Borderlands was one of the surprise hits of 2009, and for good reason. With a metric buttload of guns, guns and more guns and a Diablo-style weapon stat system in a desolate futuristic wasteland, it was a great idea executed with style and no small amount of humor. With the release of the Zombie Island of Dr. Ned, Gearbox has injected an extra chunk of undead content into the mix, bringing dark new backdrops against which to blast a few new foes. While released not too far off from the original’s release date, there’s no mistaking this as a slapdash effort meant to capitalize on the game’s popularity.
Set completely aside from Borderlands’ central story, the Zombie Island of Dr. Ned finds the player setting foot into the ramshackle company town of Jakob’s Cove, the supposed ground zero for a full-blown zombie outbreak. This one-time centre for one of the game’s weapon manufacturers, complete with lumber mill, hospital, and -- of course -- spooky graveyard, has been abandoned as its various denizens have gradually been infested with a rather nasty and persistent strain of undeath. The mystery of course is related to the scientific misadventures of the titular Dr. Ned, who so often reminds you that he is not at all Dr. Zed from the core game simply decorated with a ridiculous moustache. The plot is rather thin, and perhaps appropriately so given the adventure’s status as both horror spoof and gloriously paper-thin excuse to throw tens and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of zombies in your general direction.
The zombies which make up the core of the game are fairly straightforward for the most part, with only a handful of different types making an appearance. There’s your standard shambling punch-and-bite zombie, as well as a mildly aggravating version which coughs up goo onto your face to slow your movement and obscure your sight. In small numbers, they’re really quite harmless, with only a couple shots required to down either one. However, they have a habit of pulling themselves out of the ground in mass quantities, no matter where you go, meaning you’ll have a small army of dead people trailing you almost constantly. There are other types, of course, mainly of the Frankenstein-looking variety, including some which lob explosive barrels at you, and another which lugs around a weapon chest on his back. If you’re looking for sheer variety, you won’t find it here. Still, the challenge posed by the denizens of Zombie Island is a nice change from what you’ll find in vanilla Borderlands, which in itself makes the DLC worth a try. And hey, if you’ve been digging for those “kill X enemies with Y damage / weapon type” sub-achievements, here’s your chance as you’ll be mowing down endless undead in no time at all.
The aesthetics are rather impressive here, and make it clear that your time with Dr. Ned haven’t been tossed together as a last-minute idea. The DLC is filled with endlessly dark environments, from an abandoned town to the sludge-to-your-knees swamps and death-in-all-directions beachfronts, and other long-betrayed amenities once serving the Jakobs Corporation. The areas are absolutely expansive, and rarely fail to stand out. The only knock you might be able to make here is that the sheer quantity of zombies means that there’s a great deal of repetition among them, but that’s a minor quibble given the focus here. The audio is equally excellent, from the omnipresent moans of your undead friends, to the new dialogue pouring forth from both the Claptraps and Dr. Zed, err, Dr. Ned.
The sense of humor is every bit as good on the Zombie Island as you’d expect, and provides much of the shining charm that makes the experience worthwhile. Dr. Ned is armed with some great lines, and as the central figure of the DLC, is usually good for a few solid laughs. The same sense of black humor and silliness is sprinkled throughout, including some of the side quests you’ll face. Even the town of Jakob’s Cove itself features an emergency response audio system which drones on, reminding visitors and employees alike about corporate responsibility in the face of almost certain zombification. If well-executed violence is Borderlands’ expertise, then solid humor is its calling card, something in abundance here.
Loot hounds may take a bit of an issue with the DLC, since the goodies you’ll dig up are pretty much on par with what you’ll find on the Borderlands main areas. Still, there are loads of subquests and more than a few additional areas you can simply explore for exploration’s sake.
There is an issue worth commenting on here, however. Shooting zombies in the skull will often cause a brain to come flying out, which can then be collected. The idea is that they’re collectable for a side quest which can only be found via exploration about halfway to two-thirds of the way through the DLC. The problem is that any all brains you collect prior to accepting the quest don’t count, something which is overwhelmingly frustrating since brains practically pour onto your feet like a fountain from the minute you set foot on Zombie Island. Picking up one or two for no good reason isn’t a problem, but you might find yourself collecting hundreds, maybe thousands, in the vain hopes that you’ll be rewarded once the appropriate quest reveals itself. It doesn’t, and this seems like an unfortunate and rather frustrating oversight. In particular, it’s a shame since the quest itself is linked to one of the DLC Achievements, meaning that instead of telling the questgiver to shove off, Achievement fanatics will simply have to grit their teeth and start their cerebellum collection all over again.
As Borderlands’ first DLC, the Zombie Island of Dr. Ned is a totally worthwhile experience and arguably a must-have addition for fans of the game. The zombies are fun to plow through and make the gunplay notably different than that of the vanilla experience, providing a nice change of pace. The look and feel of the new areas are pretty stellar, and never feel sub-par, instilling a strong sense that players have somehow stepped into the frame of a cheesy horror flick. With its tongue lodged inextricably in its cheek, the Zombie Island of Dr. Ned has a handful of minor issues that can be easily overlooked for those looking to step away from the dusty wastelands, if only for a while.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)