows up in the Torgue DLC and is trying to get back into the arena-hosting business after Handsome Jack blew up her last arena between games (Tiny Tina also makes an appearance, but not in a way that changes anything about her character or her relationship with other characters).
But then Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is all about helping a thirteen-year old girl process the loss of Roland in the main game by way of participating in her D&D campaign, and we see the other characters dealing with it as well. It’s a shockingly good example of a story-driven DLC, in that it has a fun premise that serves as a hook and uses that premise to let the characters decompress from the events leading up to the climax of the main plot. You can see how some of the major characters are processing Roland’s death but if you skip the DLC you’ll still be up to date on all the plot-critical information (i.e. that Roland is dead) in Borderlands 3. I say “shockingly good” because I would not expect the Borderlands series to be this good at it. I’d generally describe the series’ writing as being good enough to serve as a scaffolding for the gameplay and the comedy, and though the comedy only lands about half the time, the gameplay of shooting doods and taking their stuff is reliable enough that I’m happy to play Borderlands games when I want to play a shooter looter. Dragon Keep isn’t a gold standard of writing or anything, but it is much better than that “good enough to let the gameplay win me over” standard that the rest of Borderlands 2 operates on. Go figure.
There is one thing that annoys me about the Tiny Tina DLC: For the first 50%-ish of it Tiny Tina acts like Roland is still alive and that people should wait for him to show up and join the game. Then for most of the second half she has Roland as a character in her game, which she runs to rewrite the events of Roland’s death so that he lives and defeats Handsome Jack with the player. At the climax, Tiny Tina has an outburst where she yells that she knows Roland is dead and she just wants to be able to tell a story where that never happened. This is perfectly realistic, Tiny Tina moves from total denial to retelling a version of events where Roland lives as a way of making peace with his death, but as a narrative thing it means that Tina’s arc only makes sense in retrospect. As it’s happening, she drifts from one coping mechanism to another without any insight into why until the end. The game seems to want us to empathize with Brick, Mordecai, and especially Lilith who don’t know how to address Tina’s denial, but while they’re clearly uncomfortable with, they don’t say anything to Tina about it. It really would’ve benefited from Tina being out of the room at one point (just don’t even worry about why gameplay in a D&D game she’s running continues despite this) so Brick, Mordecai, and Lilith would have a chance to express both their concern and (especially in the case of Lilith, who was closer to Roland than anyone) frustration with Tina’s denial, but also that they’re not sure what to do about it. It would help establish more firmly for the audience that “what the Hell is going on with Tina psychologically right now” is the intended experience and not a failure to communicate a character arc.
But still, getting a nuanced depiction of grief even 80% right is way above the standard for Borderlands writing, so I’m quibbling over details here.
And then the headhunter mini-campaign DLCs released over the course of 2013 and 2014 (after the campaign DLCs, released in 2012 and 2013) weirdly enough follow the same trajectory. Three of them are generic holiday-themed goofing off, one of them involves Moxxi trying to be “the good guys” in a way I guess is a break from previous behavior? But it’s not clear how much of this is meant to be a real character arc (however brief) and how much is just a setup for a Romeo and Juliet story for Valentine’s. The last one, Sir Hammerlock vs. the Son of Crawmerax, actually being an advancement of the plot. That last one has the playable character actually having dialogue (beyond combat barks), advances Mordecai’s character a bit by establishing that he’s raising a replacement for Bloodwing, his pet bird from the first game that got killed in the main plot of Borderlands 2, and also establishes that Lilith thinks the new bird and Mordecai’s relationship with it is adorable. These are minor character beats, but it’s not bad for an hour-long mini-campaign and it’s more than we got out of the other headhunter DLCs.
It’s weird that the DLCs repeat this trajectory of starting off with campaigns that don’t develop the setting or characters much at all and then start to do more character-focused stuff towards the end of the run, not only in both Borderlands 1 and 2, but also resetting between the Borderlands 2 full campaign DLCs and the subsequent run of headhunter mini-campaign DLCs. I don’t know why.
I hadn’t played the Lilith DLC before, since it was released in 2019, seven years after the launch of the base game, as a lead-in to Borderlands 3. It’s, uh…well, it has a lot to do with the characters of Cassius and Vaughn, who are from Tales from the Borderlands according to the internet. Nearly every Vaughn line is a joke and nearly every Vaughn joke is intolerably unfunny. I hear he’s better in Tales, which makes it worse, because it means that there’s an audience who likes this character and here he’s just garbage. Worse, while all the previous DLCs cap out at level 35, this one runs from levels 38-40. If you complete all the DLCs, you’ll probably be in (or even past) the level 38-40 range when you start the Lilith DLC, but your character level makes surprisingly little difference to your power in Borderlands. What really matters is the level and quality of your loot, and the previous DLC’s level 35 enemies drop level 35 guns. This makes the early stages of the Lilith DLC absolute garbage, as your guns are horribly overpowered and Vaughn features heavily.
Things even out a lot once you build up a decent arsenal from drops from the Lilith DLC itself, but the deeper I got into the Lilith DLC, the more obvious it became that the primary purpose of most of this DLC was to serve as an epilogue or even final episode to the Tales game I didn’t play. There’s a side quest where you memorialize Scooter who, wait, what the fuck, Scooter’s dead? I guess Scooter’s dead. Vaughn has some history with this guy Cassius, and we kill Cassius in the Lilith DLC, which, uh. I guess that might’ve had some impact on people who played Tales?
It’s fine that this DLC exists to tie up loose ends from a spin-off game while setting up the third – it’s DLC. This does make me nervous that Borderlands 3 is going to treat Tales as a full game in the series that the audience is expected to be familiar with, especially since Tales apparently killed Scooter, a fairly major NPC from the series. Am I gonna get a third of the way into Borderlands 3 and it’s gonna start exploring the fallout of that one time Janey Springs was kidnapped and converted into a cyber-assassin by the Maliwan corporation and killed her former girlfriend Athena and just sort of expect me to have played the game where all that crazy shit actually happened?
But my major problem with the Lilith DLC is that it acts like Lilith’s leadership of the Crimson Raiders following Roland’s death is in question, and then has her clumsily grow into a role by, uh, making a tactical decision that sacrifices the hub town of Sanctuary and then giving a heroic speech, neither of which are especially Roland-y things to do. The Lilith DLC, both in that it is properly called Commander Lilith and the Battle for Sanctuary and in that it opens and closes with beats from this character arc, is about Lilith growing into the role of leader of the Crimson Raiders. But I never got the feeling that this was ever in question? At the end of Borderlands 2 my impression is that Lilith’s leadership was not at all in dispute, and she certainly doesn’t seem to have any inability to make hard tactical decisions in a hurry (particularly since Sanctuary was fully evacuated when she sacrificed it, so it was a purely sentimental loss to defeat this week’s planet-killing supervillain – it was actually a pretty easy call) nor is there any indication that Lilith’s legitimacy is doubted by the other Crimson Raiders or that she lacks confidence in her ability to lead. And her speech at the end doesn’t really resemble anything Roland ever said.
And if they’d just let Lilith’s presumptive succession of Roland stand without drawing attention to it, they could’ve branded this DLC as a continuation of Tales and it would’ve been way less jarring for all these characters and events I’d never heard of to be getting the spotlight.