The various environments explored in Moxxi’s Heist of the Handsome Jackpot are all abounding in creativity and whimsicality, with a bold embrace of color and vibrancy. Traditional, expected casino-like environments are certainly present, reflecting a certain mundanity, but collectively, environmental diversity is immense, the title boasting environments which are decidedly not casino like, disrupting expectations. The beauty and pomp which characterizes casinos generally is actually lost in certain of these environments; what was once the domain solely of roulette wheels and towering slot machines now boasts incredible rubble and decay, nearly no surface able to escape the defacing by elaborate graffiti, totally ubiquitous – opulence has been displaced by squalor, though some opulence does persist, the environments showing grandeur; the entire construction seems like one massive vanity project, the deceased Handsome Jack employing his massive fortune to construct a structure meant to convey his enduring greatness; massive holograms abound, his face projected on manifold towering structures, a constant assertion of his presence, while various statues crafted in his honor are liberally dispersed about the environments; despite his death, this villain’s influence persists, persists strongly, forcing some especially resistant, oppressed gamblers to remove from the casino proper, to congregate together in “Trashlantis,” an environment singular in its beauty, remarkable in its creativity, communicating the largeness of the station proper, its diversity, stratification.
The overall narrative is conveyable in succinct expression: topple Handsome Jack, liberate the oppressed, those drowning in a debt which can never be fully repaid. While no commanding ambition is present, the narrative is supported by its cast of mostly compelling characters, each distinct aesthetically and in terms of personality, possessing different motivations, different dreams. In an expert decision, every character save the titular Moxxi and the lingering antagonist Handsome Jack is wholly original, preventing the expansion from feeling like a mere, unneeded retread, with no surprises, no newness. This cast, too, is rather expansive, comprised of five or six central characters, the first introduced being the timid Timothy, a doppelganger of Jack, who accordingly possesses great security privileges, indispensable to progress and success. Mostly, he is characterized by his meekness, manifest most strongly whenever he is in the sultry Moxxi’s presence, which reduces him into a nervous, bumbling idiot, but a compelling, believable idiot – he is likable, owing largely to excellent voice acting, and displays fair character growth, much timidity displaced by relative confidence.
Rounding out the cast, the disillusioned mayor of Trashlantis is recruited, contributing his strengths to the resistance’s cause, valuable when regarding his implicit resiliency, able to retreat underground and forge a self-sustaining society while literally amidst rubble; he is similarly endearing, again boasting excellent voice acting, his character exuding strength, almost a foil to Timothy. But another character shows even greater strength – Ember. With a very thick, exaggerated French accent, she was perhaps included for comic relief, oft calling Jack “Jacques,” while her character shows little depth, centered firmly around destruction, the stoking of flames, their spreading. Even her character model points towards strength, as she displays a completely shaved head, seemingly indifferent to feminine beauty, more interested in power. Freddie, a fashionista dressed flamboyantly, is also characterized by uniqueness, though he exists as least likable central figure, illustrating the poorer, more obnoxious side of the game’s writing.
The expansion repeatedly seeks to convey Jack’s lingering influence, largely by nature of the central antagonist, Pretty Boy, who seeks to further and improve upon Jack’s legacy, though also being driven by an insatiable greed, painting him as a vile sort. Being of a diminutive height, though, he is rarely menacing, and his voice acting is often obnoxious and irritating. Still, his power is immense, conveyed implicitly. To confront and best him, an entire team need be assembled – the Vault Hunter cannot triumph alone; Freddie, Timothy, the mayor, Ember – these characters must be assembled into one cohesive whole if victory is to be won. Traditionally, a game would have the protagonist thrust into the fray with no real need for external assistance, possessive of power adequate for success. But here, with the dire need for a collective team, the player’s vulnerability is conveyed; the Vault Hunters are not immortal. Accordingly, the vast majority of total playtime is spent in this manner – assembling the characters. Once this team has been forged, a plan of attack constructed and executed, the narrative fast moves towards its final act – Pretty Boy is promptly fought and defeated in an epic boss fight, he being housed in a hulking construction fashioned in Jack’s likeness, with considerable damage output, damage resiliency. A stylistic cutscene is then presented, showing the debts as evaporating, the game ending in an almost sentimental manner. Still, the resolution is perfect and satisfying, and though the narrative shows no ambition, it remains engaging, owing to the strength of the characters.
Considerable secondary content is also present, and while often lacking in depth, it does serve a strong world-building purpose, fleshing out the station, making human some of its inhabitants. Frustrating, though, is the uninvolved mundanity of this content, much of it clinging to a fetch quest construction – go here, obtain this item or that, return; this formula is rarely broken from, somewhat souring the experience. As perfect illustration of this genericness, a woman has long been sealed away in a sprawling pantry area, the only food contained therein being luxurious caviar, permitting a continued existence though not an enjoyable one. In consequence, she tasks the Vault Hunter with gathering together various foodstuffs, first peanut butter and jelly for a sandwich, then durian ice cream, and, ultimately, a human spleen, taken from the corpse of some fallen foe, dispatched solely for the cessation of hunger, the satisfying of warped carnal urges. This is mostly unfun, the plot thread serving no larger narrative purpose, though subtle commentary is perhaps present – the woman is feasting upon caviar, after all. But never seeing her face, her emoting, only makes her into a vague, almost disinteresting character. Here are failures in quest design; the removal of this content would be beneficial, not detracting.
Additional secondary content centers around the acquisition of various musical equipment for a gifted singer and saxophonist, still loitering about the station perhaps seeking a return to the stage, even as an audience of any kind would be lacking, owing to the relative desolation. While an intriguing character, here again is the firm adherence to fetch quest ideology; nothing here is imaginative or novel. Some imagination – and heart – is present when regarding a pair of feuding sisters, each running their own smaller, minor casinos, determined not to quit the place even as overall patronage is dwindling. Desirous of courting and maintaining business, then, each sister seeks to sabotage the other – to destroy the competition. One sister implores the Vault Hunter to gather together fish with an especially pungent, disgusting odor. Once gathered, they are placed deliberately about the complex, the stench repelling potential gamblers. In retaliation, the second sister has the Vault Hunter manipulate the financial structuring of her rival; money is dispensed at a rapid rate from the various machines, flooding the ground of the casino, mass sums of money evaporating, crippling the owner, almost insuring the destruction of her business, to the delight of the gamblers, their pockets swelling. The creative potentials attached to casino-as-structure are here realized, and the sense is conveyed that not all secondary content is uninspired, unenjoyable, or unimaginative.
Being a mere expansion, it follows that more fundamental gameplay changes are unexpected; so it is here, the gameplay an exact replication of that found in the base game. But in a refreshing change, the loot drops overall seem very generous here, legendary weapons and gear dropping with great regularity, making gameplay consistently riveting and engaging, with a great tangibility of reward. Combat here is especially frenetic, owing to the size of the various combat arenas, typically very confined – opportunities for tranquil sniping are largely lacking, resulting in a fierce intimacy. Many new humanoid enemies are present, though they require no new tactics to defeat, largely being reskins of enemies found in the base game. Hyperion foes, though, make a triumphant return, hulking machines moving about to and fro, some slow and lumbering, others lighting fast, each requiring different strategies to overcome, though all are capable of enduring a vast hail of gunfire – they are threatening and menacing. While they had a prominent presence in Borderlands 2, here the old is mixed with the new, as various slot machines and other gambling contrivances are given sentience, an inanimate slot machine turned into an active foe, showing great creativity, furthering world building. And in addition to the increased drop rate, many of the weapons received as quest rewards are actually of a useful sort; assisting that musician, for instance, rewards an assault equipped with cryo modifications, effective against machine and human alike. Gunplay overall remains satisfying, though mobility options and greater verticality are noticeably lacking – gameplay is very grounded.
With new environments, new allies, new weapons, and a new narrative, The Handsome Jackpot’s existence is certainly justified. In a surprising admission, the playtime on offer here is fairly expansive, easily extending past the ten hour mark, if secondary content is not totally neglected, this admirable length equaling that present in most traditional shooter campaigns. Certainly, some of this content is lackluster and unsatisfying, particularly much of the secondary content, though overall matters are condensed and neat; the ten hours spent here is easily amplified fivefold in the base game, this smaller scale staving off potential tedium – the expansion never outstays its welcome. The environments explored are singularly beautiful and creative, while the eclectic cast of characters makes the casino overall seemed lived in, a sense also conveyed by the various new enemy designs. The expansion’s narrative is lacking – the people the Vault Hunter is meant to assist and liberate are never named, never even provided a face, which stalls player engagement in their plight, the urgency of its resolution, while Pretty Boy overall is a paradoxical antagonist, alternately menacing and laughable. But triumphing over him, saving the oppressed, is an ultimately satisfying affair. Gameplay innovation is completely absent, though the expansion remains enjoyable to play, and in furthering Handsome Jack’s backstory – and his legacy – the expansion is a worthwhile experience, extending a game already characterized by excellence at its very core.