Since the release of Borderlands 2 the goodwill surrounding Gearbox Software as a studio has taken a few hits. Well, one major Aliens: Colonial Marines-sized hit in 2013. Although you could probably chalk that one up to too many cooks, the fact remains that it left a lot of its fans feeling more than a little let down. Aliens: Colonial Marines was followed up by the fine but more expansion than sequel, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel in 2014. Again a decent effort, but one where development duties were carried out by another studio – the now sadly defunct 2K Australia. So apart from a recent Borderlands re-release on current-gen platforms, a crappy Aliens game that did more to ruin the franchise than Ripley going all Michael Jordan in Alien: Resurrection, fans of Borderlands 2 have been waiting a long time for something new from the same team.
And for all of its colourful characterisations and morning-meets-late-night cartoon vibe, Battleborn is that game. It’s even being marketed as the new game “from the creators of Borderlands.” And for Borderlands fans the similarities can be found pretty much right away, from the stylised visuals to the comic and over-the-top dialogue and characters peppered throughout its campaign. Plus, there’s the whole first-person shooting stuff, where damage numbers and critical hits bounce off enemies whilst their health bars diminish. But in a lot of ways, that’s where the similarities kind of end. As a whole, Battleborn is a weird mix of a number of things, some of which work, some of which don’t. But the sheer number of ideas on display is commendable. It’s a game quite unlike anything else and it’s an experience that offers up hours of fun. Once you get the hang of it.
So what’s Battleborn? Well, that’s a good question. For one it’s a co-operative character-based shooter, one where the different heroes on offer take on class roles like tank, medic, sniper, support, or assault. Albeit one where a mechanical robot butler that wears a monocle doubles as both a sniper and recon unit by sending out a mechanical owl to scout an area. Plus, he can spawn a giant time bubble that slows anyone caught within its giant bubble-ness. With 25 heroes to choose from, ranging from elves to sentient fungi, the different ways to play the game can be a little overwhelming. But thanks to the inventive abilities they share, it never feels boring.
When controlling one of the game’s many heroes, the best way to describe the experience is to compare the setup to a MOBA like DOTA 2 or League of Legends (LoL). Each character has a primary and secondary ability, a couple of special attacks, and an ultimate. And much like with a MOBA player progression starts anew each level or match-up, with players getting to choose from different skill buffs every time they level-up. With 25 characters on offer, and with most of them locked behind a separate progression system, a lot of the fun to be had with Battleborn in these early stages is with trying out the different heroes until you find one or two that simply fit your playstyle. And then trying out each new hero as they’re made available.
The whole process of unlocking new heroes can feel a little forced though, especially when you take into account that in addition to the in-game character progression there’s also a separate hero or character rank and an overall commander rank. Perhaps the issue here is with the game’s campaign, which currently stands as eight lengthy and loosely connected episodes that are kind of like the Strikes and Raids in something like Destiny. In that outside of the great animated sequence that opens the game, the story lacks any real urgency and the missions themselves don’t really share a sense of narrative continuity. Which, is a problem. And in execution, after the first few missions, the lack of variety is a little disheartening. Of the eight lengthy campaign missions on offer, about half are memorable and thrilling whilst the rest revolve around escorting the same giant robot from point A to B or defending the same energy pillars from waves of the same enemies.
As an online experience these campaign episodes can be tackled alone, split-screen, or online with up to a team of five heroes. It’s the latter where the story-driven side of the game shines brightest, as the whole character progression and distinct hero setup doesn’t really work when played alone. As a co-operative experience playing Battleborn can be a lot of fun, even when you factor in the repetitive nature and overall lack of variety that some of the campaign chapters offer up. In fact, going for medals and re-playing missions on higher difficulties with a well-balanced team can border on brilliant. As it’s in the execution of the different characters, abilities, and how one play-style complements the next, where the game truly comes into its own.
It’s a shame then that how you earn silver or gold medals is left up to an impossible to figure out formula, one that also relegates solo-players and those with small teams to bronze or silver medals at best. It’d be nice to go into a mission knowing exactly what you need to do to earn a gold medal, as so far it seems like that if you have five people enough enemies will spawn to automatically earn you enough points for a decent medal. Anything less and it’s a crapshoot. A minor quibble, but hopefully something that Gearbox can shed some light on, and possibly tweak in the near future. In the end though it points to the overall feeling that Battleborn is the result of a bunch of ideas, systems, and concepts all thrown together into an experience that boils down to how much fun it is to control the different heroes and take out enemies, both AI and player-controlled.
One of the key inspirations behind the design of Battleborn seems to be the idea of translating a traditionally isometric MOBA game into a first-person experience. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the best modes are the competitive MOBA-style encounters, Incursion and Meltdown. Both modes pit two teams against each other as minions (i.e. creeps) spawn at each base with players then having to work together to take out giant sentry bots, or protect minions in an attempt to infiltrate the other side of the map. In relation to a traditional shooter, even say something like Borderlands, the differences are quite drastic. Getting kills takes a back-seat to character progression and strategy. In fact, you could play for several minutes without getting a single player kill and still feel like you’ve contributed somewhat substantially to your team’s efforts.
But even with this sort of comparison the overall flow of the game is different enough from being a traditional MOBA viewed from a different perspective. The two Incursion maps on offer feature only one main path for minions with a few side areas, resulting in a constant chaotic action-packed tug of war. Throw in concepts from the main campaign like building and upgrading different types of turrets, using currency to activate loot that you’ve collected and equipped prior to the match, taking out and then hiring mercenaries, and Battleborn quickly begins to feel like its own thing. Meltdown, which has you escorting minions in order to sacrifice them on enemy territory for points splits the action up into two lanes, and works just as well as Incursion whilst feeling very different. It’s more action-packed and chaotic than Incursion, if that was even possible, and gives Battleborn a second competitive mode that’s fun to play.
There’s a third competitive mode, Capture, which is reminiscent of a number of team-based shooters. And it’s this mode that feels the least essential. Battleborn’s systems, as complicated as they can seem at first, don’t really work in a traditional setting that pits player versus player. And in all honesty this mode should probably be removed. As a competitive experience Battleborn works best when you have the option to collect shards, build turrets, try and block minions from progressing past a certain point, or simply trying to force one particular player to cut and run back to the safety of their team’s sentry. Which is why matches in both Incursion and Meltdown can take up to 30 minutes without feeling like they’re dragging on and on. Something that plagues a number of other shooters whose matches take far less time.
So, the question then becomes is Battleborn the sort of game that you’ll enjoy playing? And as strange as it sounds that’s probably best left up to the individual player to decide. If the idea of getting to play a wide range of distinct heroes each with their own abilities in a setting that captures the fun and humour of the Borderlands franchise then yeah, sure. If you’re looking for a new co-op game, then yeah it’s good for that too. But it’s not Borderlands. It’s not even a MOBA, a genre that a lot of people know very little about. It’s Battleborn. And even with a number of problems, it’s still a lot of fun to play.