A solid competitive multiplayer title is somewhat let down by its own ambitions
When something in video games is wildly successful, publishers and developers can sometimes misconstrue the reason why. A recent example of this is the MMO-craze that swept through video games in wake of World of Warcraft and is only now beginning to taper off. We saw the challengers come and go like Star Wars: The Old Republic, DC Universe Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and Elder Scrolls Online - some of these games had varying degrees of success but there was no reaching the heights of WoW. Companies tried to mirror the components thought to be important to an MMO, and triple-A publishers put the best minds available to the task, but no one could recreate the magic. This is how Battleborn feels. With the MOBA e-sport space on the rise, fueled by a passion for Dota and League of Legends, big name publishers are eyeing the money being made and hoping to replicate the success. And much like many of the MMOs listed previously, Battleborn feels like a solid, competently developed game, but I doubt it will see the success 2K and Gearbox have envisioned.
The campaign is where Battleborn feels most incomplete. It has never been more obvious that a game was built with a competitive multiplayer focus, and the solo modes were simply tacked-on. Playing alone might help give you a safe space to learn new characters, but it feels deficient, the AI hardly standing in for real world opponents. The product seems rushed and slapped together after 2k’s last multiplayer-heavy game, Evolve, was criticized for lack of single-player options (though I had other complaints for that game). Battleborn’s campaign mode rarely offers interesting settings or creative objectives. Instead, almost every mission features the tropes of video games that have been dated and lamented for years. There’s escort missions, horde-mode missions, and bullet-sponge boss fights.
Gearbox attempts to recreate the formula they used so effectively with Borderlands, having wacky characters radio in with more information and add flavor to the rote shooter, but instead of the personality-driven cast that was so memorable from Borderlands, this story is dominated by an unfunny scientist and some self-serious commanders. Battleborn wants to channel the colorful dialogue and attitude that pulsed through Gearbox’s previous work, but it never takes its time to develop the characters, tell us what they’re about, or endear them to us. In the end they become white noise to a boring campaign.
It might all be a wash if the campaign missions were simple little romps through the world, focused on telling a flawed story. But that’s very much not the case. Not only are these campaign missions annoyingly difficult, but there are multiplayer characters locked behind them. Why Gearbox locked content to a multiplayer experience behind rushed, uninventive, tacked-on single-player missions is beyond me. It would be like if the first Tomb Raider had shoved story tidbits into its multiplayer. If you were hoping that Battleborn could be more than a competitive multiplayer game, let me squash those hopes right now.
But maybe you weren’t hoping for that. Maybe the only reason you’re interested in Battleborn is for its competitive play. Then you’re in the right place. Battleborn effectively takes the MOBA experience one would find in Dota or League of Legends and streamlines it into a fun first-person shooter experience. The more you think about it, the more impressive that sounds.
Gearbox has always had strong online support and if nothing else, it’s hard to complain about how stable the servers remained throughout my time playing. I had a couple frame-rate drops and the game sometimes took a minute or two to find players - but aside from these small moments, Battleborn was a wonderfully smooth experience.
Battleborn isn’t quite as complex as your typical MOBA experience. The skill trees are simple and there’s not the small nuances that have come to define the genre. This might seem like a knock against the game, but it makes Battleborn far more accessible than its MOBA brethren. You won’t be able to pick up the game and dominate opponents, but it’s far more friendly than something like Dota. The biggest challenge is learning the specifics of each character - and there are dozens of characters, each with their own abilities.
It also is worth mentioning how well-balanced these characters are. Some have lame abilities that you will find yourself sacrificing in order to level up the worthwhile ones, but there was rarely a character I dreaded playing. This is important because you need to play as certain sects of characters in order to unlock more. The game does a pretty great job of creating objectives for players over multiple matches that will earn you more characters, helping players slowly learn the extensive roster created by Gearbox. You might find new characters intimidating after spending so much time with the initial characters you unlock, but once you slowly dip your feet in the water, no character is too difficult to learn.
While unlocking characters you can also unlock gear through in-game currency. Three pieces of gear can be equipped for each match in order to give you a small advantage. From what I could tell, it didn’t look like gear upset the fine balance of Battleborn, nor were people able to give themselves an advantage by purchasing high quality gear for real-world money. The gear feels out of place with Battleborn’s restrained design that desperately tries to keep players on the same playing field, but it’s relatively innocuous in the end.
Players can participate in one of three game modes: Capture, Incursion, and Meltdown. Incursion is the mode most honest to the MOBA genre as players must defend their robot guardians and destroy their enemies’. Each side includes an army of minions that aid in the attack. In Capture, the minions are gone and players attempt to hold points on the map king-of-the-hill style. Lastly, in Meltdown mode, players attempt to guide their minions into the enemies' incinerator. Each mode has its own high points. Players who are looking for a more familiar first-person shooter vibe will enjoy capture mode. Those who want to get a more pure MOBA experience will enjoy Incursion. Meltdown might be the outlier, it’s fun enough but feels the most out of place - an attempt to shake up a formula that isn’t in need of drastic alterations.
Here’s where Gearbox gets into trouble with Battleborn. The core gameplay, multiplayer balance, and competitive design is on point - but it takes away from the hope that Battleborn’s personality will stand out. This is both a good and bad thing. Battleborn clearly has desire to become an e-sport - with how purely it relies on well-balanced gameplay - but the vanilla maps and restrained character balance all flies in the face of the “For Every Kind of Badass” attitude that Battleborn is trying to sell. I couldn’t tell you a thing about these characters, I don’t really care about them. For all of the flair involved in Battleborn’s aesthetic, it all ends up being a wash because Gearbox is so desperately trying to keep it out of the way of the gameplay. I’m sure if you dig into the Battleborn lore, you can find some rationalization for the maps you’re playing and the characters at war with each other, but I didn’t care and I doubt anyone else will either.
Battleborn is a strong multiplayer effort for Gearbox. I think that those who are looking to flirt with the MOBA genre will find it to be an effective gateway to what is often considered an unfriendly genre to newbies. It slavishly works to remain well-balanced, so much so that it loses some of the personality Gearbox is famous for - but I feel, if they were to err either way, this was the correct place to do so. I wish there had been a way to make the campaign more engaging and elevate the world of Battleborn to make it more interesting.