Battleborn feels very familiar.
From the moment players sit at its controls it becomes immediately apparent that Battleborn owes a debt of inspiration – if not direct influence – to one of the most beloved multiplayer shooter franchises of the last generation of consoles: Borderlands.
Battleborn marches in lockstep with Gearbox’s co-op shooter – and not just because its a team-based FPS; everything from its outlandish characters to its bizarre weapons to its rustic sci-fi setting to its snarky humour immediately recalls Borderlands.
This isn’t too much of a surprise – after all, Battleborn is Gearbox’s brand new IP so it figures the Texan developer’s marquee franchise would have some influence over its latest planned release. But Battleborn looks, plays and feels like it’s less of a standalone title and more of a streamlined spin-off of its mega-selling stable mate.
In it, five players pick from a list of 25 characters (although in the demo, we were given access to 10) from varying classes boasting wildly different abilities. Marquis, for example, is a sniper who has the ability to slow down time and he can deploy a clockwork owl as ranged attack. Thorn is a bow-toting elven warrior who can fire a spray of five arrows at once and ‘curse’ her enemies, causing them extra damage.
There’s likely to be a character to fit every style of play. If you’re comfortable playing a healer, you can pick Miko, who’s best use in a fight is to keep his allies health bars stacked. If you’d like to swap out shooting for hack ‘n slash, you can select Boldur or Rath, melee fighters who wield a hammer and shield and set of katanas respectively. For those new to games where characters’ abilities are asymmetrical, the best starting point in Battleborn is Oscar Mike, a foot solider armed with a gun and a grenade launcher who has the handy ability to turn invisible for short stretches.
As is the case with Borderlands, Battleborn boasts a levelling mechanic, in which players can unlock boosts and new powers once they rack up enough XP by killing enemies. The RPG system is a pretty streamlined affair; instead of multi-tiered talent trees that offer player huge amounts of depth in how they develop their character, Battleborn’s levelling mechanic (or Helix) offers players a choice between two abilities. This makes sense; while players have a base experience level – presumably to aid with in-game matchmaking – every character they play re-sets has their XP and abilities stripped at the end of every match.
Once players hit level 5 with their character, they can unlock their Ultimate Power. This essentially gifts them a massively damaging attack, which in some instances is limited to the enemies in their immediate vicinity (as in the case of Rath, who becomes a whirling hurricane of blades) and in others can be used at range (Oscar Mike has the ability to call down a rocket strike from an orbital platform). The only character in the demo that didn’t cause damage with their Ultimate Power was Miko, who instead, transformed into a healing pool.
Players also pick up in-game currency on their travels in the form of glowing yellow gems. We’re not sure if this gives them access to new weapons, skins and other equipment outside of matches, but in the midst of a firefight, players can spend these gems to activate useful features in their environment – such as AI turrets and forcefields.
According to 2K, Battleborn will feature a campaign, PVP modes and Player Vs AI matches. There’s a thin story underpinning the game’s story mode – the greatest heroes of the Cosmos gather together to prevent the end of the universe and the eradication of all life – but it looks like it’ll be mostly played for laughs. Then again, not every game needs decent stories to capture an audience – the plot for Blizzard’s MOBA Heroes Of The Storm was so barmy, at one point in the tutorial one of the characters advised the player not to think about it too much.
Gearbox have shied away from calling Battleborn a MOBA – and it’s true it lacks (at least in the Player VS AI mode that was made available in the demo) three map channels and bots that spawn endlessly) – but the variety of its ‘heroes’ and premium on teamwork make a fellow traveller even if it’s not an honest-to-God example of this genre. It has more in common, really, with squad-based team shooters like Valve’s Team Fortress or Blizzard’s forthcoming FPS Overwatch. And as is the case with the pair of them, Battleborn looks like a game developed by a studio with its eyes firmly on creating an eSports league.
It certainly has potential in this regard – and since the future of Evolve, 2K’s last stab at the lucrative eSports market, seems a bit murky at this stage – but first, it needs to attract an audience and one has to wonder how much appeal streamlined RPG/FPS hybrid that looks and plays so much like Borderlands can have. Fans of Gearbox’s other shooter may give it go, but its lack of depth and meaningful progression might put them off. It’s also not clear whether the game can win over fans of similar team-based online shooters.
Still, it’s early days yet and we’ve only seen one mode and ten heroes. We can only hope that Gearbox has more details to release in the days to come – otherwise, you can’t really bank on Battleborn in the long term.