Battleborn strides confidently into a fight I don’t think it will win.
Each market it’s trying to enter is crowded. Multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs) are littered with games trying to make it big as an esport, and you can play most of them for free. Games with long-term RPG hooks abound. Both Overwatch and Doom are set to capture the “competitive shooter” audience this year. And from the stories I’ve heard online and among friends, it seems like everyone’s settled on Battleborn falling by the wayside in the coming months.
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I hope that’s not the case. I had plenty of good moments during my 30 hours of Battleborn (out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, which is the version GamesBeat reviewed). But in a genre that demands a long-term commitment to pay off, I don’t think “good” is enough to push back against that tide of negativity.
What you’ll like
The key twists to the MOBA formula
If you know what a MOBA is, map several of those ideas on a first-person shooter and you’ll have a good idea of what Battleborn is. If you don’t, here are the basics: Rather than focusing on amassing kills or moving flags back and forth, you lead creeps (the hapless minions that mindlessly walk in a line) toward an objective, whether it’s an incinerator (in the Meltdown mode) or a giant robot (in Incursion). The enemy team wants to do the same, so you fight about it. You can play a more simplified point-capture mode, but it’s nowhere near as fun.
As you kill creeps, enemy players, and find gold in crystals around the map, you’ll level up, and unlock a new talents to layer on one of three skills (you start with two and unlock a third at level 5). Each character plays one of three roles (attacker, defender, or support), but the bonuses you pick can determine how much you specialize in a given role; supports usually stay back and make sure their allies don’t die, but they can turn into serious attackers, while defenders can provide their team with some support.
Implementing these ideas in a shooter might be interesting on its own, but the tweaks developer Gearbox Software makes to make sure they fit show some nuance. Incursion, the most MOBA-like mode, has only one lane of creeps, meaning players constantly funnel down the same area, leading to a constant stream of fights between players. Meltdown has two lanes, which forces you to spin more plates but also means you can help the team without being good at fighting if you can kill creeps while no one is looking.
If you find yourself falling behind in experience, you can always take a more passive approach by killing creeps and scouring the map for crystals until you’ve caught up. You can use gold to activate upgrades you pick out outside of matches and build turrets to help push enemy creeps back.
Meltdown is more prone to back and forths, while Incursion can force stalemates but makes the moments when you finally break through more rewarding. Both of these modes are smart deviations from the MOBA norm, and they show that Gearbox doesn’t just want to make a me-too product; they understand how this genre works and want to test their mettle.
When it all comes together
It took me a while to make sense of Battleborn. Even as someone who’s spent thousands of hours playing MOBAs and shooters, figuring out what I was supposed to do in a given match took several confusing loses. When should I go for a kill on an opponent, when should I let them go, and when should I focus on killing creeps and beating up crystals?
Building that intuition can take hours of playtime. But after a dozen or so hours I finally began having the intense matches the game wanted me to have: being down by over 150 points in Meltdown, then rallying a team together to slowly make a comeback, or the match where your team does so well in the first 5 minutes that the enemy team decides to call it quits right then and there.
And because I had to put in effort the learn the game, those victories felt sweeter than in most shooters. The rough losses are crushing, of course, but they come with the territory. I still haven’t crossed the hump where I fully understand all of Battleborn’s rhythms, but now that I have the hang of it, I’m having better matches, which makes my initial losses more worthwhile.
The single-player mode is meatier than you think
The trend among focused multiplayer games has been to go all-in on the competitive side rather than try to add a single-player campaign people will forget about months later. Games like Star Wars: Battlefront, Street Fighter V, and Rainbow Six: Siege all support the idea that multiplayer games can stand on their own.
I don’t begrudge this idea, but it’s encouraging to see a game like Battleborn have something for players to do besides kill each other. You can work your way through eight campaign missions alone, with friends, or in a group. These last about 30 minutes, but that’s just long enough to play a match, do a quick run through a mission, and then play another match having forgotten the trouncing you received an hour ago.
The single-player missions remind me of Borderlands without the connective role-playing game tissue (which shouldn’t be too surprising, considering Gearbox Software made both), and Battleborn has a surprising amount of dialogue between characters in each mission, and a few lines even made me laugh.
One of the things my friends tell me when they start playing competitive games of any genre is that they want a low-stakes environment to just learn a character. Having a single-player campaign gives new players something to work toward while learning different characters, which makes the transition into multiplayer a bit easier.
What you won’t like
It’s a grind
Battleborn buries some of its best ideas under a sea of unlocks. You unlock characters either by ranking up or by completing specific challenges, like earning a certain number of wins from a particular faction or finishing every single-player mission on the hardest difficulty with a silver medal.
You unlock gear with points you earn at the end of every match. You can equip three different pieces of gear at once, and it makes you faster, stronger, and more resilient. Gear drops randomly, with several tiers (the stronger a piece of gear is, the more gold it costs to activate in a match). Worst of all, the same piece of gear can drop with different values (a gold piece of gear with the same name can give you either +6.78 percent or +6.87 percent attack speed, for example). This means that even if you get the piece of gear you were looking for, you might still be looking for it because the version you got wasn’t good enough.
You need to unlock “mutations” for every character by playing several matches as them. Remember when I explained how when you level up in a match, you can choose between two different talents for your abilities? Turns out you can pick a third option, but only after you’ve played enough of that character.
You also unlock titles, bits of flavor text, and costumes, but it’s the game-relevant unlocks I take issue with. They give you something to work toward, but keep you playing for extrinsic, and not intrinsic, reasons. That’s fine in a game like Diablo, but not in a competitive game. In order to have the “full” Battleborn experience, you’ll end playing characters you don’t like so you can unlock characters you might, play matches when you don’t feel like it to unlock more gear so you do well in later matches, and push yourself on the characters you do like playing so you can have access to their full potential. This might keep you playing, but not for the reason that matters: to have fun.
The brash sense of style
Battleborn makes a strong first impression with its stylish animated intro, giving you a taste of its world and characters while setting a dire tone for its conflict. The rest doesn’t follow up, and this does more to push me away than to endear me to it.
It embraces a sort of in-your-face style abrasiveness that betrays an insecurity. The writing is content to shine a light on storytelling conventions and call that clever; villains make declarations like “oh, this is the part where I tell you my plan, and you reject my offer?” But the plot doesn’t meaningfully deviate enough from convention to justify that awareness.
In multiplayer, characters are too busy showing you how “badass” they are to project any real personality. Characters will taunt the camera, do fist bumps, or commit other acts of “attitude.” I don’t mind aesthetics that reach beyond “grizzled military shooter,” but Battleborn’s style reminds me of a skateboarder flipping off a camera with their tongue sticking out more than anything else. I do like a few of the character designs, but most are too bland to stand out.
The sheer amount of “personality” Battleborn foists on players will force out strong reactions to it. If it rubs you the wrong way, it might turn you off to the game altogether.
The more awkward parts of combat
As is the case with most MOBAs, Battleborn’s characters can take a beating, and getting kills can mean a lot of chasing opponents around corners and into dangerous territory. That might be standard in MOBAs, but Battleborn’s also a shooter. In MOBAs, the overhead perspective means whether or not you hit an opponent depends largely on whether you were in a position to do so and not on your aim. You might get a few cases where you don’t cast a spell in time, but if you click on something, it either dies or survives.
By being a shooter, Battleborn puts a heavier emphasis on being able to aim well consistently. I had more than my share of situations where I’d outplayed my opponent, was set to finish them off, but couldn’t get the last hit shot off to bag him. Melee characters have another problem; getting in close means you can get caught up in a sea of spell effects and lose your target.
Shooters are fast and lethal, rewarding twitch reflexes; MOBAs are a bit more calm, forcing you to tolerate your opponent’s presence for a few minutes before you can attack them. Battleborn finds a good balance between the two.
The lopsided matchups between players and characters
I’m always changing my mind on whether MOBAs should have a surrender option. But Battleborn needs it, for all the wrong reasons.
Matchmaking values speed over accuracy, so I ended up in a lot of lopsided matches. There tended to at least one person with a much higher player ranking than everyone else in every match I played, and they were usually the one who made the highest impact, winning matches almost by themselves.
Character picks also tend to be lopsided. You can’t see who the enemy is picking, which means everyone tends to pick the most well-rounded heroes over more situational ones. And you only get one support character in the initial batch of heroes you have when you first start playing, which makes the role less enticing to play and makes many random lineups less balanced. Finally, I’ve had consistent issues with people dropping out before and during matches, which leaves a team down one or more players.
In MOBAs, it can sometimes feel like you’re holding back a loss for the entire match, and both of these issues make that worse. The matches may not last as long, but they can still feel like you’ve lost in the first few minutes either because the enemy has a ringer or because you don’t have a balanced team. I’ve had a few inspiring upsets, but most matches tend to reveal who the winner will be pretty early on.
In Battleborn, I’m glad I can call for my team to surrender, and I feel bad about saying that.
The single-player levels are do-or-die
As of right now, each of Battleborn’s single-player levels don’t leave much room for error. Any time I fail a mission, I’m sent to a stats screen, as if I’d finished a multiplayer match. You’ll find a few checkpoints in each mission where you’ll respawn if your teammates don’t revive you, but if you fail an objective, that’s it. Start over.
I get that these missions have to provide a good enough challenge to make them repeatable, but even Destiny’s toughest raids have checkpoints in them. Additionally, at least one story mission has been giving players enough trouble that Gearbox has said they’re looking at making it a bit easier.
The missing 10%
In competitive games, polish matters. It might be shallow to say, but a large appeal of why I love some of favorite games has to do with the small details, like how in Dota 2, characters’ running animations change when they grab a rune that makes them move at top speed.
Battleborn lacks those special details. Most characters seem like good ideas hamstrung by a budget; several guns look like toy pistols you might find at a discount flea market, and their models are too bland to really express much personality.
I found a few other small annoyances, like how you have to toggle the character upgrade menu on an off to allot your points, or how if you want to play single-player missions on Advanced difficulty, you can’t do it through matchmaking. The menus also lack a certain polish, which is especially strange given the focus on random drops and leveling systems. And right now, there’s a strange bug that allows certain characters to shoot objectives through walls, breaking the balance of Incursion to some degree.
These aren’t deal-breakers, but they prevent me from falling in love with Battleborn as much as I otherwise would.
Despite my issues with it, I’m having way more fun with Battleborn than I thought I would. It took a while, but I’ve managed to find a couple of characters whose playstyle I really like, and that’s enough to keep me going for a while longer. And I’ve had enough exciting matches that I see its potential.
But it assumes its fundamental conceit is good enough that you’ll spend dozens of hours unlocking its full potential. It layers on this cocky attitude in its characters, its look, and its story, but cuts too many corners to earn that attitude.
And in a market crowded by better alternatives, I don’t think confidence is enough to win this fight.
Battleborn is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. The publisher provided GamesBeat with multiple PS4, Xbox One, and PC codes for the purposes of this review.