|Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One|
|Publisher 2K Games|
|Developer Gearbox Software|
|Release Date May 3, 2016|
Battleborn is one of developer Gearbox Software's biggest investments of time and money ever.
Packed with heroes and powered by the mechanics of a first-person shooter, Battleborn is an amalgam of a number of different sorts of shooters pulled together with the art style and humor of a Borderlands game. In its campaign, which can be played alone or cooperatively with up to three friends, you play as one of 25 characters brought together to save the last star in the universe.
I liken it to picking up a comic with a great cover, but totally different interior art
More than anything, that campaign is just a chance to test out and level up the characters, earning gear upgrades as you go. The bulk of the game, though, is about taking that gear and those characters into three types of multiplayer modes.
To test out the breadth and variety of content available in Battleborn, we decided to split reviewing duties between two editors. After spending a week with the game, executive editor Brian Crecente and engagement editor Jeff Ramos sat down for a back-and-forth discussion of their thoughts.
Battleborn's Aeon Flux-meets-'70s-cartoon-inspired animated introduction was a startling way to drop into a Gearbox game. But the mix of Deltron 3030 music and faded art really hooked me. It has this Ralph Bakshi vibe that I love.
It was definitely a bit odd. I liken it to being at the comic book store and browsing the aisles and picking up a comic with a great cover, but totally different interior art. The opening animation sets up expectations that aren't matched by the actual game.
Some of Battleborn's most confusing aspects exist within the visual design choices. A lot of the UI feels crowded or difficult to understand at first glance. And looking at your skill tree midgame for upgrades is an ordeal. As in most MOBAs, as you level up, you're picking new talents for your character in real time. In Battleborn, pulling up a fullscreen menu to pick new talents isn't great, considering how many different angles you can get shot from.
Battleborn definitely borrows the visual style of Borderlands. I think Gearbox excels at character design, and that's a great fit for however you want to describe Battleborn — MOBA, first-person shooter, hero shooter.
A broad mix of very different characters is part of the draw of MOBA-like games for many people, including me. But that mix feels super disjointed in Battleborn's story mode, which is about a third of the game.
the eclectic mix of characters works
That's 25 characters with 25 different backstories, weapons, modes of movement and specials, all of whom can be used to play through the narrative-driven campaign. I gave up on the idea of seeing the story mode as something that tells a meaningful story and instead saw it as a chance to explore the characters, and ultimately, that didn't really hurt the experience.
Viewed through that lens, I think the eclectic mix of characters works. I'm also a fan of how the game makes you work to unlock them. Each of the characters has two methods of unlocking, typically through leveling up your player rank or by completing some sort of challenge. Those challenges urged me to try out characters I probably would have never used if left to my own devices.
While unlocking characters through challenges is a fun way to explore the game's systems and try out new characters, some players will be shocked to find out that nearly half the roster, for this $60 game, is locked. In the typical, free-to-play MOBA model, this is permissible. But I found it a bit odd to have half the characters siloed in a full-priced game.
As far as characters go, a lot of my initial experience with Battleborn came from the beta. During it, I spent most of my time with Marquis, a gentleman robot sniper who oscillates between charming killer and foul-mouthed rascal. Since I already had so much experience playing with him, he's anchored the most enjoyable parts of my time with the final game as well. That extra time learning Battleborn has given me a necessary edge, because this game can be extremely confusing.
Battleborn assumes too much
Battleborn takes it for granted that you understand all the things baked into its design. I didn't expect much hand-holding, but I was shocked that the mandatory prologue explains nothing about the game's mechanics. There's a host of characters talking in your ear, guiding you through the critical path and developing the story. But Battleborn assumes you know that you can collect shards for upgrades. It assumes you know where upgrades are and how to best leverage them. It assumes you know which upgrade to choose when given a choice. And it assumes you'll make sense of the upgrade system on the fly.
But the biggest, most flawed assumption Battleborn makes is that you'll care about how all these characters are mixed up together. It thinks you'll get why someone is branded a traitor and the impact from that, or why a hero was locked away for their actions. Over time, as I was forced to replay the same story levels over and over, Battleborn's characters grew on me, but Gearbox seems to believe that quick bits of dialogue are enough to develop backstories I would care about, and they really weren't.
You're absolutely right that the game drops you into the deep end and expects you to figure a lot of things out. The story mode feels like something designed more to help you master a character and find gear than to impart, well, a story. The eight missions comprising Battleborn's campaign offer up some laughs, challenges and a bit of tactical puzzle solving, but I don't feel like I've learned much more about the overall backstory.
Unfortunately, a disjointed story isn't the only issue I ran into in the campaign. Occasionally, bad guys spawned or wandered into an area where I couldn't find them; these instances left me futilely searching the map to figure out how to get to that one last red dot. Eventually the game pushed me along to the next setpiece.
Battleborn is also inconsistent in its rules, especially when playing with others cooperatively through the campaign. In general, the game gives you a pool of lives to use up as a team. Once they're used up, no one can respawn, and extra lives are given sparsely at best. On one occasion, I ended up as the sole survivor in my team and spent more than half an hour whittling down a boss's massive health bar while my teammates watched. That made for some nail-biting gameplay, but once I beat the thing and moved past the new save point, I wasn't awarded with any new lives. My teammates had to either quit or simply sit and wait for me to survive or die. I died, in case you were wondering.
Of course, all of this play — all of the gear you can collect, characters you can unlock and levels you can reach — seems to be focused on what I'd consider the main component of the game: online multiplayer. Battleborn offers three modes of online play that all seem to borrow at least a little bit from some of the tropes of multiplayer online battle arena games.
The easiest mode to understand is Capture Maps, where teams must capture and hold three areas to increase their score. The first team to hit 1,000 points wins. While this mode is familiar, it mixes in some enemies for easy leveling; the ability to build different sorts of emplacements, like cannons or health regenerators; and, of course, lots of shards for collecting.
The Incursion map mode might be my favorite. In it, you defend two sentient, kinda whiny walking turrets against enemy attacks while trying to take down your enemy's turrets. It plays a lot like a MOBA with creeps, mercenary camps and the tug-of-war play that makes that genre so much fun. The mode also adds its own twist with shards, emplacements and the fact that the turrets sort of move around ... well, maybe mope around is a better way of putting it.
Finally, Meltdown mode is the closest thing to a traditional MOBA that Battleborn has to offer. You're basically defending your creeps as you try to escort them to the enemy team's side in an effort to sacrifice them. Once you sacrifice enough of your minions in the first area, a second area farther into enemy territory opens up. The first to make the required number of sacrifices wins.
The three modes offer up very different sorts of online play, all balanced in a way that evenly matched teams can spend an hour picking at each other's flanks trying to garner some momentum for an all-out win. The diverse selection of heroes, some with very unique modes of attack and movement, also helps to make Battleborn feel like a fresh approach to an established genre.
And then there is the gear, which is where Battleborn really stands out. Players create loadouts holding three pieces of gear that can be activated during play using the shards you've collected for a variety of buffs. Because you have to pre-create your loadout, and stick to it once the game starts, and because there are so many sorts of gear available, gearing up requires a much more tactical approach. The right mix of gear for the character you're playing can have a significant impact on how well you do, which adds basically a third layer to the game.
I know you weren't a huge fan of the game early on, but I suspect that was because you were soloing the missions, and because you don't get access to gear until you hit level 3. Now that we've spent some time playing together and you're geared up, what do you think?
I was certainly missing something at first when I was looking at the experience without being properly geared up. I think gear makes a notable difference in replayability of campaign missions, and that gear can also make your competitive experience that much deeper. The difference between an ungeared newbie and a player with high-end drops can make competitive play feel a little unfair for beginners, but in the end, that persistent character development is a worthwhile trade-off. The most interesting thing I found was how differently I built my character for competitive play compared to the campaign.
As I said before, I was drawn to Marquis as a character because he's so versatile. He can snipe and handle himself at close range, and has talents that let him control the flow of the battlefield. In the campaign, I focused more on buffing his Temporal Distortion skill, which allowed me to slow time and eventually damage enemies inside of its field of effect. When it came to playing online, I focused more on his Predatory Strike skill, which launches owl drones that scout an area and reveal enemies on the map.
Competitive play is also where you get to see tactics for each character evolve in real time. I learned the most about how to play new characters in competitive modes by watching how other people played against me.
As in most MOBAs, creativity and on-the-fly teamwork is what makes for memorable experiences in Battleborn. Every match we played within the first week was intense and came down to the wire. I never felt like my teammates didn't know how to respond to threats or capitalize on situations. It was refreshing to not have that early-frustration-with-new-players-online feeling that I've experienced with other games that had a healthy beta period. While we have differing opinions on character designs, I do think that each character is fairly balanced, and that most people will find a character they'll resonate and excel with.
All of this makes me curious about Battleborn's future updates, and how Gearbox will support it. Are we going to see a steady flow of new characters? Or new modes, like a Payload map?
It certainly sounds like Gearbox has a lot of support in mind for the game. When Battleborn launched, for instance, you couldn't replay the intro mission — which also happens to include that groovy '70s-style cartoon — and Gearbox has already fixed that issue. It's great to see a developer paying that much attention this early on to a game that it obviously wants to see become a service.
With its mix of co-op and single-player missions, and three existing multiplayer modes, Battleborn seems to have the groundwork laid to be a long-lived game. The deep bench of characters, and promise of many more, helps as well.
I've loved my time with the game, managing to squeeze in much more play than I usually would in a given week. There's some work to be done, but the promise of new characters and plenty of support means the game I already like quite a lot is sure to succeed at drawing even more players over time.
After diving into the multiplayer modes with you, I'll admit my opinion of the game has changed. It'll be interesting to see how the game stacks up over time.
Still, I can't help but feel like Battleborn is suffering from some identity issues. It feels like Gearbox wants to have the game both ways: with a strong, multiplayer-driven campaign and full fleshed-out hero shooter / MOBA modes. The problem is, you can't have free-to-play mechanics (unlocking new characters through challenges) in a full-priced game. It's true that other retail games have held back some content through unlockable challenges, but it bears repeating that half of Battleborn's characters are unplayable until you put in the time to unlock them. It's one of Gearbox's oddest choices.
Battleborn is inconsistent but still has an opportunity to shine
Battleborn is inconsistent in every sense of the word. Its character design is interesting, but the heroes often don't feel like they live in the same universe with each other. The game's visual design choices bounce from stylish to overwhelming. And its progression system borrows freely from free-to-play titles, despite the game selling for full retail price.
Gearbox's trademark blend of action and humor stands out among these problems. It's certainly what carries the game over the finish line. But Battleborn is trying to be a lot of things and doesn't fully succeed in one particular place. There are a lot of potentially strong ideas floating around the game; if the developers can take the next few months sharpening some into a fine point, Battleborn may yet find its sweet spot.
Battleborn was reviewed using final retail PC code provided by 2K Games. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews