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A Clawstalker build with a pistol in Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

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Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands can be a John Wick power fantasy

Dual classing and melee weapons upended my Borderlands habits

Image: Gearbox Software/2K Games via Polygon
Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

There’s a moment in any good action-RPG where things start to click. The numbers, percentages, and color-coded loot finally crystallize into a strategy. You understand both what the game is expecting from you, and how you can meet those expectations on your own terms. In Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, I arrived at that moment when I realized I could role-play as John Wick.

Gearbox Software’s newest outing combines the “guns meets Diablo” formula of Borderlands with the storytelling flexibility of a tabletop role-playing game. The result is a fever dream of explosions and narrative left turns. There are also plenty of systemic nods to classic TTRPGs, two of which — dual classing and melee weapons — upended my longstanding Borderlands habits.

As is the case with most action-RPGs, you begin Wonderlands by selecting a character class. There’s the Spellshot, whose focus on guns and magical curses can finish a firefight in seconds. There’s the Graveborn and their demi-lich companion, who sacrifices their own health to charge powerful dark magic attacks. Then there’s the Spore Warden, a long-range hunter class who can summon icy tornadoes while their bipedal mushroom friend poisons foes up close.

Although I never planned it this way, I’ve built almost identical characters in every previous Borderlands game. I preferred long-range summoners who could keep their distance while calling friends in to help. Those abilities lined up perfectly with how I tended to navigate firefights; I could summon a rocket-firing turret to cover one flank while hopping between points of cover on the other.

I assumed Wonderlands’ firefights would unfold just like those in its numbered predecessors, so I chose the Spore Warden for my first foray. I could keep my distance as usual, with a host of elemental attacks to tie up my enemies while I picked them off with sniper rifles, assault rifles, and rocket launchers.

The thing is: Wonderlands doesn’t feel exactly like other Borderlands games. Its early chapters are awash in melee-minded opponents, whose ranged companions hop between cover too frequently to be effectively flanked. Squads kept surrounding and overwhelming me, while my underpowered mushroom ally did little to lighten my load. What’s more, by Level 12, I hadn’t spent any of my skill points on melee upgrades. I went into Borderlands’ signature “Fight For Your Life” mode in almost every encounter.

Clearly, my old habits weren’t working!

A “Clawstalker” build in Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands Image: Gearbox Software/2K Games via Polygon

So, I restarted, and respec’d. This time, I ran counter to my old preferences: I chose the Stabbomancer, a rogue whose focus on melee attacks and critical-hit chance reminded me of Brick, Krieg, and Zer0 — characters whose close-quarters play styles had pushed me away in the past games. Regardless, playing the Stabbomancer would be my attempt to meet Wonderlands halfway.

And I had an absolute blast. I still am. The Stabbomancer’s ability to vanish into thin air before shooting enemies up-close does wonders for my survivability, and their bevy of critical-hit upgrades can make them into a one-shot machine. They’re also a perfect conduit for Wonderlands’ renewed emphasis on melee combat. As opposed to previous Borderlands games — which mostly utilized generic pistol-whip animations for whatever gun you wielded at the time — Wonderlands adds an actual melee weapon slot. This means I can equip myself with four guns and a mace, or a longsword, or a khopesh. Now I feel just as much excitement upon finding a Legendary shotgun as when I find a club that restores my health and summons a poison-spewing hydra with each successful hit.

By the time I got to choose my secondary class, I knew exactly what I wanted: The Clawbringer. Their magical hammer supplemented my close-quarters arsenal; their elemental upgrades added lightning to every swing of my sword; their wyvern companion could harass enemies from above while I moved in for the kill.

By Level 20, I was sprinting around firefights with the agility of a 49-year-old Keanu Reeves, shooting and punching and maiming whatever happened to be in front of me. I still use sniper rifles, grenade launchers, or whatever weapon the occasion calls for — John Wick used a book, after all — but I largely stick to pistols and submachine guns. Their mobility and handling make it easy to aim down sights at a moment’s notice, or fire off a few hip shots when an enemy surprises me from behind. The video above is me embracing my role as a fantastical John Wick in a mid-game shootout with a squad of skeletons.

I’m always impressed when a developer can shake up a series in its supposed twilight years. Hitman 3 is my favorite in IO’s stealth/comedy trilogy because of how often it throws level-design curveballs. Metroid Dread is remarkable for how it rediscovers the fear and tension in one of our oldest franchises. And I consider Halo: Reach, Bungie’s farewell to the iconic series, to also be the series’ magnum opus.

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands may not be wholly reinventing the Borderlands wheel. But it does reinvigorate key aspects of its combat. It alters the foundational rhythm of the action-RPG franchise so well that I questioned — and ultimately eschewed — my 13-year-old habits. I guess I’m the Baba Yaga, now.