It would seem unlikely that a competitive multiplayer game boasting a cast of 25 playable characters could make you care about each one, but Battleborn is certainly going to try.
"Internally, we use a mantra," developer Gearbox Software's creative director Randy Varnell told us at a preview event for next year's PlayStation 4 and Xbox One first-person battle arena game. "Could this character be a main character in their own game?"
We tried out a few of those characters in our preview of the game's multiplayer modes, as well as one of its story missions. In speaking to Varnell, we were able to get a sense of how the developer utilizes a character-centric focus to try to shake off the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) label that Battleborn has been slapped with in most impressions thus far.
"Story and character are so critical to us," Varnell said. "We really have invested heavily in characters, that's all the way through. They're not little League of Legends isometric [models]. [They're] fully invested, fully rendered, fully animated 3D shooter characters that you'd see in any shooter game you've played."
This distinction is important to emphasize for Varnell: Battleborn, he told us, is not just the MOBA game it appears to be. Instead, the studio prefers to think of it as more of a first-person shooter, role-playing game, albeit with some noted and major MOBA elements.
Even though he refuted the suggestion that the game fits neatly into the MOBA box, the creative director did acknowledge that turning to that genre made sense from the standpoint of mainstream appeal. "The reason you're seeing a lot of companies digging into those [MOBA] games is because they're very, very popular right now," he explained. "We look at what people love to play and are bringing that in." He chalked it up to team-based stories being a cultural phenomenon, widespread beyond gaming alone. League of Legends is a massively popular title, and so is The Avengers, he explained. When coming up with its next game, it made sense for the studio to take a stab at a proven genre, especially since it was going to be trying out a brand-new IP.
Team-based gameplay is a definite and obvious MOBA trait, but Gearbox suggests that the differences are stronger than the similarities. Battleborn's fantasy/sci-fi setting and storyline, and how the characters fit into the overarching plot, are a major part of how the game attempts to distinguish itself from League of Legends or Dota. That plot goes a little something like this: After years of fighting, just one star remains in the entire universe, thanks to a group of alien antagonists. Now united under a single front, they have become a larger threat. It's the player's job to take that threat down.
There are obvious MOBA traits, but the differences might be stronger than the similarities
Lore challenges are also available to help fill out backstories. Fulfilling certain conditions during matches unlocks these bits of information.
Some of the heroes we saw in our time with the game include Phoebe, a telepathic lance-wielder; Reyna, who is best used as support from a distance; and Isac, who Varnell points to as an example of how missions can adapt and react to whichever character is participating in them.
In The Algorithm, the story mission we tried out in both the single player and co-op campaign, Isac is the primary villain. Defeating him unlocks him as a playable character. Playing through that same mission again, this time as Isac, changes the basic storyline. This doesn't massively alter the mode, however; any differences going through the mission a second time with Isic were minimal and did not majorly suggest the story's replayability. Instead, it felt like running through the same fairly dull motions for a second time, with the occasional added voiceover easter egg. Still, it's a solid, if subtle, touch.
The characters are meant to distinguish this from other MOBAS
Each of these characters played differently, with individual health, speed and attack distance stats noted on the selection screen. Every character has a special skill which operates on a cooldown timer, as well as a unique attack and shield move. Players who prefer to take the offensive line will have an easier time with more powerful characters that rely on melee attacks. All playable characters boast short-range melee moves, however — even defensive support players or those that otherwise rely on attacking from a distance. These are useful for diversifying gameplay, while also encouraging players to learn when and how to most skillfully use the various special abilities available.
Diversity in gameplay is important here, although players who have their preference of offense over defense will not find characters who fall outside of their usual style especially compelling. This was especially true in the frantic, time-based multiplayer campaign modes, which were already intense without having to learn how to play a character whose style falls outside of your wheelhouse. During Capture mode, for instance, watching and rewatching the "death recap" screen that awaits you upon your defeat grew tiresome fast, as did running across a generic map to find enemies whom were hardly differentiated from your own teammates.
Despite this, creating opportunities to get to know and like these characters, among whom a thematic through-line is generated, is an important part of distinguishing the game from the MOBAs which it strongly resembles.
Playing through the multiplayer campaign particularly does little to dispel the notion that Battleborn is following directly in the footsteps of League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm and other major battle arena titles. Modes familiar to MOBA players include Meltdown, a tug-of-war style match in which teams must shepherd their group of robotic minions into a shredder, in order to appease an AI gone rogue. It's more complicated than it sounds, of course: While you are pushing your minions towards their doom, you are also responsible for preventing the other team from doing the same to their pack of robots.
This mode is chaotic, to say the least. The first person view, as opposed to the isometric one more commonly seen in the genre, is slightly disorienting. Trying to manage the multiple tasks at hand in Meltdown as well as constantly having to reset the camera as you traverse designated areas of the map was at times more than we could keep up with. Prioritizing our own minion mission over our enemies' left us vulnerable to attack, forcing us to re-spawn and restart from the beginning.
While Varnell insisted that the characters are fleshed out in story modes and additional unlockables, this was not immediately apparent while playing through the single and multiplayer campaigns. Each character has a specific skillset which expands with play, as well as taunts that suggest their personality types. Taunting with the armor-clad Oscar Mike, for example, results in a boastful push-up after a kill. Yet the humorous touches present in the more linear story mission are obscured by the volume of action on-screen during multiplayer.
Considering the brevity of these multiplayer modes — Varnell estimates 15 minutes per session of Meltdown, as well as 10 minutes for Capture, in which teams must fight over their claim to certain areas — it's hard to feel much of a connection to the characters you play with during these matches. While customization exists in the form of loadouts, which comprise 3 pieces of skill-affecting loot that can either be picked up in-game or purchased after battle, these ability sets carry over no matter which character you choose.
A loadout made specifically to boost up the skill damage and regeneration time of technique-based Phoebe doesn't make a lot of sense for offensive Oscar Mike, but that's what we were stuck with when forgetting to reevaluate our selections prior to a match. This didn't have a major effect on play in the long-term, but not being able to access skill boosts due to lack of individual pre-sets was frustrating.
Something that doesn't carry over are levels gained during battle. Player levels are reset with the beginning of each new mission, although individual characters can permanently retain ranks up to level 10. This is where the title's RPG influence comes in, said Varnell. More specifically, Gearbox drew upon its experience developing the Borderlands franchise for inspiration, taking the talent trees that those working on the Borderlands games would mess around with in the studio and giving players the opportunity to do the same.
Borderlands has an influence
Although he referenced League of Legends and Dota as definite influences upon Battleborn's gameplay and design, it's the developer's better-known franchise that Varnell referenced the most.
Gearbox's established and popular shooter series has a resounding influence over Battleborn that series fans will pick up on quickly. A sense of humor that will be familiar to Borderlands players was on display during the story mission, in which villain-turned-good guy Isac taunts the players and calls out his lackeys for being "douchebags." The dialogue was at times laugh out loud funny and the sardonic tone was a welcome addition to an otherwise self-serious gameplay session.
Aesthetically, Battleborn recalls Borderlands as well, boasting a similarly cartoon-y art style, although this time without the cel-shading. Borderlands has the edge over Battleborn in the art department, however. While the color palette was vibrant, the environments we played on were not especially memorable, especially in the multiplayer campaign. Meltdown and Capture differed only in objective; running through them was a generic and repetitive experience, gameplay aside, thanks to the repetitive settings. Additionally, the character designs generally riffed on the same "armored soldier" and "buff muscle man" tropes, save for one inspired robotic gentleman character.
With the stylistic and mechanic markers of its predecessor being so blatant, we had to ask: Why not just make this a Borderlands-based MOBA? It's an obvious answer: "We wanted to try something new," Varnell replied with a shrug. "In Borderlands, you already went deep with a lot of those characters." Battleborn's universe is distinct and unrelated to that of Borderlands, and "is fundamentally a different premise."
Again, the notion of introducing a new set of characters was emphasized. While 25 are already available in the retail release, the addition of more playable options seems like an easy way to introduce microtransactions into the game, as commonly employed by other battlers.
Everything is unlocked by playing through the game
Although he did admit that the studio has considered introducing downloadable content into the game, initially, at least, all unlockables will be offered for free. "[Everything is] unlocked by playing through content in the game," Varnell shared, mentioning that you should be able to access all characters and options fairly quickly. He compared this to games like Super Smash Bros., which afford the addition of new content easily through regular gameplay.
Despite this, the studio "would love to do DLC. I'm not done with ideas yet." These include more character designs. The final roster of 25 was whittled down from a cast of twice that number. While new character options and other microtransactions have come up in developer discussions, the studio has no concrete plans to introduce these into the game upon launch.
But what lies ahead for Battleborn? Could it become a sequel-spawning franchise? Varnell was strictly focused on the present for now, with the long-term still up in the air. "We want to be sure that the game is very much a full-featured, fully-functional, awesome game first."
Battleborn will launch on both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Feb. 9, 2016. A beta for the game will be available starting later this week — Oct. 29. For another look at the game, check out our footage on YouTube.