Borderlands 2's 'Hammerlock' DLC can't hunt with the big boys

By Steve Watts, Jan 15, 2013 6:00am PST

After the expectations set by the first Borderlands, the downloadable content for Borderlands 2 had big shoes to fill. The first game saw constant improvement in its iterations, as Gearbox figured out how to make the content more inventive, with clever ties to the game world and enjoyable single-serving stories. As Borderlands 2 reaches its third DLC pack, Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt, I'm coming to terms with feeling let down by its progression.

In contrast to the general trend of bigger-and-better packs that followed the first game, Borderlands 2 has had just the inverse slope, becoming a little more ho-hum with each installment. I enjoyed Captain Scarlett, liked Mr. Torgue but didn't love it, and felt mostly annoyed and deflated by Sir Hammerlock. So I set about putting my finger on why.

Hammerlock was one of my favorite new characters from the game proper, so spending more time with him sounded like a blast. But the writing felt lacking, and his prim-and-proper schtick didn't last me through the whole adventure. A not-really-surprising appearance from Claptrap helped vary the tone, but Hammerlock is at his best when he's exhausted by Claptrap's antics, and the two had very little interplay. Worse yet, the villain is unmemorable and his plan barely makes sense--though to be fair, his demise did provide the best laugh of the story.

The settings of Borderlands tend to have a certain visual cohesion, and aside from the beginning of the game, it has painted itself in lush, bold colors offset by dusty tones. Sir Hammerlock's setting, a marsh land heavy with swamps, is gray and murky by comparison. It's all dusty tones, turning the striking visual style into a dull blur, in a very literal sense. It boasts a massive addition to the map, but most of that space is composed of empty plains and swamps. I have to wonder if Gearbox is running out of ways to vary its art style, but surely Pandora has more climates than desert, tundra, and swampland, right?

These are superficial complaints, of course, and as the old saying goes: the play's the thing. Lackluster writing and visuals aren't the end of the world so long as it still plays like Borderlands. But despite my fairly powerful post-game character, the game adds challenges that break its own natural flow. I really can't recommend playing this content alone, as I had to do pre-release.

The new enemies are almost always accompanied by a shaman, well-protected behind a shield and flanked by his allies. This makes him an obvious first target, but the shield can make him soak bullets like a sponge, and one of his powers is to heal his allies. I can't count the number of times I was felled and then moments away from staying in the fight with a Second Wind, only to have the nearby shaman heal and grant Badass status to the target that was just on his last sliver of life.

For a game that introduced the Second Wind concept explicitly to provide a revive mechanic for those who go it alone, this frustrating tactic completely and repeatedly undermines it. Those playing in groups may have a different experience, but I was shocked that Gearbox recreated a fundamental single-player problem it had already cleverly solved years ago.

Sir Hammerlock's big game hunt is a let down, and its problems are so varied that it's hard to identify one primary culprit. Maybe it's a combination of all these factors, any of which would be easier to overlook if the rest were better handled. The DLC offers areas to grind through, levels to gain, and chests to loot. It is still Borderlands, after all. But it failed to surprise me in the ways it should, and did manage to surprise me in botching mechanics that it should have nailed down.

I certainly hope the fourth DLC pack, the last one remaining for Season Pass holders, breaks this downward trend.

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