With launch looming, we've played through a chapter of Gearbox's upcoming fantasy looter-shooter.
I'm one of those people who believe that assuming Gearbox doesn't do something disastrous to the core looting and shooting Borderlands experience, the developer can crank out new titles in the franchise as they please and they will consistently remain fun to play. The loop of swiping some ridiculously overpowered firearm off the ground to pump crazy damage numbers into unique and daft bosses is a system that is and has been fun to sink countless hours into ever since the original game debuted over a decade ago. Tiny Tina's Wonderlands is an interesting and illuminating case study in this regard, as this game is similar but also different in lots of places, and this has become apparent following the hours I've spent playing, and replaying the fourth chapter in the title as part of a recent preview opportunity.
First of all, I'd like to make it clear that the Borderlands' identity remains prominent in this title. The gunplay feels as high-quality, fluid and similar to what was delivered in 2019's Borderlands 3; the looting system, while featuring new weapons, such as fully automatic crossbows, and modified manufacturers to get to grips with (i.e. Dahlia instead of Dahl, or Blackpowder rather than Jakobs) is fundamentally familiar; and the general humorous tone of the series is once again a major point. But, as this is a title that seems to share a lot of its inspirations from Borderlands 2's Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep expansion, the gameplay is set in a fantasy world, and with that comes all manners of new allies, enemies, locations, class types, and even gameplay mechanics.
What I mean by this is that you have guns, unique classes with varied abilities (which I'll talk more about in a moment), shields, and skill points systems to build all kinds of intricate characters: the usual tropes of what makes a Borderlands game a Borderlands game. Tiny Tina's Wonderlands builds on this by bringing along magical abilities to fit into your builds, in the place where grenades and grenade mods would usually be. Essentially, this means they aren't much more than another way to simply chew through anything that stands in your way, and gives the player another button to press to unleash a devastating attack or aid in making you a more lethal and effective combatant. From my time with the preview build I've casted fireballs, homing ice projectiles, lightning bolts, you name it, it's probably a spell with some bizarre and colourful animation.
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Magic is an interesting addition to the game but also not a hugely important one from what I've seen. The Borderlands' shooter gameplay is still the primary aspect, magic is more just an extra serving that helps to bring together the fantasy nature of the game itself. And this extends to a few other areas such as the customisation process, which now includes melee weapons (axes, swords, clubs), and even rings you can slot on each hand to provide a few other minor bonuses to your character in a similar vein to other items. For example, they might raise health by 2% and movement speed by 3%. They're all new additions to the game that feel less like a Wonderlands-specific feature and more of a teaser of what the future of Borderlands' customisation will look like in future games.
To an extent, this is a similar case with the class types, at least the ones I've been able to test. The Graveborn is a typical companion-type character, meaning it has a bunch of skills that makes it more lethal fighter (such as an array of vampiric lifestealing upgrades), but it's largely identified by the floating skull-like Demi-Lich entity that follows it around and attacks enemies wheely-neely. Add to this the Stabbomancer, which as the name suggests, is framed around stabbing people for the most part. This character can cast a giant spectral spinning dagger to hack away at enemies, or can instead favour a stealthy cloaking ability that will ensure any damage the Stabbomancer lands is a critical hit, albeit for slightly less damage than a regular critical hit. To someone who's clocked in an ungodly amount of hours in Borderlands 2, and a chunk of time in Borderlands 3, it's hard to miss the similarities that the Graveborn and the Stabbomancer have with FL4K and Zer0, respectively.
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While there are also familiarities with the enemies themselves (for example, Wyverns are clearly inspired by Rakks), there are a bunch of new enemies to have to throw down with, including the land shark Hammerheads and the various types of Goblins. You can tell that Gearbox has removed any remaining limitation on what sort of monstrosity they can bring into the world of Borderlands, and in Tiny Tina's Wonderlands you can expect all kinds of new challenges in this avenue, even if Assault of Dragon Keep players will already be versed in tackling the different types of skeletons that also make an appearance.
For me, this is the general theme of Tiny Tina's Wonderlands: familiarity. This is a game that from what I've played feels like it belongs in the franchise, and also brings a highly enjoyable, replayable, and hilarious experience to boot. It doesn't matter how many times you do it, working with Claptrap on a crafting quest that goes horribly wrong with you instead expected to fulfil the quest goals by looting enemies and passing the items off as your own, a process Claptrap pokes fun at by saying, "let's be real, we both knew it would come to this," or instead attempting to seduce an evil wizard for him to reply, "do I look like I smash?" is peak Borderlands humour that well and truly hits home.
I can't speak for the overworld, the other character classes, or how the rest of the storyline will alter this opinion right now, but if you are a fan of the mainline Borderlands games, then Tiny Tina's Wonderlands is shaping up to be yet another daft and thoroughly entertaining looter-shooter packed with intricate character development and enthralling gameplay, and for that reason, I can't wait for launch.