Forgive me if I’m seeing the world through a psychedelic miasma. I’ve played a few rounds of combat in the multiplayer game Battleborn, coming soon from developer Gearbox Software and Take-Two Interactive’s 2K publishing label.
2K announced that the sci-fi shooter will have 25 unique playable heroes, a story mode that is playable alone or with up to four other friends, and several types of competitive multiplayer modes. It will have a persistent progression system, which means that Gearbox is investing heavily in this brand new intellectual property. And Gearbox’s last franchise, Borderlands, has sold more than 25 million copies.
I’m not going to argue too much with Gearbox about its creativity. I admire the company’s chutzpah, but I have to say, it’s hard for me to get excited about what I’ve seen of Battleborn right now. The main appeal could be as an esport, with five players challenging five players in the tradition of multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) titles like League of Legends. But in contrast to LoL, this game is a first-person shooter, dubbed a “hero shooter” because it has so many characters. In terms of competition, it is more like a rival to the recently released Nexon game Dirty Bomb.
“We have some very ambitious goals,” said Randy Varnell, the creative director on Battleborn at Gearbox. “We want to mix the types of characters you have in the game with characters with guns, swords, bows, and magic. There’s a lot of variety in the characters and the aesthetics.”
Battleborn is fun, and it has some of that signature humor that Gearbox created with Borderlands, but I’m not sure it’s going to stand out from the pack games that are hitting the market. It’s hard to put my finger on it. The universe of Battleborn is pretty and colorful but in a not so serious way, like Borderlands or Team Fortress 2. The missions are directed, like with Destiny, but the characters are hard to parse and the story isn’t really full of comedy as the whole universe stands on the verge of collapse if you fail.
Battleborn is set in the future where nearly every star in the universe has gone dark at the hands of a mysterious enemy, the Veralsi. Solus, the last star, is the only beacon of hope for the universe’s surviving population. There’s also a betrayer among the ranks of Battleborn, or the heroes. Rather than uniting humanity, the fading of the stars has led to a great war among different factions who are desperate for the remaining resources. The fighting is a combination of melee weapons and long-range shooting.
The mysterious enemy is threatening to extinguish the last star, and the heroes are the only ones who can stop it. The graphics help the game stand out, but not necessarily in a good way. The cartoon style is not bad, sort of like a superhero comic book’s art. But the palette does get a little crazy in the middle of a mission, with an explosion of colors that make you feel like you are in the middle of a druggie fantasy.
“It’s about whether you can live together, or die alone,” Varnell said.
Features and modes
Battleborn has a story mode that is a narrative experience. You can play it in single-player, fighting with artificial intelligence allies on your side. Or you can play it cooperatively with a total of five players, either splitscreen or online. The story is modular, enabling players to choose which missions to do. You can also complete a mission again to collect better loot.
With 25 heroes, you’ll have a lot to choose from. Each has its own personality, attitude, and weaponry.
Using a “growth system” known as the Helix System, a character can level up from one to 10 in a single story mission or competitive match. Players can earn new capabilities on the fly and unlock new skins as well. I found this to be one of the most enjoyable features of the game.
“Every time you play, you get a choice on how you’ll level up,” Varnell said.
The competitive multiplayer system can handle up to 5-on-5 players with three distinct modes. That includes Incursion, where teams of heroes defend their base from waves of A.I.-controlled minions while working together alongside their own minions to destroy their opponents’ base. Another mode is Devastation, where teams of heroes face off in a fast-paced deathmatch and must capture and hold objectives on the map to win. The last mode is Meltdown, where heroes protect their minions as they march to their death at the center of the map. Points are scored for minions who throw themselves into the incinerator, and the team with the most points wins.
The game has a persistent progression system. All earned experience points contribute to leveling up a character as well as a command rank. That latter part means players can rank up their own player profile, earning badges and titles. Collected loot can be used to benefit any hero that the player chooses to command.
Solus has a numerous factions, including the Peacekeepers, the sworn protectors of Solus; the Eldrid, the preservers of the natural order of the universe; the Rogues, mercenaries only concerned with their own survival; the Last Light Consortium, the war profiteers, exploiting others for their own gain; and the Jennerit Empire, who rule others by force, valuing power above all else.
25 playable characters
The playable heroes belong to the different factions, with huge numbers of choices akin to a Super Smash Bros. title. They all come with their own weapons and powers.
The characters include Montana, a tank-like character who has an awesome minigun. I used this character a couple of times as I was playing cooperative multiplayer. He is very powerful, but he becomes vulnerable when his minigun overheats. He can also run over other enemies with a shoulder dash.
Oscar Mike is a clone character who is built for combat. He uses a cool assault rifle, has battle armor that also serves as a stealth suit, and has “excellent personal hygiene.”
I also played as Teshka Elessamorn, nicknamed ”Thorn” for her short temper. She was the last aelfrin child of her homeworld before it was darkened by the Varelsi. Thorn ranges the jungles of Ekkunar and beyond with her bow ”Kreshek” and her advanced Eldrid magic. One of her skills is “blight.”
Miko is the last surviving bud of a once planet-sized fungal colony. She is widely known as a compassionate and very skilled healer. Now more of a combat botanist, Miko devotes her time to restoring all that can be restored and throwing “kunai” at things that cannot.
Verod Rath is mistaken for a vampire a lot. He is a master bladesmith and swordsman of the Jennerit Empire, once a member of the Keepers of the Blade — the elite guard of Empress Lenore. Rath has three energy blades with lethal efficiency.
The unhinged and unpredictable Orendi channels powerful magic-like energies, striving to test herself against the universe’s greatest foes. She has earned the title “Chaos Witch.”
Marquis d’Caliber is a high-society sociopath who wreaks havoc on the unwashed masses with his sniper cane Bindlebane and his explosively temperamental mechanical owl, Hoodini.
Phoebe is an inventor, adventurer, and heiress to one of the largest family fortunes within the Last Light Consortium. She is known as “Mageblade” among her friends, and she is fascinated with Edrid magic relics. We saw Phoebe in action, and her high-pitched voice was very annoying.
Caldarius won his name and fame in the Jennerit Fighting Pits. Armed in the jet-enhanced J-HTX Assault Frame armor of the Jennerit Shock troops, Caldarius is brutally efficient at hit-and-run close quarters fighting.
Boldur the Unbearable is a stubborn, ax-wielding native of Ekkunar who has survived the last two millennia of interruptions to his quiet forest life through sheer stubbornness and the aid of the civilian militia he leads called the Woodsworn. He’s a dwarf, and he was the least popular of the group.
I played a few rounds of combat with several characters, including the tank and the witch-like character Thorn. But there wasn’t as much variety between the two as I expected. In both cases, I was firing at enemies as much as possible, using my special weapons occasionally, and then running for cover when I was vulnerable.
We started out at level four, which meant we could each choose four augmentations to change the way our character played. When you progress through a level, you pick up little yellow crystals, or shards. These are important as currency in the game. You can use them to upgrade your sentry gun, which sprays bullets in a given direction. Battleborn has mini challenges, like requiring the whole team to pick up a bunch of shards in one minute.
That wasn’t much variety. We played the same cooperative multiplayer story mission — “To the Edge of the Void” — a few times, where five human-controlled players had to fight our way into a compound, unlock new areas, unleash a giant walking tank-like machine, and then protect the base from an all-out assault. I found that it certainly paid off to stick close to your friends. Our job was to land on Bliss, a frozen moon. We had to fight off the enemy and then set off a big bomb. We had to deal with taking out guardians and generators and then attack big monsters (Thrall Ascendant), which can spawn additional enemies into the fight during the battle.
I’m not yet seeing the benefits of having so many characters. I hope, in reality, the gameplay variety will be fairly obvious among the characters. Otherwise, the opposite problem will ensue — confusion. Besides firepower, there is also a lot of variety in how fast the characters move. Phoebe can’t jump very high, but Thorn, who can augment herself with a double jump, has no problem vaulting to upper levels.
As a team, we didn’t have much problem winning the round against the A.I. in several rounds of the same mission. Overall, it wasn’t that challenging. And after I played the mission once, I didn’t really want to play it again. But in this demo, I had to.
But Battleborn definitely has some pluses. The sounds are cacophonous and pulse-pounding, adding a lot of drama to the fighting. And it was easy and fun to level up and gain new capabilities in the middle of the match. If that kind of leveling up can tip the balance of power in a battle, that could make the matches much more interesting. Again, the problem was that I played the same way regardless of the situation or which character I was playing.
At the very end of the mission, we were rewarded with a comical explosion that was almost like watching fireworks go off. That was what made me think it was a druggie fantasy.
Battleborn could get better with more revelations in the future. But I’m not sold yet. It has a cartoon art style that will turn off the fans of realistic shooters. And it’s not obviously funny the way that Borderlands was. It does pay off to work together cooperatively to fight the enemies. It felt like the game was a mash-up of a shooter, with a MOBA overlaid on top of it, in an effort to get players excited about playing it as an esport.
But Battleborn seems to be lacking something that would make it stand out from all of the other online shooters and combat games on the market: innovation. I know I haven’t seen much of the game at all, but Gearbox still has a lot to prove to me.