Battleborn (Xbox One Review)
Online multiplayer shooters are nothing new when it comes to games, in fact they are arguably the most predominant and well known genre on the planet. But what happens when the lines blur, when an FPS wants to take on elements from other genres, is something new born? Well of course it is, we have seen the seamless blending of FPS and RPG in games like Destiny and now Gearbox have managed to capture the best elements of a MOBA – Multiplayer Online Battle Arena – and combine them with their own unique take on the FPS genre. This hybrid of the best of both worlds shall be dubbed Battleborn and in time it could capture the interest of hundreds of thousands, or maybe even millions if you would all stop rabbiting on about Overwatch.
There isn’t a player out there that’s unfamiliar with Gearbox Software’s work, in fact they have had a hand in some of the biggest games in history – including a brief stint of helping develop expansions for Half-Life 2 and being the creators of Borderlands. So it’s safe to say that Gearbox are not only seasoned veterans, but innovators. Well sometimes they are innovators, those other times they were trying to turn over some quick cash by butchering Alien and Duke Nukem without a thought for the fan base. Thankfully Battleborn is not a beloved childhood memory, and nor is it something that Gearbox Software has stumbled upon in a cheap deal. Battleborn is their baby, the new IP they want to grow and flourish in the online arena, a title they hope is worthy of the title “FPS; hobby-grade coop campaign; genre blended, multi-mode competitive e-sports; meta-growth, choice + epic Battleborn heroes!” that Randy Pitchford claims it to be. (https://twitter.com/DuvalMagic/status/718804264613597184) Like, he seriously said that, I can’t tell if it’s a joke, but let’s all agree just to call Battleborn a MOBA for simplicity.
Battleborn’s opening moments linger in the back of your mind as a cartoon introduction animates to Deltron 3030’s “Countdown”. This epic introduction sets the bar for expectations going forward as the man who once sang “If You Must” on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater spits lyrics over one of the best openings I have seen in years. The eclectic cast of Battleborn combines their powers to take down adversaries as we find out Solus is in trouble and that as one of the few remaining planets in the galaxy a war is set to take place against the Varelsi. It’s unbelievable just how pumped for a game you can be from a 5 minute video, but unfortunately this high is never achieved again and the excellence of the introduction is all but lost in what Gearbox are trying to pass off as a story. Although a setting is all you really need when it comes to bashing other player’s faces in online, so it’s not a total loss.
As previously mentioned, there is a story to Battleborn nestled in the main menu – it even states that it’s a campaign mode of sorts, so it must be. But the reality of the situation is that this story doesn’t have any real tangible plot and the links between missions are tenuous, bar the overarching conversations that happen over the intercom. The fact that the story often takes a back seat to Gearbox humour more often than not is a clear indicator that it wasn’t the focus of Battleborn, but there to help meet the expectations of those transitioning from Borderlands. As the missions progress you will unlock more characters, and for attaining high scores while completing the missions you will also be justly rewarded with harder to obtain characters. That’s not to say these missions aren’t fun, in fact getting a team of 5 good players together and tackling the “campaign” on advanced mode with the hardcore modifier on provided countless hours of excitement, but to label it as a story felt cheap, almost. The reality is that these missions are really there to help the player farm some gear early on, unlock new characters, and get a feel for the character they want to play before heading off in to online battles. Personally, I would describe them more as raids due to their layout and the bullet sponge nature of the bosses that lie at the end of many of the missions, but that’s just me.
The meat of Battleborn can be found in the online modes; Incursion, Capture, and Meltdown. Between these 3 selections the vast majority of standard game modes are covered. Incursion involves the destruction of sentries and a base to base push between the two teams of 5 that requires players to help minion waves destroy turrets, sentries, and anything else In their way until one team destroys the two enemy sentries and emerges victorious. The next game mode is Capture, this is played similarly to Domination from other FPS titles, in which teams fight over 3 key points over the map to accumulate points until they reach the designated score. Finally you have Meltdown, closer to Incursion than Capture, Meltdown has the players defend waves of minions while they funnel themselves in to big minion crushers to get points, as a team gets more points these objectives slowly recede and make it harder to score, resulting in bigger pushes and more tense fights. Throughout all of these game modes players will generate resources and level up their characters. Through levelling up the player can choose modifiers – eventually unlocking an extremely powerful super move – for each of their unique skills that best fits the scenario they are in. Resources are dropped by killing minions, finding crystals, and through general play and are used to buy turrets/accelerators/healing stations around the map or gear from your predetermined loadout. The push and pull between teams is always great, but as time passed certain maps became staple in these modes – perhaps due to the imbalance of some maps – and the player base all gravitated towards Incursion.
Ultimately Battleborn boils down to how viable the game is and enjoyable, and both cases are resoundingly solid. Throughout my time playing Battleborn there was always a clear structure for teams and a need for roles, but the character rotation and synergy was always in flux with some interesting team choices resulting in exceedingly tense and thrilling matches. As it stands it appears a few characters are more popular than others, yes that means you Rath and Marquis, but that might be due to the entry barrier to unlock some characters being a little too high for players unable to dedicate a large amount of time to the game and the online meta’s infancy playing a factor. For those looking to invest time in the game, Incursion will probably be the main focus and although it doesn’t provide the same depth as MOBAs like DOTA2, LoL, of HoN there is still enough to play and have fun with without feeling that you are forced to play one character to win, and that’s arguably the most important factor in a good online competitive game. Unless you like Attikus, he sucks and nobody plays him.
As we have touched on previously, there are a great number of versatile characters in Battleborn. These characters range from melee based brawlers, to big chunky chain gun wielding behemoths, spry healers that hide behind corners and provide much needed heals, and everywhere in between. At first you are only able to play a select few of Battleborn’s 25 playable characters, but as you play more and complete specific challenges you will unlock more characters. Unlocking the cast is a bit of a double-edged sword as it requires players to want to invest countless hours in to the game to even test characters instead of the usual free-to-play rotation of other MOBAs which some might find grating. Thankfully I fell in love with some starter characters and unlocking others was an added bonus, but for those not quite clicking with characters early on, this could be detrimental to their enjoyment. Then again if you aren’t clicking with anyone in the beginning, this might not be the game for you. After all the designs of each and every character are brilliant and play on tropes of the games while adding enough character to really enjoy playing them. And by dedicating yourself to one character you will slowly level them up and unlock third mutations for their skill trees, loot packs, and lore that explains them a bit more.
Just like the playable characters, Battleborn has a uniquely striking style. It’s almost an evolution of the cell shading of the Borderlands series once fully realised. The worlds you traverse are bright and alive with colour, and the enemies are unique enough to stop your eyes from wandering in the midst of combat. But all this colour does work against Battleborn too. At times, during the heat of battle, there will be an overload of colour and mess on the screen that will obscure what exactly is going on in a way not usually found in MOBAs, which results in more skillshots missed and a general disarray amongst newer players trying to establish where they are. It’s a distinct style to say the least, and there will be just as many detractors as there are supporters when it comes to Gearbox Software using such a familiar style, but for me it was just right – then again I didn’t play Borderlands all that much and will not be as fatigued with the visual style as much as other, more devoted, Gearbox fans.
For all the praise I have for Battleborn, there are also really frustrating moments that could easily have been avoided. For instance playing as larger characters carries its own issues. These characters are so large in stature that they present a massive target for all those that wish to take a shot at them, but more importantly is how they can snag and block simple areas of terrain in the most inopportune of moments due to their size. I lost count of the number of times that somebody would hurl abuse at a Montana player for simply being big boned. On top of character collision issues that are emphasised by larger models there are also issues with special awareness, most MOBA games (Smite excluded) have a large focus on the area around the players and not just what is in front of them, but due to Battleborn’s simple design many players regularly focus on rushing forward and never looking back, normally to a team of more experienced player’s dismay. And finally the complete lack of tutorial for new players, in spite of being familiar with the genre it would have been nice to have a more in depth tutorial for new players as they starting video at the beginning of each mission is not enough. The campaign would be a natural jumping off point, but it does so little to help new players understand what is expected of them that I can see it putting players off or having to undertake some form of studying to completely grasp Battleborn as a whole – an issue that many MOBA like games have.
Battleborn is an important milestone for Gearbox Software, it’s a new IP and their first attempt at a competitive online shooter from the ground up. And to that effect Gearbox Software have completely knocked it out the park. Battleborn may have had a few server issues early on, but they were quickly ironed out. It’s a game best played with friends, the type of friends that want to mercilessly pummel other teams online and don’t mind being flexible with their roles. For somebody looking for a singleplayer experience, there is literally nothing beyond the 8 campaign missions and I don’t think the asking price is really worth it for that alone, especially if you are like me and the Gearbox Software humour grates you like a soft block of cheese. There is definitely room for improvement, like the ability to go back after locking in a character in an online mode or a competitive playlist for online battle that separates the wheat from the chaff, but this can be tackled in time. I can see myself putting countless days in to Battleborn if the community sticks by it and my only concern is that it will be left in the dust by Overwatch, much like it was on release by some of my peers due to the Overwatch beta. Because when it comes down to it, they are completely different games and Battleborn is definitely worth your money.