Borderlands was, and continues to be, a huge success for Gearbox. The game itself came out of nowhere and took the ideas of loot-centric RPGs and placed them in a quirky sci-fi FPS game-world that honestly didn’t seem like it would work on paper, but resonated across the gaming landscape almost immediately. You could even say there’d be no Destiny if not for Borderlands, and while the obvious next step for the series is in MMO land, Gearbox has decided to take some of the core values of their breakaway success, and combine them with the currently-popular team-based MOBA-types in Battleborn. But can it continue to build on the hybrid success of Borderlands? Or is it destined to be stuck at border patrol frantically searching for its papers?
It’s difficult to answer the above questions -- of any game, really -- this early in. I was privy to a hands-on session with the game at a recent pre-E3 press event, but no competitive content was shown, and instead we only really had a crack at a slice of the game’s campaign portion by way of five-player co-op.
Interestingly, Campaign is likely to be Battleborn’s strongest component in comparison to any of its genre companions. And the unique nature of each hero is certainly a driving force in this idea, but while it was great to be test-tasting one of the game’s more unique features, it felt a little too familiar, and not at all deep.
It’s a criticism you should take with a grain of salt, but Battleborn reeks with Borderlands design and art. Which is a sore point when you consider the reaction the studio’s departure created in making Borderlands just how they did. The issue here is a true lack of dynamism, at least in the build I was able to play, where we were pushed through the same slice of gameplay a few times over with the option of choosing a new character each time. Taste-testing at its best. The trouble is regardless of your palette, we were playing the same content over and over and each time it was delivered in the same, eventually predictable way: Enemy AI became Groundhog Day victims, and no matter which hero you were using, the only main difference was either in how you were dispatching them, or how you might have been supporting a team who were also going through the same motions.
As an aside, it’s both awesome and problematic that these points of access for us are made available in and around E3, but a handful of things stem from them: Either the build is designed to allow everyone access and a decent time -- in the short time it’s playable -- and therefore AI and challenge is dialled back to the ones and twos, or the game’s not up-to-snuff and hopefully the showfloor and preview feedback is a basis for kicking things into repair high-gear. But I digress.
Each round does not carry a permanence to your progression, which is likely in place given the larger list of playable characters. Again, as a mere slice of things to come, and in a mode not specifically showing off the meat of the purpose of Battleborn, it’s not a permanent statement of fact, but something I definitely took away, but it is one clear differentiator from the persistency of progression in the aforementioned Borderlands series. There’s a leveling system, of course, and each time you level up you’re awarded the ability to upgrade two sets of skills, stats and abilities, but once chosen these are locked in for the round. It then begs a question of what are you actually in this for?
The answer to that is hopefully one of dynamism though, but as I’ve already stated it wasn’t really serviceable in the short time we had with the game. We’re learning very quickly in the asymmetrical multiplayer and cooperative space that connection and meaning really needs to be applied to your characters and your point of play. It’s one thing to look at the strength of games like League of Legends, DOTA, et al and want to cash in on their alarming succesm and another to want to shake that boat and invite new players into the space that may, or may not, have avoided it for a reason.
Battleborn’s characters are diverse enough, with varying archetypes filling obvious roles. Tanks, healers, mages, rogues etc all fill the void and they come packaged with the familiar flair of Gearbox character design these days, but unlike Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm, they’re less investable from a buy-in perspective, merely filling roles and places required to make games of this type work. Hopefully the game’s addition of campaign is a cure for obligatory affliction, but again it’s just too early to say.
Gameplay is built around reasonably large spaces with more than enough fodder for whatever canon you’re packing. The AI, as mentioned earlier, didn’t leave me much to work with, but it’s all still too early to tell. More or less I wasn’t overly rapt in how character moved through the space and I found myself hanging up on small ledges and the like I really shouldn’t have. It felt a bit sluggish too, which could be a product of the openness of some of the play area, or just the game’s stage in development, but it wasn’t running at a speed that felt indicative of the basic skirmish action at-hand. We also never really ran into any trouble as groups consistently choosing different characters, meaning there wasn’t a specific dynamic the game was crying out for, and none of us really knew each other, but that leans into the accessibility component I tied into my headline.
It’s also the best place to leave this impressions piece on. It’s my duty to ensure you understand that what I and others played was genuinely a work in progress. And that this build might have been designed more specifically with E3 showfloor punters in mind, but it’s also my duty to tell you it didn’t do anything for me. It’s built on decent FPS foundations in that it was easy to pick-up-and-play, but the lack of context or exposure to the world, characters or purpose left it feeling a lot like a Borderlands spin-off show designed for kids, or at least a specific audience Borderlands might not wholly reach.
There’s plenty of charm and character, and on the competitive side, likely a lot more to bite into, which is perhaps where we should have been dropped in the first place. But at least Gearbox is attempting to serve up a slightly different dish to its clear inspirations. It’s just that that feast feels more like a burger we’ve already had from them, only with a different name and maybe a different slice of cheese. But, we’ll see.