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With Battleborn, Gearbox looks to set a new standard for co-op shooters

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

The initial reveal in July of Battleborn, the next new project from Gearbox Software, may have given people a false impression — or at the very least, a limited one — of what the studio calls a "hero-shooter." Gearbox had shown off a 5-on-5 competitive mode called Incursion, which plays out similarly to multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) titles, and the early conversation around Battleborn pegged it as the studio's spin on the genre.

But to characterize Battleborn as another Dota 2 or League of Legends wouldn't just be reductive; it would be inaccurate. Gearbox is working on much more than a MOBA, and is engineering this game to last: The studio is aiming for it to offer replayability, a variety of play modes and a universe in which players will become engrossed. And in making Battleborn, Gearbox is building on its 15-year history of developing series like Brothers in Arms and Borderlands to try to deliver something that incorporates the best of those titles and also looks to the future.

Borderlands, Gearbox's most recent new IP before Battleborn, is a good place to start. The original Borderlands launched in fall 2009, and its addictive mix of first-person shooting and the loot grind of role-playing games, presented with a striking art style, was an instant hit with critics and players. Gearbox followed it up three years later with a sequel, Borderlands 2, that remains the best-selling title in the history of publisher 2K Games.

It's fair to say that Borderlands' infusion of loot into a shooter changed what players expect from the genre. Gearbox is looking to expand shooters again with Battleborn, this time by focusing on a varied roster of characters.

"With Borderlands, it was really fun to have all these different guns, so we can say, 'Hey, any gun that's ever been in any first-person shooter, you can find something like that in Borderlands.' We're doing that with characters in Battleborn," said Randy Pitchford, president of Gearbox Software, during a press event in New York last week.

"So that's why we call it a hero-shooter, right? Every kind of character trope you've imagined in an FPS, we want a representation of that in Battleborn."

The game's playable characters — Gearbox has revealed nine so far, and is promising many more — are the eponymous battleborn, and the studio is designing them so that each one brings something unique to the table. As art director Scott Kester put it, "I hope every character in this game is the main character of a game that hasn't come out yet."

Battleborn takes place in the distant future. Star systems across the universe are being snuffed out, and all the extant species have been forced to flee to one location: Solus, the last star. There, they've split up into five factions based on their beliefs regarding the end of all things: what they think might happen, and how they're planning to deal with it. Infighting and competition between the groups is rampant until an explanation for recent events presents itself.

It turns out that a race known as the Varelsi, creatures who are not of this universe, is the culprit behind the gradual destruction of the universe. Only then — when the rapacious alien beings, and the existential threat they represent, make themselves known — do the last remaining sentient species unite. The factions send out their very best, the heroes known as the battleborn, in an effort to stave off the apocalypse.

"This is a story that's about resource scarcity. It's about people with very, very, very different ideals and beliefs fighting over what little there is left to fight over," said Aaron Linde, Battleborn's lead writer, in an interview with Polygon following the presentation. [Ed. note: Linde and the author of this article previously worked together at Destructoid.]

Clan Warfare: The Factions of Battleborn

The various species living on Solus have allied with one of five factions. Each group has its own cosmological viewpoint, an ideology about the impending apocalypse.

The Eldrid revere and seek to preserve the natural order of the universe. They're the game's most technologically advanced race, and they're based in fantasy tropes. Just don't call them "space elves."

The Jennerit Empire are power-hungry conquerors who impose their will upon others. They've discovered a way to make some of their upper class nearly immortal.

The Last Light Consortium (LLC) are haughty war profiteers. They figure that if everything's going to hell, they might as well make a buck on the way down and live it up while they can.

The Peacekeepers have taken it upon themselves to protect Solus, and these soldiers just happen to be really gung-ho about the job in an in-your-face way.

The Rogue are a pseudo-faction of space pirates, people who don't fit in anywhere else. They'd rather live free than fly someone else's flag.

"And if they can't focus [their energies] in time, this inevitable entropic enemy, the Varelsi, are going to come and eat anything. So can they get it together before the end comes?" added Randy Varnell, the game's creative director. Varnell described the Varelsi as a race of creatures who "anthropomorphize entropy" and are unnaturally accelerating the end of the universe.

According to Varnell and Linde, the narrative team on Battleborn crafted the story along with the rest of the people making the game. The two spoke of multiple instances of the developers creating a character or gameplay concept that the writers found particularly compelling, and in those cases, they shaped the story to fit around those ideas. The developers are conveying that story through cutscenes as well as elements like the environment and "battle dialogue," one of the game's key supporting storytelling mechanisms. Battleborn currently contains 500 to 700 lines of chatter for each individual character, which is a more subtle way of conveying their personal attitudes and motivations than conversations in a cutscene.

"We want it to be something that kind of envelops them. We want it to be something that they sort of soak in, that is all around them, that is contextual and powerful and meaningful, even if it's not put directly in front of the player," said Linde of the story.

Varnell explained that players will come to understand Battleborn's story in three distinct phases. Gearbox is referring to the game's campaign — which can be played solo, or cooperatively by as many as five players — in chunks it calls "scenarios." These missions are designed to be completed in 20-30 minutes, and each one tells a mini-story of its own. Over the course of the campaign, as people play scenarios in order, they'll get a sense of the overall battleborn-versus-Varelsi tale. And in Battleborn, this "hero-shooter," the various characters themselves comprise another crucial part of the story.

"Every character, every battleborn, has a story, has a place in the universe. And in fact, one of the most fun challenges we've dived into in this game is taking an elf and a robotic sniper and a mushroom and a whatever, and saying, 'How do all these fit in a universe together?' and then telling that story," said Varnell.

Battleborn's story is deeply intertwined with its gameplay. Fighters for the Peacekeepers, a brawny military faction, are armored with shields that recharge à la Halo. Members of the nature-friendly Eldrid don't use shields, but have higher health regeneration to compensate. People of the Jennerit Empire have pursued immortality, so they have weak shields and can steal life from others. In general, members of the same faction might not all play the same, but they'll share certain characteristics.

This carries over to Battleborn's competitive multiplayer component as well. The AI-controlled fodder enemies in the Incursion mode are small robots manufactured by Minion Robotics, a subsidiary of the LLC. Minion Robotics builds its namesake minions for all five factions, and that economic relationship comes into play again and again.

Gearbox touched on Incursion during the presentation, but focused on introducing the Battleborn campaign and its support for five co-op players. Varnell explained that in this game, the studio wanted to accelerate the RPG leveling that players loved so much in Borderlands. The campaign is broken up into scenarios, for which players will start at level 1 with a battleborn of their choice and rank them up all the way to the maximum level — all within a single 20- to 30-minute playthrough of a scenario or a competitive multiplayer match.

At each new level, Battleborn presents players with a decision to make on a character upgrade, with two different options along a helical skill tree. These are standard-fare choices between, say, a red dot sight and a long-range scope or between a health bump and a shield increase. During the session, players pick up loot as well as currency that can be used to unlock upgrades, and at the end of a round, they receive awards for completing particular objectives, along with more loot.

internally, Gearbox jokingly refers to the roster as the "battlebarn"

In replaying a scenario, players can simply re-spec — choose the same battleborn but pick different upgrades — or try going through it with another battleborn. Gearbox representatives explained that they hope the relatively short scenario length in Battleborn will encourage players to experiment with the game's wide array of characters.

"Most Borderlands players picked their character, and then — whether they've played for 20 hours or 200 hours — they tend to commit themselves. And that means that there's a huge amount of value that they're not enjoying, because they're so committed to that one character," said Pitchford. "With the Battleborn design, you're actually — I don't want to say motivated, but — you're benefited if you try a different character each time." Design director John Mulkey said that internally, Gearbox jokingly refers to the roster as the "battlebarn."

Similarly to its presentation of story, Battleborn will offer character growth in three cycles. Along with the leveling within a scenario, players will be able to grow a particular battleborn's skills as they play through multiple missions. In that phase, players will be unlocking what's possible for that character. Finally, there's a long-term growth that's tied to a player profile rather than individual characters. Pitchford likened this setup to the Badass Rank system in Borderlands 2, but characterized it as being "like Badass Ranks on crack."

We got to see Battleborn in action in a live playthrough of a five-player co-op mission. The battleborn landed on Tempest, the Jennerit home world (screenshot above), to undertake a resource-gathering mission. The goal was to shut down the planet's defense systems during a shard storm so they could harvest the shards. The players rolled with unique battleborn: Montana, who lays down the law for the Peacekeepers with a Gatling gun; Thorn, an Eldrid warrior and a deadly archer; Rath, a Jennerit melee character who wields dual katanas; Miko, a mushroom who plays support but can also deal damage; and Oscar Mike, a Peacekeeper soldier with a military arsenal at his disposal.

It was difficult to make sense of the frantic action on the screen, especially since this was our first time seeing Battleborn. But it was clear that the players had chosen characters that complemented each other well. Rath sliced foes in close-quarters combat while Thorn fired arrows from afar; Montana mowed enemies down while Oscar Mike found an elevated position and launched air strikes; and Miko healed all of his teammates.

The developers said that they're well aware of the biggest problem with co-op titles, an issue that plagued Borderlands: It's tough to play with friends if you aren't all near each other in rank. According to Mulkey, the solution to that in Battleborn is that there isn't a massive power difference between the lowest and highest levels in the game. Instead, players are unlocking different ways to play as they rank up their characters. If Gearbox can make that work and still give players a sense of meaningful progression, Battleborn has a great chance of continuing the studio's history of games with stellar co-op play.

Battleborn is in development on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One, and is set for release in 2015.