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.
An old friend of mine wrote a post not too long ago saying that the FPS genre had almost run its course and was in either need of a reboot or a bullet. I agreed with him although countered with a single game that was, technically, a first person shooter but flipped the idea of what constituted a traditional FPS and got it all mixed up with some heavy RPG elements. Whilst I didn’t mention it at the time (mostly because the question was centred around player agency) Borderlands was another title in the FPS genre that felt like a breath of fresh air when compared to all the other generic shooters that have graced our gaming platforms over the past few years. Its sequel, released a couple weeks ago, stays true to the original’s FPS/RPG hybrid styling whilst provided some much needed polish in the areas that needed it.
Borderlands 2 takes place 5 years after the events in the original and with the vault opened and the monstrosity contained within it defeated a new valuable resource, a purple metal called Eridium, has sprung up all over Pandora. Handsome Jack, a member of the Hyperion corporation, notices this and secures the resource for himself allowing him to take over Hyperion. Jack now uses his power, as well as a giant orbital satellite in the form of a H which can be clearly seen from the ground, to control the inhabitants of Pandora. However rumours have been spreading of another vault contained on Pandora and a new set of vault hunters have come seeking its contents.
Just like the original Borderlands 2 sticks to cel shading for its graphics style and 3 years down the track its not looking any worse for wear. Whilst many have praised Borderlands 2 for being a graphical step up from its predecessor (and it is, in many ways) if you were like me and dived into the configuration files you would have been able to get similar levels of detail. That being said not having to do that now thanks to a menu that reveals all those options to you is a much better alternative and speaks volumes to the lengths that Gearbox has gone to in order to not make the PC version a bastard child of a port. Seeing as that was one of my main gripes with the original I’m glad to see this was addressed as I wasn’t looking forward to panning them again for it.
As I mentioned previously Borderlands 2 is a hybrid FPS/RPG with core elements of both combining together to form the core of the game play. The FPS portion, at its most basic level, is your typical run and gun affair with regenerating health (in the form of a shield) and chest high boxes littering the landscape to provide you with cover. The RPG elements aren’t as deep as full on RPG titles like say Skyrim but you’ve still got 4 distinct character classes each with a talent tree that contains 3 different paths in it giving you quite a bit of freedom in how your character ends up playing out.
Now whilst the basic aspects of the FPS part of Borderlands might not be too different from any other generic shooter the way in which combat actually plays out is nothing like it. Just like in the original each of the character classes has a unique action skill that can drastically change the way a fight goes. Since I choose the Commando I had myself a sentry turret that provided both added damage but also a distraction for some of the tougher enemies so that I could run up behind them and unleash hell in relative safety. Talking it over with my friends the Sentry gun is one of the most useful but apparently Zero’s ability (being able to turn invisible whilst leaving a decoy behind) is by far the most fun.
Of course there’s even more variation in the FPS aspects thanks to the near infinite amount of guns, grenades and other inventory items that can drastically change the way you engage hostile targets. Whilst there’s a couple simple mechanics like different types of elemental damage that are more/less effective depending on the type of enemy you’re facing there are many guns with ludicrous abilities that can transform a meagre character into an unbridled tool of destruction. Indeed finding such weapons are usually key to progressing past certain points and you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a couple a long your way.
For me it was a rocket launcher called the Partisan Mongol which upon firing launched a barrage of rockets that did several orders of magnitude more damage than I was capable of unloading with any of my other weapons. This weapon became a key part of my arsenal as it meant that should I get into a jam and need to kill something quickly to get second wind all I needed to do was whip out my launcher and lay waste to whatever was in front of me. Sure it wasn’t fool proof and the amount of ammo it consumed meant it wasn’t particularly sustainable but considering I carried that weapon with me from level 20 something right up until the end just shows you how valuable weapons like that can be.
Your talent trees will also have a major impact on how you progress through the game. I played as a Survival Commando mostly because the initial talents went a long way to reducing the amount of down time I had to endure. As I went up in levels however the skills made me almost unstoppable as I was able to take massive amounts of pounding without breaking a sweat. Couple this with a couple other items like say an amp shield that imbues your weapons with extra damage at full charge and a build that was primarily defensive in nature suddenly becomes wildly offensive. In the end I settled on a build that reduced the cooldown of my turret skill by half and enabled me to have two turrets out at a time that both had shields on them, giving me both amazing survival power and an incredible damage output.
There’s also another levelling system on top of the regular one and its called, eerily enough (considering the title of my last Borderlands review), Badass Ranks. In essence they’re like a sub-achievement system, they’re only tracked in game, but you get ranks for completing things like setting a certain number of enemies on fire, using certain item abilities and performing all sorts of weird and wonderful acts. Once you rank up you’re then given a token that you can spend on a percentage based perk that can be things like increasing your shield regen rate. According to what Gearbox tells you these perks are unlimited and thus function as a levelling system that will continue long on after you’ve hit the 50 level cap. Unlimited is a bit of a misleading term though as its clear that as you level up the same perks you start to hit diminishing returns on them and I get the feeling that the upper bounds for many of them are in the realms of 10% or so.
In terms of overall polish Borderlands 2 is certainly leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor. Gone is the GameSpy account requirement and the need to open up a rather excessively number of ports on your router in order for it to work. The menus are also not painfully console specific reacting much better to the additional input options offered by the mouse and keyboard of the PC platform. I did encounter some interesting and quirky bugs along the way and there was only one that actually broke the game in a serious way.
Minor plot spoilers follow:
For the BNK-3R boss fight I spent most of my first try of it running around looking for ammo drops to replenish my stash. Now I’m not sure if it was due to me being in a strange position or not but once it was past a certain percentage of health and Roland said something like “Now that’s a big gun” it jammed itself on the corner of the platform and then started violently shuddering whilst not getting anywhere. I figured it was just stuck and hopefully wearing its health down would trigger it to teleport out or get unstuck but unfortunately after wearing it all the way down to 0 health it just sat there. After jumping to my death (and eating the respawn cost) it regenerated all its health but was still stuck in the same position. The only way to get it unstuck is to reload and then hope it doesn’t happen again. Thankfully for me it didn’t but there are many people on the forums reporting the same issue so hopefully it gets fixed soon.
The writers have also out done themselves as the comedic tones that are interwoven in through a semi-serious plot make for a story that’s engaging, entertaining and completely hilarious at times. All of the characters have their own unique brand of humour and whilst I didn’t find all of them laugh out loud funny they all had their moments. Handsome Jack, your nemesis for the entire game, is also an extremely hateable character and they did a great job of making him a real douche bag. Needless to say that I spent the majority of the game just waiting for a moment when I could put a bullet between his eyes.
The story itself was good too and whilst I didn’t feel a deep emotional attachment for many of the characters (apart from Mordecai as I played him in the original) I did genuinely care about how the ending panned out. If pushed I’d say it was the game play that made it for me rather than the story but overall I’d rate it far above other titles in the FPS genre which usually only use a paper thin storyline in order to keep you going.
Borderlands 2 is an amazing game having taken all the ideals of the original and polishing them up to a glorious hue. All the complaints that I had about the original are gone and save for a few bugs the experience is seamless. Even for those who didn’t play the original Borderlands 2 offers a great FPS/RPG experience that is only matched by other greats in this hybrid genre like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If you’re one of the many who enjoy games with a long shelf life then Borderlands 2 is definitely a title for you as my play time is probably only a quarter of what’s possible.
Borderlands 2 is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox360 right now for $49.99, $69 and $69 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 25 hours of total play time, 58% of the achievements unlocked and reaching level 31.