Gearbox's Lord of the Rings game had to die so that Tiny Tina's Wonderlands could live. At least according to studio founder Randy Pitchford, anyway, who serves as an executive producer on the upcoming Borderlands spin-off due to launch early next year.
"I have been trying to make a first person action-RPG fantasy game at Gearbox since 1999, (when I unsuccessfully pitched three concepts for games based on the Lord of the Rings franchise – long before the movies)," Pitchford revealed on Twitter following the Wonderlands reveal trailer at the Summer Game Fest. "For me, Wonderlands is the culmination of this 20+ year long dream."
Culmination certainly feels the right descriptive for Wonderlands; a game that draws from over a decade of Borderlands design lessons and lore to create something entirely its own; a fantasy looter shooter with big guns, bigger dragons, and one of the series' most beloved characters at its heart.
Wonder no more
"Wonderlands is a high fantasy take on a looter shooter," explained video game actress/writer extraordinaire, and voice of Tiny Tina, Ashly Burch on the stage of the Summer Game Fest. "If you're a fan of Borderlands, you'll probably recognise some fantasy elements inspired by Assault on Dragon Keep; the Borderlands 2 DLC that was beloved by the devs."
That 2011 expansion wasn't just beloved by Gearbox, either. Cleverly structured through the framing of an in-universe Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game, in which our Borderlands 2 Vault Hunters find themselves transported into a session of "Bunkers & Badasses" hosted by adolescent demolitions expert Tina, the DLC was a meta riff on the role-playing mechanics that the series borrowed from, with scenarios that dynamically changed depending on the whims of the Bunkermaster herself.
Beyond the comedic opportunities that Gearbox mined for laughs in Assault on Dragon Keep, the DLC also proved to be one of the most emotionally affecting Borderlands stories to date, as players slowly came to realise that Tina was using Bunkers & Badasses as an outlet for her grief, coming to terms with the death of Vault Hunter Roland during the events of Borderlands 2.
Whether we can expect that same kind of balance between tears of joy and sadness in Wonderlands is unclear, but Burch did promise that Tina is once again returning as the Bunkermaster for this next session of Pandora-flavoured tabletop gaming: "She's kind of guiding the narrative and changing it on a dime if she wants, taking your cast of characters, which is an amazing cast, through this wacky world on an adventure to defeat the Dragon Lord."
That Dragon Lord is to be played by none other than Lego Batman and Bojack Horseman himself, Will Arnett, while Gearbox has also confirmed that fellow comedy legends Andy Samberg and Wanda Sykes will be joining him and Burch as part of Wonderlands' new voice cast. Samberg will be playing "headstrong captain Valentine", while Sykes is the voice of "rule-obsessed robot Frette", joining you on your quest alongside up to three other players via Borderlands' classic drop-in/drop-out co-op system.
As for who you're playing as.... well, that's totally up to you. For the first time ever in a Borderlands game, your character is a customisable avatar, rather than a predefined Vault Hunter with their own backstory and voice. This is just one of the many new evolutions that separates Wonderlands from its mainline Borderlands brethren, and Burch stresses that the adventure is "its own standalone game" which shouldn't be considered a sequel to the existing Borderlands trilogy.
"People that love Borderlands will find lots of elements to love about Wonderlands," she added. "It's its own thing. Tina Tina's got her own thing going on now! It's got its own mechanics, there's spellcasting, and you can customise your character this time, which is super exciting. If you love Borderlands, you're gonna find stuff to love in this, and if you've never played a Borderlands game, then this is a great place to start."
Quest for looting
Taking a look at the bigger picture, Wonderlands makes for an interesting next step for Gearbox following the release of Borderlands 3 back in 2019. While the studio has dabbled with new IP and titles outside of Pandora over the past twelve years, they haven't exactly landed with similar levels of success – Battleborn came and went with a whisper, while the less said about Aliens: Colonial Marines, the better.
Titles like Wonderlands are thus perhaps best seen as an opportunity for Gearbox to explore new territory and genres, while still giving its community of fans what they want; another satisfying, FPS gauntlet of looting and shooting in the ultra-stylised, OTT world of its Borderlands universe, albeit with a different flavour to what's come before. In fact, 2K president David Ismailer's comments in a press release appear to openly acknowledge that reality.
“Between the development talent at Gearbox and the undeniable star power of the cast, we couldn’t be more excited about this game,” said Ismailer. “We’re always searching for compelling ideas and ways to build upon the strength of our existing IP, so we’re thrilled to help bring a passionate team of creatives together with a world and character that will surely resonate not only with our longtime fans but with new audiences as well.”
For Pitchford, however, Wonderlands isn't so much a sound business opportunity as it is the personal fulfilment of a decade-long journey to create a role-playing shooter set in a fantasy universe, even if that universe isn't exactly Middle-Earth: "Bringing actual Borderlands guns to fight dragons, skeletons, goblins, and more in an original fantasy world imagined by the galaxy’s deadliest thirteen-year-old, Tiny Tina, as a new, full-featured AAA video game is a dream come true.”