Available on: Windows PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One
Played on: PC
Battleborn is a tale of two games. Borderlands developer Gearbox took the main elements of the MOBA genre – waves of NPCs, multiple hero classes with unique abilities, leveling, towers, etc, and injected them into a first person shooter. The other half is a series of cooperative missions involving the unique story and characters of their insane universe. Both feel like they should’ve been expanded into their own games. When everything clicks together it’s a beautiful mess, but too many frustrations drag the experience down.
Born This Way
Gearbox has leveraged their funny comic art style into some truly awesome character designs. The 25 heroes are a motley crew divided into five different backgrounds, from the fantasy-inspired Eldrid to the space pirate Rogues.
There’s Oscar Mike, your typical Call of Duty/Halo soldier. But then there’s Miko the sentient mushroom healer and Toby the penguin in a giant mech suit. The Shayne and Aurox duo have a teenage girl possessed by a giant guardian demon thing. Battleborn has some of the most unique hero designs I’ve seen in a hero brawler.
Only a handful of heroes are available at the start. You get a decent balance of each kind of hero, from Marquis the gentleman robot sniper to Montana the mini-gun wielding man-mountain. Additional heroes can be unlocked through leveling up your Command Rank, as well as specific objectives for each hero. Everyone has their own suite of taunts, skins, and additional talents that can be acquired as you level them up. Battleborn’s hefty unlocks for each hero are a fun goal.
Each hero also has their own set of objectives that reward fun bits of lore. Dealing a ton of damage to the final boss with a certain skill of Rath’s unlocked a nice audio recording between Rath and Deande. The characters are so enjoyable that I wanted every drop of lore I could get.
The story sets up an excuse to pit all these wildly different characters together. Everyone has raced to the last star in the universe – and it’s currently under attack. The story isn’t explained so much as presented through mission voice overs and the gorgeous animated intro movie. A single-player only prologue introduces two of the more central heroes, Mellka and Deande, and teases heavier story-telling that unfortunately never really takes off.
There are eight total story missions. The villainous Rendain is suitably smarmy and feels very much like a Borderlands character. The general humor and tone is exactly like Gearbox’s more famous shooter Borderlands, as characters are constantly cracking jokes and spouting off PG-13 style curses. If you dig Borderlands’ goofiness you’ll enjoy Battleborn’s. Conversely you may find the tone annoying and tiresome. It doesn’t help that missions repeat the same lines and gags as you play through them again and again.
Each mission mostly boils down to “go here, defend this point against waves of enemies.” Maps are fairly lengthy, easily lasting half an hour or more on the default difficulty. If you fail the main objective – usually a thing you have to defend, it’s game over for everyone. The best mission has you infiltrating an ancient temple filled with actual spike and smashing traps. But most of them quickly grow repetitive. The missions desperately needed more variety and better involved gameplay. They’re fun enough that I wish Gearbox had simply created Battleborn as a quirky Borderlands spin-off.
Kaleidoscope of Chaos
Battleborn’s Versus mode is divided into three types: Capture, Incursion, and Meltdown. Incursion and Meltdown are the most MOBA-like. Incursion gives you two large robot sentries you have to defend, while you attack the other team’s. It’s prone to a domino effect and can be tricky for a losing team to regain ground. Meltdown is similar though only cares about moving your little minions into a grinder to score points.
Both modes can be tricky to balance killing other players while retaining map awareness and minion movement. Like a MOBA, neutral camps can be subdued and added to your army and towers can be built to provide nearby healing or added firepower.
Capture focuses purely on player killing as you fight over three specific points and hold them as long as possible. Each of the three modes includes two maps, which isn’t a whole lot of variety.
Matchmaking was often frustrating. Frequently I’d be matched with players close to my relatively lower Command Rank (the total experience you’ve accumulated across the Missions and Matches). The enemy team meanwhile would all be 20+ ranks ahead of us, and we’d quickly get destroyed. Matches often ended with the losing team simply calling for surrender, which doesn’t even have to be a unanimous vote.
The rare times I played in an even match, it was a blast. The smaller maps meant constant fighting at the choke points. A coordinated team that can synergize their abilities can make an effective push – just like in contemporary top-down MOBAs. Also as in MOBAs, a balanced team with diverse roles is key. Battleborn’s hero selector is simply first come first serve, with no formal draft system or ranked play. Thus Battleborn’s Versus mode comes off as a much more casual, lighter experience – which would be fine if the matchmaking balanced the teams better.
Through every mode the bright, bombastic art style can get aggravating. While it makes for some fun characters and flashy abilities, it’s nearly impossible to tell what all’s going on in the middle of a battle. Melee characters particularly struggle as they’re forced to wade into the brightly colored chaos and swing wildly. Skills like Orendi’s Shadowfire Pillar blanket an area in bright colors and effects. It can quickly compound the frustrations in a game that already has a steep learning curve.
Battleborn has been rated T for Teen by the ESRB for Language and Violence. The tone captures the similar teenage comic world of Borderlands. Most characters are sassy and sarcastic, cackling gleefully when both killing and respawning. There’s a constant stream of violence through swords, guns, and magic, but no gore or blood thanks to the cartoony art style. The more edgy character taunts include flipping the middle finger and showing one’s (censored) backside.
Battleborn has many solid gameplay systems, but it feels like I enjoyed the sampler appetizer and I’m still waiting on the full entree. Cooperative missions are a nice diversion, but I wanted more variety, story, and enemies. Versus matches can be fun but often lead to uneven teams, player disconnects, long matchmaking times, and pure chaos in every fight. The odd loot system is also lame and overly complex.
But the heroes are exceptionally well-designed and fun to play, and the progression system of unlocking more lore and skins is a welcome addition. Perhaps after better missions are added and matchmaking improved Battleborn can reach the full potential it was born for.