Hands-On With Borderlands' General Knoxx

by Jeff Marchiafava on Feb 23, 2010 at 11:55 AM

Yesterday we were surprised to find out that the third DLC add-on for Borderlands, The Secret Armory of General Knoxx, was only one day away from launch (for Xbox 360 owners, at least). Usually Gearbox announces its release dates weeks in advance to whip Borderlands fans up into a frenzy for new content. Sometimes a surprise launch can be construed as a sign of weakness, that the developers have a reason to get it out onto the market before anyone has a chance to criticize it. That's not the case with General Knoxx. Boasting an area twice the size of The Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, an increased level cap, new vehicles, dozens of new enemy types, and a new class of weapons, The Secret Armory of General Knoxx is the biggest Borderlands DLC yet. And once I began playing it, I quickly found out it’s also the hardest.

General Knoxx is Gearbox’s attempt to give fans everything they’ve asked for, so it makes sense that it starts with a greater emphasis on story. The new DLC starts where the main game ended. After you opened the vault and destroyed the giant whatever-that-thing-was, Atlas’ military branch, Crimson Lance, began taking over the planet. To accomplish this, Crimson Lance put up barricades on all of the highways to prohibit travel. This angered Moxxi, who returns from Underdome Riot as your ally and a source of missions.

The Atlas Corporation has also put a bounty on your head, as well as all of your teammates. As if the inhabitants of Pandora needed any more of a reason to kill you, the new bounty also attracts squads of Lance Assassins, deadly female ninjas with glowing neon swords that fall from the sky inside giant rockets. In other words, it’s just another day on Pandora.

Why is Brick's bounty so much higher? That's...size discrimination!

I encountered my first squad of Lance Assassins while helping Scooter track down the pieces for one of Knoxx’s new vehicles, the Monster. The Monster seats two players and has both a machine gun and a rocket launcher that shoots multiple heat-seeking missiles. Before I managed to get the vehicle up and running though, I was blindsided by ninjas, who move faster than any other enemy type in the game.

I should preface the rest of my exploits with a few caveats. Being a preview build, Gearbox gave me a character to play as – a level 50 Brick – whom I had no prior experience with. I also had to rely on a handful of guns I had never tried before, instead of my personal weapons cache. Worst of all, I was playing by myself – not exactly the optimal Borderlands experience.

These facts are not to excuse my suckitude, but rather to reinforce how important multiplayer has become in Borderlands. Whereas at launch Borderlands’ co-op was a fun and well implemented feature, at post 50 levels having a strong team and skills and weapons you're comfortable with is a necessity. Trying to play through General Knoxx alone was not only extremely difficult, but extremely frustrating. But more on that later.

I managed to punch through the first group of ninjas without too many problems (though each of the later groups I ran into sported a more-than-formidable boss). After I finished the Monster, I headed down the highway.

You'll spend a lot more time driving in General Knoxx than in the main game

The size of the environments in General Knoxx are impressive, though the parts I saw were mostly barren and looked the same as the desert areas from the main game. Giant mines are embedded in the landscape, and there are a lot more enemy vehicles on the road, but otherwise there wasn't much to look at. After checking out a small shanty town full of the familiar bandits and psychos, I made my way up a dilapidated on-ramp to check out Moxxi’s home. As the video at the end of this article shows, just getting to the front door was a challenge in and of itself.

Moxxi is back, but doesn't look too thrilled about it

Moxxi filled me in on the Atlas Corporation’s plans from behind the counter of her…establishment, which was littered with dead bodies. It turns out Atlas shutting down the highways has been bad for business, and Moxxi wants you to team up with a woman named Athena to take down Crimson Lance’s new leader, General Knoxx. Your reward for helping out, besides the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from doing the right thing, is the opportunity to plunder Knoxx’s secret armory of all its weapons.

The delivery of the story has been marginally improved. Characters are fully animated in cutscenes that now pop up from time to time to explain what’s going on, and the story in general has a little more meat to it than a random female voice whispering motivational messages in your ear. Heck, the fact that there’s a story for me to recap at all is a step in the right direction, and although Borderlands is far from being the next BioShock, it’s promising for the franchise’s future.

I headed back onto the highway to track down the mysterious Athena, though my attempt to reach her ultimately ended in abject failure. I’m not even quite sure what happened, other than that it entailed two feverish hours of nonstop running, killing, and dying. I faced more Lance Assassins, some ridiculously overpowered Badass Defenders, and the new Devastator (pictured below). The video sums up my return trip to Borderlands nicely, but here are a few additional things I learned about life beyond level 50.

Don't let his size fool you: the Devastator is a push over. That's a lie. He's not.

First of all, Gearbox wasn’t lying about new enemy types. In addition to the ninja assassins, there are flying Lance probes that patrol the highway, which pack strong shields and a friendly attitude as they burn you with lasers. There are also Lance Rocketeers, who hover above you and shower you with rockets, and Lance Pyros, who’s flamethrowers are deadly up close, but who have a tendency to explode if their tanks get shot too much (also depicted in the video). There are also skagg-riding midgets, and the aforementioned Devastator mechs, which move with short, swift steps that reminded me of the enforcement droids from Robocop 2 (they also explode into fiery pieces when you finally kill them off).

The other thing I noticed is that the new level cap has pushed Borderlands’ formula into the territory of ridiculousness. I regularly picked up $10,000+ cash drops, and left enemy weapons on the floor that were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars because they simply weren’t powerful enough. Going up against a level 52 enemy as a level 51 was a sizeable impairment – level 53 enemies were almost impossible. A level 54 Badass Defender ultimately ended my late night session: each of his pistol shots did 900+ damage to me – about half my health bar. Conversely, my sniper rifle was doing 1100 damage per shot, which was only around 5% of his health bar.

Like Moxxi’s Underdome, General Knoxx should only be attempted solo if you’re a glutton for punishment. But if you’ve got three friends along with you, this new DLC pack should be a blast: It’s big, it’s difficult, it’s got a ton of new stuff, and it costs the same as previous DLC packs. For Borderlands fans, that all adds up to a no-brainer.