Having been playing games for as long as I have it’s interesting to see certain ideas come and go. I remember about 5 years ago a quirky little offshoot of the Spore franchise was released, called Darkspore. In it you played a creature that you could modify with different pieces of…other creatures, much like you could in the original Spore game. You acquired these by defeating enemies, usually co-operatively with other players. Whilst it was never really mainstream it did manage to stick around until March this year before closing. Battleborn is a similar idea brought to us care of Gearbox, renowned for their prowess in developing loot-focused FPS RPGs. However its release coincided with the open beta weekend of Overwatch. Whilst they are decidedly different games it’s going to be a challenge for Battleborn to shine in Overwatch’s shadow, even with Gearbox’s pedigree behind it.
The universe is dying. A cataclysmic event has seen all the planets and stars die out, leaving behind nothing but darkness. There is but one star left, Solus, and all the remaining life forms have gathered around it in hopes of protecting it. However many evil forces would see Solus meet its end long before its due. That is where you come in, dear Battleborn, being part of an elite group charged with defending Solus from all the threats it faces. Of course we understand that your services aren’t free and you’ll have your share of phat lewts and credits to make it worth your while. So, are you ready to save the universe?
Battleborn brings with it Gearbox’s trademark cell shaded aesthetic that was made popular with the Borderlands series. Graphically there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of improvements since The Pre-Sequel, likely because they’re both powered by the same Unreal 3 engine under the hood. However there’s usually quite a lot more going on in Battleborn so keeping the graphics at a similar level is likely to ensure it remains playable under load. In that respect it does well being able to maintain constant framerates even when there’s a cacophony of destruction happening on screen. I would have liked a few more in-game options to tweak the visuals up a little more like AA or something similar (I can’t remember seeing an option for that in-game).
Mechanically Battleborn feels very similar to Borderlands in some respects, what with it being a FPS RPG. However the progression system is vastly different with in-game levels and talent tree choices being for that particular mission or PVP match only. You’ll still get oodles of loot though, most of which is not character specific and thus can be used to customize any of the Battleborns you have unlocked. There are character and player levels however and each of those will reward you with new perks, characters and various cosmetics. The core game mechanic can either be a kind of single-instance PVE mission or a straight up PVP match. Either of them will last about 30 minutes in total and can be played solo or in groups. If it’s sounding like there’s a lot going on in Battleborn then you’re right and it’s really quite hard to summarize it in a single paragraph. If you ever played Darkspore though a lot of this will seem familiar to you as it largely similar, just with Gearbox’s usual flair for the comic and ludicrous layered on top.
Matches or missions start out the same: you and your team pick out which characters you want to use. Whilst you could say that all characters fit into the tank/dps/support paradigm most of them broach more than one of those categories. Group composition still matters however as lack of sustain, damage or the ability to soak up damage will make your life a lot harder than it should be. Once you’ve chosen your characters you’re stuck with them until the mission is over, something which can be a little annoying if you come up against another group that counters you well. Still, just like with other MOBAs, even heroes that counter each other can be overcome with skill and good teamwork, something which you’ll need a lot of to succeed in Battleborn.
The in-game progression system, whereby you can get up to 10 levels per game and choose talents to suit, is an interesting twist. It encourages you to experiment with different combinations of talents between games and helps ensure that playing the same character over and over doesn’t get boring. Similarly the loot you get through playing, which has to be activated with the in-match currency of shards, allows you to further refine your character to the situation at hand. One gripe I will make here is that the levelling system can seem to vary wildly. Sometimes I’d get level after level whilst other times, seemingly doing the same thing I was doing before, would result in a trickle of XP. This isn’t too much of an issue in the PVE scenarios however for PVP it can make quite a huge difference. I’m sure there’s an explanation for this somewhere but it’s not explained clearly in game.
Of course the hook that Gearbox built into Battleborn is the loot which comes to you via random drops or purchasing loot packs using in-game currency. The attributes are random, as is the loot quality, meaning that you’ll be working for some time to get that perfect piece of kit for your load out. I lucked out with a few good drops early on which made my healer classes quite powerful and hence tended to play them more often than not. If you’re the kind of person who spent many hours farming pearlescents then I’m sure this kind of loot system will appeal to you. However it does mean there’s a drastic gap between new and old players, something which can become readily apparent in the PVP matches. A few decent drops can close that gap a little bit, but a person with all greens is going to be far less effective than someone who’s got legendaries across the board.
Initially Battleborn is quite overwhelming as there’s just so much going on at once it’s hard to get a handle on it all. After a few hours though things start to make sense at it becomes one of those oh-so-fun min/maxing problems that RPG fans like me love. If gear is what you’re after you are best placed to do the PVE missions although getting a good group (who will mean you get more loot) can be a little hard. You can, of course, run this with friends which would make the whole thing a lot easier. Unlocking all the Battleborns will take some time however as even with my 13 hours of play time I was barely halfway through unlocking them all. I’m sure this is by design however as Gearbox is hoping that Battleborn will be the game to hook its fans for the next few years.
One small gripe I want to level at Battleborn was some of the limits of the matchmaking system. You can’t, for instance, queue for specific missions. If you’re trying to complete the main quest line this can be rather frustrating, especially when people don’t vote for the map you want to do. Additionally should the matchmaking system not find someone for you to group with it’ll put you in solo, something which I think most players would not want. Indeed there’s an option to do it privately so, by definition, choosing matchmaking means you want to play with others. This could be easily fixed by including an option to find a full group before proceeding, something which I would’ve gladly used instead of trying to struggle through a mission myself or with just one other player.
The story of Battleborn comes with Gearbox’s usual flair for the comedic and absurd. It definitely helps to lighten up what can otherwise be a bit of a dull grind, especially on some of the longer missions, although it does mean that the story doesn’t go terribly deep. Of course you’re not playing Battleborn for the story, you’re doing it for the loot, so the fact that most characters are fleshed out well is just a bonus. It looks like Gearbox are planning additional PVE story missions as part of their DLC too which will only further expand the story. Overall it’s a solid story experience that keeps it light and fun, as we’ve come to expect.
Battleborn brings a lot to the table, so much so that its hard to describe the game in a few sentences. At its heart it shares the same FPS RPG mechanics that Gearbox developed so well with the Borderlands series but the differences between the two games could not be more stark. The inclusion of both PVE and PVP game modes, both of which offer solid avenues of progression, means that Battleborn is targeted to a much wider audience than the gun grinders of Borderlands. Suffice to say if like shooting things, characters that bring with them a truckload of levity and love a good loot chase then Battleborn is right up your alley.
Battleborn is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $77 and $77 respectively. Game was played on the PC with approximately 13 hours of total play time and 24% of the achievements unlocked.