Battleborn Preview - PAX Prime 2015
We jump into the new shooter from the makers of Borderlands
It’s been awhile since we’ve seen a real Gearbox game. Since 2012’s Borderlands 2 there’s been the highly controversial Aliens: Colonial Marines, the 2K Australia-developed Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, and the remastered Homeworld games, but none of these properties have been internally developed by the studio. The most refreshing thing about Battleborn is how much it feels like a Gearbox game. It’s stylish, creative, and the cooperative multiplayer feels incredibly well designed.
Let’s start with the gameplay modes. For some time it’s been hard to understand exactly what Battleborn is. Since the announcement last year, people have referred to the game as a first-person MOBA, and the description felt accurate. The game’s Incursion mode, where two teams of five attempt to defend their base while destroying their opponents, sounds exactly like the general rules of Dota 2, League of Legends, or Heroes of the Storm. But Gearbox has ran from this comparison, specifically asking for fans to divorce the game from the MOBA genre.
It might be a fair request. Battleborn has far more to offer than just its Incursion mode. Devastation mode is essentially team deathmatch and Meltdown is all about protecting your minions as they march toward a climactic battle in the center of the map. But the way Battleborn most significantly differs from its MOBA comparisons is in the game’s Story mode. This is what I got to play during my time with Battleborn at PAX Prime.
Battleborn boasts twenty-five different characters and it seems people are already starting to gravitate towards their favorites. I shared a room with four other players and as I pulled on my headset I could already hear people chatting about which characters they wanted. The mammoth sized, tiny-headed Montana seems to be a favorite as my fellow players argued over who would get to play with him. The armor-clad soldier with a jetpack, Oscar Mike, also seemed to have some fans. After everyone else had picked their characters, I played as Phoebe, the telepathic, rapier-wielding aristocrat.
The amount of characters in Battleborn is overwhelming when you compare them to the five or six which have been available in the Borderlands games. Each character has not only their own set of skills, but a core fighting mechanic that widely differs. Playing as Phoebe was a great opportunity to feel how much variety there was in Battleborn compared to Borderlands. Whereas a character as creative as the Mechromancer in Borderlands can be reduced to simply shooting from time to time, Phoebe lacks a gun - instantly giving her a feel unlike any other Gearbox character. She has to charge into combat and slice her enemies up close and personal.
As the core of Phoebe's gameplay is different from most FPS characters, her strategy is inherently also unique. Instead of picking off enemies from a distance, I had to make calculated charges and retreats. The more I played as Phoebe, the more I found it is less about running in while wildly swinging my rapier, and more about taking the enemies by surprise and quickly slicing my way through them. Using a melee character is just as tactically interesting as any of the gunslinging characters in Battleborn - if not more so. In fact, it almost makes the shooting characters feel bland with how fresh the melee combat feels.
Phoebe only worked so well because of the skills that she had at her disposal. There are some overarching mechanics that can be earned through leveling up your profile in the game, but most of Battleborn’s leveling happens in individual instances during a match or mission. We started our game at level four and instantly picked four abilities or upgrades. Every time players level up, they are given a choice between two different abilities. Gearbox refers to this at the Helix System. Each map or mission resets how far you’ve leveled, so even if you were level ten by the end of your last mission, you’re back to the starting block for the next one. This means leveling up your character happens more quickly and more instinctually. There’s no time to sit and ponder between two abilities while your allies wait for you to rejoin the fight. Instead, you have to go with your gut instinct and quickly choose between the options available.
My build for Phoebe revolved around the strategy of getting her into situations quickly and being able to get out just as fast after I had taken some significant damage. These skills included a teleport ability so I could pop up behind enemies or escape close encounters, and an ability to fire multiple rapiers at enemies like missiles, which can whittle away numbers and allow you to get in close. After reaching level seven I got an ultimate attack which would call down an aerial barrage of rapiers.
The very design of the game is based around the Gearbox cooperative spirit which made Borderlands such a success. Working through the mission as a team meant helping each other out when we were downed by enemies and reviving each other; finding a role in the team and playing that role. With the wider variety in characters, it also means they are more specialized and suited toward certain aspects of a team gameplay.
While I enjoyed my time with Battleborn, the story mission we played felt heavy on action, low on story. The whole thing is delivered with as much presentation as Borderlands’ narrative, but without any open world aspects, there’s a lot less thoughtfulness in Battleborn and more blowing things up. The Story mode feels more like a cooperative mode with some story shoehorned in, but maybe Gearbox will flesh it out by launch.
Battleborn was a blast to play and tapped the same pleasure center that Borderlands usually does. Slicing my way through hordes of monsters was good fun and the mechanics of the game felt like they were already quite sharp. Battleborn’s animated world, over-the-top characters, and tight first-person combat is exactly what someone would expect from the team behind Borderlands. I am excited to see how the game improves as it moves close to launch.
Battleborn will be available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One February 9th, 2016.