The longer I’ve had to sit with it, the less I’ve come to like Borderlands 3. Because Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is a Borderlands game at a fantasy LARP, I feared I’d feel similarly about it too.
My problems with Borderlands 3 run the gamut from the obvious — its attempts at ‘humour’, most of its characters are irritating screamers — to deeper issues with its core design and approach to endgame content. But there’s a lot I like about it too. Maybe I should start there.
Roll for initiative
The first thing Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands gets right is it actually tells a few good jokes. They’re not all thigh-slappers, I don’t want to oversell the level of comedy on offer here. But I will admit that, on one or two occasions, there was a line that got a quick laugh out of me. Much of this can be attributed to Gearbox bringing in high-calibre comedic performers to help sell its punchlines.
Tiny Tina herself remains an unfiltered glimpse into the id of actor Ashly Burch, who has played the character since she first appeared in Borderlands 2. Anyone who has seen Burch’s old YouTube series Hey Ash Watcha Playin’? can attest to her comedic prowess. It’s something she doesn’t get to do as much, now that she’s landing roles like Aloy in Horizon: Forbidden West and Mel in The Last of Us Part II.
Andy Samberg (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Will Arnett (Arrested Development), and Wanda Sykes (Ice Age) all elevate their characters beyond the standard Gearbox-isms in the script.
The game is also mercifully absent a Claptrap stand-in, save for Paladin Mike. A friendly knight in shining armour played by transgender actor Ciarán Strange, Mike is a chatterbox you don’t automatically reject. The difference is in the framing. Claptrap is a mildly pathetic moron. The characters in the world are annoyed by Claptrap and so he annoys you too. Paladin Mike is your friend, a comrade in arms. And he speaks in a pleasant Cockney accent.
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands retains Borderlands‘ now-familiar character and inventory screens. With each level up, you’re given a skill point and a hero point to spend however you like. Skill points are put into a skill tree that will provide new moves or substantial buffs to existing weapon stats. Hero points are used to manipulate your character’s base stats.
Because Wonderlands is based on Dungeons & Dragons, it uses a set of base stats for each character similar to a D&D character sheet. These stats will your chance of success at certain moves. Increasing your dex improves your critical hit damage. Buffing constitution will grant you a bonus to your health pool. I haven’t had a chance to blast through all the classes and try out different builds just yet, but the synergies I’ve seen so far have been promising. Borderlands 3 had a design issue where it locked you into one of a few upgrade paths. Wonderlands doesn’t do that. Rather, you choose a class at the beginning of the game and flesh that class out from a slightly larger pool. This nudges the player to start thinking about builds right away, something Borderlands 3 didn’t do.
It’s also quite beautiful, in a way that Borderlands 3 wasn’t able to capture. There’s a sense of scale here that BL3 couldn’t communicate. The lighting is nicer, and its environments are more interesting to look at and play through. The total flip of the post-apocalyptic Borderlands setting to the high-camp high fantasy of Wonderlands opens up a lot of opportunities for Gearbox to create new weapons. The Wonderlands arsenal features a slew of familiar weapons with familiar functions. Some shotguns ricochet on a critical hit and some snipers deal elemental damage on headshots. All stuff we’ve seen before. But some rifles cast wide elemental arcs too, magic crossbows, and more, among the loot pool.
The game also does away with grenades in favour of spells. These are powerful, hip-fire adds that vary depending on your class and base stats. Additionally, your melee has been given its own class of hand-to-hand weapons. Axes, swords, clubs, and daggers are the order of the day there, providing another character build opportunity.
Where I feel Gearbox is still letting itself down is in its devotion to the now ancient Borderlands design methodology. It’s still relying on hidden triggers and forcing the player to wait for conversations to end before allowing them to proceed. The strength of the voice cast makes this less infuriating in it was than in BL3. Nevertheless, unskippable chatty NPCs refusing to open a door until they’ve finished their spiel drive me into a rage.
Another bugbear: I still have to return to quest giver NPCs to finalise a quest, even though I have a … radio? In a fantasy world? I don’t know, Tina doesn’t really explain it. Regardless, people in both the Borderlands and Wonderlands universes can communicate across large distances via what is essentially a walkie-talkie. Can we not use that radio to agree that the quest is over? Most modern games that rely on a mission-based structure will end your active quest the moment you complete your goal. In most cases, there will be a few new ones you can pick up while you’re in the neighbourhood, no matter where you are. GTA does this. Far Cry does this. Assassin’s Creed does this. In Borderlands and Wonderlands, Gearbox wants you to go all the way back to the quest giver NPC for turn-in every single time. It’s an unnecessary, outmoded extra step and it’s time for Gearbox to let it go.
Let’s talk about the late- and post-game, which has always been one of my primary gripes with the Borderlands series. Let’s say you’ve reached the end of the game, completed the story, and now you’d like to try out a few different builds. In an ideal scenario, that would be as easy as starting a character and skipping through the story. But the archaic design constraints underpinning Borderlands don’t allow for that. For every build you want to try out, you’ll have to run the entire story over again, and almost none of it can be skipped. Worse, important character progression milestones are story-gated, meaning you have to hit specific moments in the campaign before they’ll unlock.
Wonderlands, thankfully, seems to have recognised the seething hatred for Borderlands 3‘s unskippable cutscenes. All of Wonderlands‘ cutscenes appear to be skippable, even on your first playthrough! That’s a huge step in the right direction! Let’s keep it going!
It’s still got a way to go if it wants to fully encourage fast and efficient build experimentation, and I like the direction we’re moving in. But I think I can solve Wonderlands‘ problem here quite quickly: Diablo 3‘s Adventure Mode.
When Blizzard released Diablo 3‘s 2.0 update many years ago, it included a new option for players who had completed the story and just wanted to experiment with builds or grind for legendaries. This was Adventure Mode, a version of the game that switched off all the story-gates. Instead, players were given a set of objectives to complete across each of the game’s five chapters. These objectives could be completed in any order and, once all of them were ticked off, players were rewarded with a major loot haul. Players loved it because they could finally play the way they wanted, and at the tempo they wanted, without the game getting in their way. They could quickly farm bosses with a low chance of a rare drop. They could home in on specific gear to complete specific sets and further curate their builds.
This is literally all Wonderlands needs. Add a version of this one mode and you wouldn’t believe how quickly the bulk of my problems evaporate. Instead of forcing me to talk to your unfunny characters, sweep them out of my way. Instead of having them hold a door shut until they’ve finished speaking, have it open for me when I arrive. I’m happy to play through the story once! But then get out of my way.
Wonderlands’ endgame content makes another move in the right direction by introducing The Chaos Chamber, a randomised dungeon with a randomised challenge. The Chaos Chamber takes between 20-30 minutes to run and rewards successful players with a big loot payout. It’s no Adventure Mode, but I also don’t have to talk to anyone and it gives me something I can grind out quickly, so I’ll take it.
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is actually the best Borderlands game, in my opinion. Everything about its presentation and world appeals to me much more than anything on Pandora. Its voice cast is fizzy, the shooting and looting are as strong as ever, and you can feel it strain against the design fundamentals that hold it back. Tiny Tina is still the best character the series has ever produced, and though the game doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as the Dragon Keep expansion, it nevertheless gives Burch space to put in a strong performance.
But the series has now reached a point where it can’t continue without serious reevaluation of its core design. The structure that defined the series in 2008 now feels terribly dated. I live in hope that any future instalments will more fully bring Wonderlands and its idiot sibling into the modern era.