I can’t put a finger on why Borderlands 3 never clicked with me, but outside of its excellent expansions, I never felt enamored with its world. It wasn’t until my chance to play a few hours of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands I think I unraveled my feelings towards the last numbered entry in the series: the stakes felt too high and were often at odds with the humor Borderlands is known for. Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, on the other hand, is pure fantasy, in more ways than one.
Its story is completely self-contained, and so while I was playing through the quests offered during the four-hour preview, I never got the dissonance I felt from Borderlands 3. Instead I felt exactly how I want to feel when I’m playing Borderlands: invested in the story so much as it helps guide my path to more loot and ridiculous enemy battles. I was really excited by the creative flexing the Gearbox team is able to do within the self-contained Wonderlands universe, and its ties to the Borderlands series gives it that extra sense of familiarity without feeling stale. In other words, as far as Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands is concerned, I’m pretty optimistic about the final product, even if I did run into a few Borderlands staples I’m less than fond of.
Borderlands has always worn its RPG roots on its sleeve, so it’s really awesome to see the Gearbox team go all-in with Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands. If you haven’t been paying attention to our IGN First coverage, here’s a brief to help you orient yourself: Pandora’s most popular tabletop RPG, Bunkers and Badasses, is back, with everyone’s favorite BM (that’s Bunker Master, what did you think it meant?) at the helm. You’re Fatemaker and you’re tasked with stopping the evil Dragonlord from doing his evil Dragonlord things. The most recent preview dropped me right into the start of a quest to liberate a group of goblins from the oppressive shackles of their overseers inside an ore mine. It sounds like it’s pretty serious, but trust me: it’s Borderlands distilled through a Tiny Tina filter. It’s silly and lighthearted, not super-serious and dark.
Right away, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands feels like Borderlands… in Skyrim. I started off at the edge of a massive mountain ridge, with gorgeous green grasses swaying in the breeze. Those grasslands quickly give way to a craggy mountain range inhabited by element-spewing wyverns and other fantastical creatures of the realm. I really liked how it at once feels familiar but also new. The best-feeling parts of Borderlands’ environments—how they branch out to guide you on your path but also leave just enough wiggle room to discover a chest or two hidden out of sight—are here, they’re just given a new fantasy facelift. I played through one part that gave me a distinct Caustic Caverns feel, which is one of my favorite areas from Borderlands 2, but it didn’t feel derivative. It felt like its own thing while still giving me a little tickle in the nostalgia glands.
Aesthetically, Gearbox really knocked it out of the park with Wonderlands. I think it’s the best looking Borderlands game to date. The environments feel really alive, and even the dankest, darkest caves have a vibrance about them. Audio design, too, is quite nice. I couldn’t help but notice the sounds of birds chirping as I explored the overworld. Well, I heard them after I blasted my way through a few waves of Bunkers and Badasses’ uh… badasses. But once they were all dead and the loot gathered, the subtle chirp of birds in the high mountain village was music to my ears.
In my time with Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands’ extended preview, I freed the aforementioned goblins and I also had a run-in with Claptrap, whose exterior appearance has been adapted to fit Tiny Tina’s vision of what a robot would look like in a fantasy world. I definitely enjoyed making my way through the quests, but they do feel… familiar. The classic Borderlands quest formula of move to point A, defeat baddies, smash or shoot or loot quest item, then move to point B and repeat until quest is over is in the preview I played.
I’m happy to say the quests move along at a nice pace, but one of the things I found disagreeable about Borderlands 3 was how each part of the quest tended to get bogged down in expositional dialogue. What dialogue is here is funny and actually fits the concept of a tabletop RPG really well, though. For example, your gaming companion Valentine wonders why they don’t just steal the magical items they’re tasked with retrieving, while another member of the party, Frette, reminds Valentine about how the heroes they’re roleplaying would act. This little conversation, which is over in less than a minute, helped nail the feeling of playing a game inside a game.
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands – Spells Screenshots (IGN First)
The mechanics of Wonderlands are solid, built on the tried and true Borderlands formula, and its pedigree is undeniable. While I do have my worries the quests might feel a little too arbitrarily broken up, the little touches from having Tina running a tabletop game makes it feel more substantial that it otherwise would without the double-layer of a game inside a game. I’m very interested to see how the final game shapes up.
Seth Macy is Executive Editor, IGN Commerce, and just wants to be your friend. You can find him hosting the Nintendo Voice Chat podcast.