Borderlands comes up all the time when you’re talking about Battleborn, and it almost has to for the game to be a success, considering how similar the title sounds to a handful of other games. Yet it also makes sense from a gameplay perspective, as Gearbox look to build and expand upon some of the ideas that were at the heart of their smash-hit series in a new IP.
Borderlands was already a genre mash-up, blending first person shooting with RPG elements and procedurally generated loot drops, but Battleborn takes all of that a step further and mixes in ideas from other genres. Parts of MOBAs like League of Legends and Defence of the Ancients can be seen in the mix, there’s spots of tower defence, and even FIFA Ultimate Team’s card packs have been repurposed.
Thankfully, it doesn’t stray too far from the established gameplay of Borderlands for fans of that game to be able to feel right at home. The last star left burning in the universe and the numerous races that live in its glow are under threat from an extra-universal race and a charismatically malevolent character named Rendain, who has made a Faustian pact to save his own people at the expense of those who should be his allies. In a fight simply to survive, the eponymous battleborn of the Last Light Consortium, the Jennerit, the Eldrid and several other races come forth to try and stave off their untimely demise.
The co-operative story campaign will take on a familiar form from Borderlands then, as you fight your way through levels filled with enemies and battle against boss characters – in the sample mission, a huge spider-like enemy nicknamed Geoff who had to be defeated in several stages – but with many more characters to choose from and a new levelling system.
With up to five player co-op, you can choose from the roster of 25 characters to take into battle, but these are much more distinct and varied in how they play. You have standard gun-toting characters like Oscar Mike, snipers and support such as Marquis and the hulking minigun of Montana, but then you have magic from Orendi, a melee focus with Phoebe and Rath and even flying characters like Benedict.
There’s an awful lot more differentiation between the various archetypes as a consequence, and a lot of disparate backgrounds and mythologies. That’s something that anyone familiar with the messy hodgepodge of characters from MOBAs will be familiar with, and so too is the instance-based levelling system. Rather than levelling up your character over the course of an entire story or campaign, you will instead be doing so over the course of a given fight or mission.
You always start with your basic character, with their pre-defined weaponry and abilities, but they rapidly level up as you progress through a mission and earn experience. You’ll want to periodically take a breather while safe and dive into the double helix of character upgrades, which lets you buff certain parts of your character, but forces you to choose between, say, upping your attack speed 20% or increasing the non-precision damage by 10%. You can quickly funnel your character down slightly different paths, depending on what opponent you’re facing.
There are some more permanent unlocks as well though, with FIFA Ultimate Team-like packs of gear. There’s several different rarities of gear that provide certain boosts once you’ve picked enough of the orange shards in game to activate them from your loadout of three, but they’ll often have both a major advantage and bit of a downside as well. Your skill cooldown could be reduced, health regeneration increased, or something more specific and situational like increasing your movement speed after capturing a control point. In addition to the rapid levelling system, these add another layer of specialisation that can enable your style of play and character’s abilities.
Another familiar sight from MOBAs will be the unlocking of your Ultimate ability when you hit level 6, and reaching that point as fast as possible can be absolutely pivotal when you play Battleborn’s competitive multiplayer. However, where it would have been quite easy to ape the form and function of their MOBA inspirations, Gearbox have turned some of these ideas on their head.
Capture is easily the most conventional of the three modes to be in the game, as the two teams of five squabble over three control points in an effort to reach 1000 points as fast as possible. Working together with your team to coordinate your efforts and get those all important mismatches is vital early on, otherwise you can find yourself quickly on the back foot, down a hundred points, faced with opponents that have their ultimates all unlocked and with a daunting task ahead of you, though far from impossible.
Though we didn’t get the opportunity to see Incursion, Meltdown is a more inventive mode by far. A MOBA traditionally has your heroes working down three lanes, escorting your minions and trying to destroy defensive towers on the way to the enemy base. Meltdown has two lanes, by contrast, but tasks you with delivering your minions to reclamation points instead. Rather than being support for your attacks, they are now vital for your victory. It’s all too easy to be distracted by your opponents and sucked into playing the game as a Deathmatch rather than the objective-based mode it is.
Again, it comes down to teamwork and trying to gain the upper hand in any encounter with your enemies, but there’s a lot to say for finding a character that works for you – though you can only have one of each character on your team – and having the skill to get the best out of their abilities. As an FPS, you need to manage to land your bullets and get hits, but there’s a delightful risk and reward to playing as a melee character like Phoebe. She’s woefully mismatched against Benedict or a long ranged character, but once I got the hang of playing as her, the fact that she can teleport, closing the gap and dodging bullets in the process, makes the high damage she can deal with her foil absolutely deadly.
Battleborn might have a rather bland and somewhat uninspiring name, but once you get into the mixture of genres and gameplay elements, it’s a quite fascinating and potentially very compelling game. Gearbox have really found their groove with creating vibrant, beautiful worlds and enjoyable characters for the story, but those solid foundations allow them to be more all the more ambitious elsewhere, borrowing ideas from some of the most popular and successful games of the moment and looking to create an inventive and original new multiplayer game in the process.