Available on Xbox One, PS4, PC
Gearbox has a genius for hybridizing genres. Take Borderlands: it might have been the cel-shaded madness and left-field humour that first hooked you, but the clever mash-up of FPS and Diablo-style dungeon crawler elements was what kept you coming back for months on end. Battleborn, then, might not be quite as crazy as it sounds. Part team-based shooter, part co-op blaster, part MOBA. It takes a mix and match approach to genres then splashes on a Borderlands aesthetic with gags to match. What’s not to love?
Well, a few things, actually, but we’ll discuss those later. Let's start with what Battleborn gets right. For one thing, the basic mix works better than you might expect. The game takes its core combat mechanics from FPS', as you race around the map blasting enemies, or using melee attacks if your chosen character is so inclined. Almost everything else comes from the MOBA side, including a choice of a big selection of varied playable characters, special attacks/capabilities with cooldown timers and the way that you level up during each map or mission, picking upgrades every time.
What's the difference between Battleborn and Overwatch? This video explains it:
Whereas a superficially similar game like Borderlands or Destiny is all about the long game, your character slowly accumulating power through new levels, skills and loot as you progress, Battleborn is much more about the short game. You start each match or mission fairly weak, but half an hour later you could be a titan; strong, damage-resistant and wielding attacks of devastating power. Supercharged shots, juggernaut charges, brutal aerial attacks and windmill slashes all come into the picture in moves that are as spectacular as they’re satisfying to pull off.
To make things more confusing, Battleborn is really two games in one. In story mode it’s a slightly more conventional shooter, pitting one to five players against hordes of enemies on a long and complex map, with clear objectives to complete, obstacles to push through and vast, murderous bosses to overcome. Each of the eight missions (plus prologue) works much like a half-hour-long Destiny strike.
In multiplayer mode, however, it’s closer to a MOBA, particularly in the Incursion matches which import the whole MOBA structure, down to minions, defensive turrets and enemy towers (here mobile sentries) pretty much wholesale. Fans of League of Legends and DOTA2 will probably have an easier time of it than fans of Destiny, Battlefield or CoD. You might not need to be MOBA-crazy to get Battleborn, but familiarity will definitely help.
The MOBA influence is also clear in the character roster. If you were unkind you might say that it goes bigger on quantity than quality, variety or innovation. Several characters are, shall we say, heavily reminiscent of characters in other games, while a handful feel generic. There are gems here, all the same, with the gentleman robot assassin Marquis, or the bizarre waif/monster duo, Shayne and Aurox, proving that Gearbox hasn’t lost its touch for unique protagonists.
You won’t meet them all at first. Instead, you begin with a handful of heroes and unlock more through completing story missions, winning multiplayer matches with a specific character type or completing certain objectives. With 25 to collect it’ll be some time before you play them all, let alone master them.
On first acquaintance, it can be hard to differentiate one big, heavily-armed tank from another. The same goes for long-range damage dealers and melee brawlers too. Yet the complexities start creeping in as you level up, finding new or upgraded capabilities that make, say, the twin-bladed duellist Rath a real stormer for boss battles or crowd control, or ISIC – a malevolent AI in a battle-droid’s body – a great option in defence scenarios. Tempting as it is to play the field with the characters early on, it’s actually smarter to take the time to learn a few, just because that way you’ll learn to understand their capabilities and figure out which upgrade choices will eventually form a stronger build.
The curious thing is how well the mix can work. The core combat mechanics are smooth and the MOBO additions make for some satisfying smackdowns. Moment to moment, Battleborn can be a lot of fun.
In Story mode that’s not always apparent. Battleborn can be a little dull – even tiresome – as a solo experience, as you stroll through plain landscapes and do your best to whack bullet-sponge bosses. Add other players, though, and it’s transformed, ranging from good all the way up to awesome. The enemy AI isn’t smart, but your foes are numerous, and there’s a real thrill in smashing through their ranks or taking out hard targets with a mixture of sharp-shooting and showboating special moves. Building turrets, traps and drones is also a winner, adding a little tower defence strategy to the mix.
At their worst, the missions can be plodding, as you follow instructions from one area to the next, battling enemies in one, triggering something in the next then settling down to defend the thing you’ve just activated from waves of enemy attacks. At their best, though, the missions are smart and engaging, throwing you through weird alien scenery and up against new and complex enemies that force you to work smarter with your team-mates to survive. One mission throws in the kind of death traps more usually seen in platform games.
Another has you escorting little robot minions as they try to harvest and upload an ancient archive’s knowledge. Working through one of these missions with a great team where you’re challenged but come out triumphant is a massive rush. Ditto taking down a massive bruiser of a boss with your party on its last legs. This is a big part of what makes Destiny or The Division so enjoyable. It isn’t any less effective here.
Related: Overwatch review
There’s magic to be found in the multiplayer modes as well. Played with well-matched teams, the MOBA-like Incursion mode can be a rollercoaster of small victories, defeats and reversals, with highs, lows and an unpredictable conclusion. The more conventional, control-point Capture mode isn’t quite so brilliant, but the Meltdown mode, where you shepherd minions to be sacrificed to a crazed AI, is surprisingly strong. The constant switching between defending your minions and attacking the other team’s makes for some brilliant confrontations, particularly once you get to grips with each hero’s powers.
Yet what really makes Battleborn tick is its anarchic style and humour. It’s a fun game that doesn’t take itself too seriously and never hesitates to go for a cheap gag. The dialogue, both from the playable characters and a cast of cackling villains and deluded sentry robots, can be laugh-out-loud funny, transforming what might be a generic scrap into something more memorable. Combine it with a visual style that’s not a million miles away from a next-gen Borderlands, and you have a game that’s far from being another drab shooter. In a world of generic me-too shooters, Battleborn has personality to spare.
And while it takes a risk with its MOBA-style progression, that risk just about pays off. The danger is that the focus on the short-term, in-match levelling might make for a game with fewer long-term hooks, but by giving you more characters and throwing in loot boxes with persistent buff items – three of which can be carried into any mission or match – Battleborn gives players reason to keep coming back for more. What’s more, sticking with a certain character will see them go up in rank, with benefits that – unlike the levels – don’t reset from match to match. Most, like the skins and taunts, are just cosmetic, but mutations add new options to the upgrade tree that open up new enhancements to your abilities, and so new builds.
I like Battleborn. Sometimes I love it. All the same, it’s not quite where it could be right now. Both the single-player and multiplayer sides have issues that need addressing, and that make what could be a great game a little too open to attack.
Across both modes, it’s hard to upgrade in the heat of battle. Gearbox has done what it can with a quick system of D-Pad presses and triggers to select between paths, but too often you’ll make a fast choice rather than a good one. I suspect the most successful players will be those who optimise and memorise their builds.
On the multiplayer side the biggest problems are balance and that it’s all a bit chaotic. I’m sure opinions will differ, but some heroes – Montana, Ambra, Caldarius – seem a lot more useful than others, particularly early on in the game. Combine them with a healing character, like the toadstool-headed Miko, and they’re very, very difficult to defeat. And with simpler maps and without the top-down view of a conventional MOBA, matches often seem to turn into messy chokepoint brawls, as basically everyone collides in one or two central areas. Sometimes, frankly, it’s impossible to tell what the hell is going on.
Inexperience isn’t helping, either. At the moment, too few players seem aware of their character’s abilities and how to use them, or focus too much on killing the enemy and too little on the actual objectives. Play Battleborn like Call of Duty and you don’t just waste your time, but the time of everyone else on your team. As for the gits who join a game then disconnect midway through or before it’s even started….. well, let’s just say that Gearbox needs to find a juicier carrot to keep them playing or a bigger stick to beat them with.
Related: Battlefield 1 news and rumours
On the single-player side the issue is content. There are currently just eight missions and only four to six of them are all that great. To add longevity, Gearbox makes each one playable on two difficulty settings and in both regular and hardcore modes. What does hardcore mean, you might ask? Well, Battleborn doesn’t feature infinite respawns. You have a set number across the team with extra lives to be grabbed now and then. Die when the counter hits zero and you’re out. Everyone dead? It’s ‘Mission Failed’ time. You’re back to square one, no checkpoint and no retry. Hardcore mode means no respawns whatsoever. You have been warned.
I don’t have a problem with Hardcore mode or even with the lives idea as such, but after a while the whole ‘Mission Failed’ thing feels less like a challenge and more a waste of energy and time. You see, you can fail a mission not just by dying but by failing to protect a specific contraption or escortee. When this happens right at the end of the mission because the designers have decided to swamp you with a last-minute wave of heavy damage-dealing enemies, well, it gets tired after the first three or four attempts. I’m sure this will change with more experience, smarter strategies and the right team, but there’s at least one mission that I can’t face replaying any more, because it always falls apart in the last fight.
These issues are reflected in the final score, but the important thing is that they’re things that can be fixed. Some changes here, some rebalancing there, a few more maps and missions and Battleborn could easily go up a notch or two. Much also rests on Gearbox’s ongoing support. We know there’s more coming in a season’s worth of add-on packs, but a few more goodies for those who’ve already stumped up the initial £40 wouldn’t go amiss.
Gearbox’s ingenious hybrid has its problems, not the least that we’re all still wrestling with what it actually is. There’s not enough story mode content, the PVE missions vary in quality and the multiplayer modes can be a mess. Yet these are problems that Gearbox and the player community can fix. Battleborn has flaws but it also has potential. With time and the right attitude, it could be brilliant, but it’s going to take a little work first.