Gearbox’s Battleborn has, through no real fault of its own, a bad image problem. Coming out in close proximity to the major campaign that Blizzard have launched for Overwatch’s release later this month, the two have been confused and Battleborn wrongfully deemed to be the more derivative work. Instead, it’s more akin to MOBAs such as League of Legends, but also Super Monday Night Combat. There’s a lot to like here, but Battleborn has ultimately left me feeling somewhat sour.
As with all so-called Hero Shooters and MOBAs, there is a great emphasis on gameplay variety. The colourful cast all have unique moves that are best suited to a particular situation. Shayne and Aurox are a symbiotic pairing that excel at close melee range and in initiating combat through stealth and dragging abilities, while Toby – the penguin in robot armour – is much more passive in that he hides behind shields he creates and fires from long range.
Their designs hold a lot of the game’s appeal to me. Each of them is distinctive, coming with one-liners that show off their personality, and much like Borderlands, the game certainly has its moments when it comes to humour. Not all of it resonated with me however, as there is a lot of that awkward “humour” that doesn’t gel with my British tastes, but some of the one-liners definitely got a giggle out of me, even if they become somewhat repetitive after a while.
Borderlands had a distinctive look that really sold cel-shading to the masses, and that art style is continued and build upon here. Outside of the unappealing retro cartoon cut-scenes, the game itself is an assault of colour on the eyes that is great to look at, to the point that you might feel the need to pop on a pair of sunglasses. Performance is limited to a lower base framerate on consoles than on PC, but it is at the very least consistent. It also controls well and is relatively bug free aside from occasional clipping into scenery.
With so much variety in the cast of characters, it’s easy to find and stick with characters that work for you and cement themselves as your favourite. The win/loss ratio that you see when playing online provides a key motivation to hedging your bets, as well. I for one appreciated just how the likes of Montana work, but at the same time I hated playing as Thorn, because her bow and arrow and her abilities require you to be very precise.
I’ve never been a massive fan of Gearbox’s obsession with bullet-sponge enemies, but the concept of this being more MOBA than an FPS makes up for this somewhat thanks to the abilities. Each match or level sees you starting off with a character at level 1, working to level up as quickly as possible, so that you can dive into the Helix upgrade system and pick between two contrasting options to boost your abilities. These always buff an certain ability or alter how it works, always choosing between two slightly different styles of play. One of Montana’s choices, for example, is to have increased your health regeneration rate when your minigun is either running hot or cold.
One bugbear I do have is that, on top of locking away the majority of the cast behind Commander Ranks or certain unlock conditions, Battleborn hides more abilities for each hero behind level unlockables. Since characters aren’t really behind a paywall, it’s fairly inconsequential, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense to gate the content in such a way. It’s arguable that having better abilities hidden for all but those dedicated to playing with one particular character is a more egregious issue, and on that can potentially affect the game’s balance.
Sadly this is not my only gripe with Battleborn. The eight story missions can all be played solo, but are best enjoyed in online co-op with up to five – credit it also due for featuring split-screen support. It’s just that the core gameplay loop is frightfully dull.
All of the missions largely revolve around the same formula of going to a place, defending a point for a few waves or escorting an ally, then heading to next place to defend something else. Rinse and repeat until a boss appears whose demise signals the end of a rather by the numbers and tedious mission. You do get impromptu little challenges as you play, which are easier the more players you have with you, but these only briefly relieve the monotony.
Your reward for beating these missions is usually a piece of gear or a loot pack that you can use in-game shards to activate for a boost or character perk, but you can also buy more packs by using credits earned in any mode. These, like heroes and abilities, are also gated behind some arbitrary level ranking, which makes no sense as the value of in-game currency is enough of a gateway for most players. These also unlock cosmetics for your characters, adding a little more personality and individuality to them.
The story mode’s monotony could be a footnote at the best of times, but it features instant failure states that affect one level in particular. I still haven’t beaten The Saboteur, and it’s because you need the right collection of competent players playing characters that are to defend one particular point from copious amounts of savage beasts and ranged attackers. I’ve been able to beat all the others, which makes the fact this mission has such a drastic difficult spike so jarring. At the very least, Gearbox have said the level will be toned down in an upcoming patch.
So while the story levels are forgettable and somewhat imbalanced mess at this point, the multiplayer and its three modes are where the bulk of Battleborn is to be found. Capture is a standard domination-style game mode, while Incursion is essentially a single lane MOBA, and Meltdown is a twist on a two lane MOBA.
Firstly, while it’s alright for a MOBA to have only one or two maps, Capture definitely needed more than we have, as the maps grow to be quite stale. Sure, you can find randomly spawning NPCs and shard points to shoot at in order to trigger your gear, but this lack of maps can make this most FPS-like mode stale very quickly.
Incursion’s got a lot more going for it in that its gameplay is most like a MOBA, complete with buildings that can be constructed in order to help your team, but the truth of the matter is that it’s very hard to recover if you find yourself on the back foot. None of my games in Incursion were even close, with one team definitely dominating the other one until their inevitable demise. With better map design and more avenues of attack, comebacks could definitely be encouraged, but alas this is not the case.
So Meltdown is where I’ve had the most fun, given that there are two lanes for your team to look after, with your job being to escort your minions and sacrifice themselves to a deranged AI. It represents the best of both Capture’s wider area of player focus and Incursion’s MOBA-style gameplay and I’ve had plenty of close matches.
It’s tough to actually decide where I stand on Battleborn. One the one hand I can see that it’s a competently made game with plenty of charm in its varied roster and one fresh gameplay mode that I would happily play again. Yet the single player was a bore in its core gameplay loop, the two multiplayer modes have issues with their map design, and the gating of characters and abilities just feels unnecessary for a MOBA. However, it is still possible to get a kick or two out of Battleborn.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4