Don't call it a deathmatch, says Gearbox. Don't call it Horde mode either. It's just Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot, an epic-length firefight in Borderlands, played to shifting rules and a brass accompaniment of spent casings clattering on the ground.
Borderlands' "role-playing shooter" combination makes it one of 2009's most spectacularly addicting games. But what happens when you strip out the role-playing? Does Borderlands deliver enough of a fix, and the pangs of withdrawal, as a pure shooter?
Loved Madcap Mayhem: If you want long - and I mean long - gun battles, the Underdome Riot is where you need to be. Only in Old Haven on singleplayer did I have a shooting campaign north of, say, 30 minutes in the main game. This add-on sextuples that, if not more. Three very large boards comprise the Underdome, with plenty of cover, camping spots, and alleys and avenues that funnel into useful killzones. The rules also change capriciously, placing a premium on certain weapons, speeding up the combatants, reducing gravity, or requiring certain types of shots for a kill. Gearbox built this to be a very long, very challenging experience and at that it absolutely succeeded. For the firefight itch that only a nonstop shootout will scratch, this is your DLC.
Hated Fifty is the New Zero: Do not, however, buy this if you are looking for another set of missions to complete, because that is not its point. That's fine, but if you take pride in your level 50 character, you're going to feel like all that work amounts to nothing in the Underdome. I'm not talking about having some advantage or getting special treatment. I'm just talking about feeling like you're able to compete. As a level 50 Hunter with a level 47 Soldier as backup, my friend and I battled for a solid two hours advancing no further than wave two of round three in Hellburbia, the first arena. Inviting reinforcements would have just doubled the onslaught facing us. I think it's because once you get that high, every enemy is a 50 and so are you, making it a real immovable object/irresistible force showdown. So my friend switched over to his level 19 Siren, invited me, and then I chainsawed through the hordes. (It still took us a good 90 minutes to clear those first three tournaments.) That's cheating, of course. But Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot leaves no middle ground, and the fact you have to survive 25 consecutive, very tough waves or start all over again will become frustrating because, at some point, you're in this to win it, right?
Payoffs? You Kidding Me? Payoffs?: Motoring through a lesser-level Underdome, yes, I didn't expect to see much loot worth hauling, even for the cash (which I already have, like $US8 million). But for what I could complete at Level 50 I wasn't that impressed with the level 43 weapons dropped at the end of a round. Only a couple of items made it into my active loadout. The "bank" offered in the Underdome's lobby was a little puzzling to me. The extra space to save weapons is nice, but is it really that useful? Maybe it offers a tactical advantage in that you can stick your lesser-used, but still valuable items in there so you're able to quickly switch out weapons and class mods when the rules change, and still have the rest of your gear when you leave. Then, completing the "lesser challenge" for one measly extra skill point, for me, was like seeing the odometer tick up to 1 after finishing Desert Bus. Tackling the "greater challenge" (and even longer) - you'll get another one (1) skill point. Experience does not accrue here like it does in the rest of the game. Fine, you can't have this be a grinder's cheap paradise. But that also means kills also do not count toward your in-game challenges (which pay out experience at milestones) and that's a real pisser to discover.
As the RPG shooter, Borderlands is spectacularly addictive - but fundamentally driving that addiction is the grind incentive and there is no payout for that here. Forget achievements or weapon proficiencies, I was powerfully disappointed to learn my guardian kills did not even register on the internal challenges. I'm already dealing with a character at the level cap, so not getting the experience points is not a big deal. But those at level 20 or 30, however, are probably going to wonder why they're doing this around wave four of the second arena.
Admittedly, this review was one of the rare instances where the mandate to complete a game doesn't serve the intent of the game very well and fundamentally changes the experience it offers. It's clear the Underdome is about the journey - a body-strewn bullet-riddled one - and not the destination. The comparatively paltry bonuses for completing it would reinforce that. But without any meaningful experience gained or milestones reached in combat, there's not much to reap from the process, either. Unless, as the Spider-Man theme reminds us, action is our reward.
Borderlands: Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot was developed by Gearbox and published by 2K for the Xbox 360 on Dec. 29 and for PlayStation 3 and PC on Jan. 7. Retails for 800 Microsoft Points/$US9.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the developer for reviewing purposes. Completed the three tournaments for the "Prove Yourself" mission. Swore constantly.
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