For those who don't know, MOBA stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena and found its original burst into the mainstream in the Warcraft 3 mod, Defense of the Ancients (or DOTA). Riot Games' League of Legends has seen the genre explode in popularity, particularly in e-Sports.
Most MOBAs put two teams of player-controlled "heroes" with unique abilities, at opposing ends of the map. Teams advance towards each other's spawn points, often with an army of CPU-controlled minions with the goal of destroying the opposing team's base. The first to do so wins. The best MOBAs have layers of complex, strategic play, and a good spread of playable characters with varied skill requirements.
Battleborn is Gearbox Software's hybridized take on DOTA's winning formula. Like some of the game's playable heroes, the Xbox version of Battleborn will go head to head with Blizzard's superficially similar Overwatch, Motiga's third-person MOBA, Gigantic, and Rez Studio's already massively popular Smite.
Even beyond MOBA-likes, the war for our online time has never been so vicious. On Xbox One, we have MMO-lites like Destiny and The Division, desperate to keep us hooked with loot addiction and drip-feed content drops. We have multiplayer shooters like DOOM on the horizon, and even some existing shooters like Battlefront are persistently receiving new content, both free and paid.
On a personal level, I'd hoped that Battleborn would be dull, purely because finding free time to play all these games is becoming the mother of all my first world problems. Sadly for my backlog, the multiplayer is damn good. The same, however, cannot be said for its story mode.
Like most MOBAs, Battleborn has some rudimentary lore that gives some context to all the mayhem and carnage. In typical Gearbox fashion, Battleborn's story plays out with robotic tongue planted firmly in metallic cheek, drawing on Borderlands-style humor to present its colorful world.
Unlike most MOBAs and their spinoffs, Battleborn has a story mode which allows players to fight their way through dungeon-like experiences, complete with boss battles, loot, and vaguely comedic narration. While the voice acting is good, I felt like the story mode was just a less-entertaining version of Borderlands itself, with familiar YouTube-grade jokes, waves of cannon fodder and bullet sponge boss fights that can be defeated simply by strafing left to right while tapping the trigger. And, if you play certain classes with skills designed specifically for PVP, that's all you'll be doing.
Battleborn's heroes just aren't particularly interesting to play in a player versus environment context. Part of the fun of a MOBA is in conserving and timing the use of your abilities, adapting to situations that occur dynamically as a result of player vs. player combat. In Battleborn's story mode, you simply move through levels, spamming abilities on cooldown, completely devoid of tactics or strategy. Even if you're a big fan of Gearbox's memetacular brand of humor, the combat repetition comes with a side order of uninspired, recycled narration that'll only add further pain to the experience.
Everything about Battleborn's story mode feels like an afterthought, particularly when you compare it to Battleborn's player vs. player experience. I'm aware that this is a beta, but with little more than a month from launch, I doubt we'll see any improvements to some of the story mode's shortcomings. From the bland level design, lazy writing and color-swapped enemies — it often doesn't feel like the product of a AAA studio.
The worst thing is, I feel like the story mode is a potentially neat idea. Giving context to Battleborn's world through narrative should bring a hint of RPG and emotional investment in your character progression and unlocks (and perhaps incentivize those cosmetic DLC micro-transactions). Perhaps the most damning assessment I can give Battleborn's tacked-on story mode is the fact it felt like a less engaging, less rewarding, less focused version of Fable Legends co-op action RPG experience, a game since canceled.
"Combat repetition comes with a side order of uninspired narration that'll only add further pain to the experience."
Battleborn's proverbial bread and butter is in its multiplayer mode, which combines elements of class-based shooters like Team Fortress 2 with game modes reminiscent of League of Legends and other MOBA greats.
While the story mode bored me, and an experience I wouldn't recommend to anyone, Battleborn's multiplayer was thankfully one of the most enjoyable non-isometric takes on a MOBA I've played so far.
"If it ain't broke..."
Some MOBAs like Motiga's third-person 'Gigantic', currently in closed beta on Xbox One, try to inject new mechanics and features in an attempt to stand out in a busy crowd. Battleborn's beta modes do the opposite, and they should prove far more familiar to fans of the typical MOBA and first person shooter genres as a result.
Perhaps most crucially, the modes available are simple enough to pick up and play straight away without any need for a lengthy tutorial, although the game does explain itself during pre-match countdowns.
Gearbox takes a "if it ain't broke... don't fix it" approach to their primary MOBA competitive mode, 'Incursion,' which sees teams of five compete to guide swarms of minions to the opposing team's sentry boss robots, all the way to the end base.
Similarly to typical MOBA, players can farm CPU-controlled creatures for additional shards, which can be spent unlocking gear power ups, building stationary turrets and hiring NPC mercenaries to help achieve victory. 'Capture' is similar to Battlefield's Conquest mode, which sees players compete Deathmatch-style over capture points; and 'Meltdown,' the game's most unique mode, is a race to destroy the enemy team's minions as they 'sacrifice' themselves for points in the center of the map.
At least in the beta, you start with several characters and unlock more as you level up. You're also rewarded with in-game currency you can spend on item boxes that contain random equipment items for use in battle. As mentioned, those items require shards to activate, similar to Halo 5's REQ pack level requirements. Beyond gear, Battleborn also features a persistent character progression system that allows you to level-up characters to unlock new ability augmentations, taunts, and character color palette swaps.
Gearbox takes a "if it ain't broke... don't fix it" approach to their primary MOBA competitive mode.
Shoving the story mode to one side, it's clear where the bulk of Gearbox's efforts lay when developing Battleborn. The playable heroes are wonderfully diverse with colorful designs, complete with polished animations, and a varied arsenal of deadly skills and utilities. Every play style and skill level appears catered for in Battleborn, making the player vs. player content immediately accessible.
The MOBA-style abilities that simply don't work in story mode shine brightly in PVP, allowing strategic players to react to and then take advantage of every situation. Carefully timing Orendi's Paradigm Shift to finish off wounded players in a single large conical attack felt incredibly rewarding. Sniping with Marquis' meticulously engraved transforming pistol felt as reliable as any leading first person shooter and using melee-based characters like Pheobe felt every bit as impactful as you'd hope.
Battleborn doesn't do a great deal to build on the MOBA-like, hero-based formula, but it does remain faithful to the genre's most beloved mechanics and features despite its first-person viewpoint.
Putting the "me-too" in MOBA
Battleborn's story mode feels as though a separate studio developed it, but that's not entirely unexpected. Tacked-on campaign experiences are an all-too-common occurrence with games that have multiplayer as their flagship feature. On this occasion, though, it feels like a frustratingly missed opportunity to bring something new to the genre and give the standard hero-based arena game some much-needed RPG context.
On the multiplayer side of things, Battleborn needs a few features if it wants to compete with the genre's heavy hitters. It'll need some form of player ranking for competitive mode; getting steamrolled by pre-made teams will be a problem in the full game otherwise. The auto-aim is far too aggressive, and often drags your cursor away from enemies you're intending to shoot if someone else meanders over your cross hairs. Joystick controls, in general, feel a little rough. The aiming doesn't feel as though it correctly uses the Xbox One controller's full range of sensitivities. Also, rage quitting was rife in beta, and without adequate punishments it'll be even worse when the game goes live.
It's hard to talk about Battleborn without mentioning Activision-Blizzard's Overwatch. Though Overwatch has more in common with Team Fortress 2 than it does League of Legends, the superficial similarities are hard to overlook. Both games have fantasy/sci-fi themes, vibrant, comedic design directions and hero-based shooter gameplay. Activision-Blizzard is well aware of the comparisons, launching Overwatch into open beta on Xbox One the day of Battleborn's launch.
Battleborn, like Overwatch, is a fully-priced title, and its story mode should've been a powerful differentiator for those choosing between the two. Sadly, it just doesn't add value. Fans of the MOBA-type PvP gameplay will find a lot to love in Battleborn, but it'd be far easier to find enthusiasm for it were it launching as a free-to-play game with purchasable heroes, like the upcoming ID@Xbox MOBA, Gigantic.
Battleborn launches in full on Xbox One, PS4 and PC on May 3rd, 2016.