Gearbox Software has brought its signature blend of comedy, vibrant cartoony visuals, first person shooting, and light RPG mechanics and poured them into Battleborn – the studio's take on an FPS MOBA.
Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas enjoy massive popularity as isometric action games, such as Heroes of the Storm and League of Legends, but their implementation in first or third person viewpoints hasn't seen lots of traction yet. SMITE is by far the most popular third person MOBA on Xbox One, with Gigantic on its way shortly.
Battleborn, of course, is set in the first person, and unlike typical MOBAs it is a fully priced title, packing 25 heroes as in-game unlocks, with a story driven campaign and three competitive multiplayer modes to sweeten the deal. Is it all worth it? Let's find out.
Visuals, Design and Story
Fans of Borderlands will find Battleborn's environments somewhat familiar. The studio dropped the cel-shading of its flagship franchise, but the art style still errs on the cartoony side, complete with stylish 2D collision effects and sky boxes.
The game's 25 heroes are as diverse as they are creative, and should cater to everyone's tastes – at least aesthetically. Gearbox's relentless mission to parody everything continues in Battleborn, and the 25 hero-strong lineup manages to make a mockery of dozens of tropes while throwing some of its own uniqueness into the mix. Some of the more stereotypical characters include Montana – a grossly exaggerated caricature of the muscular heavy gunner. Montana is flanked by a bow-wielding elf huntress and is accompanied by "Oscar Mike" and "Whiskey Foxtrot" generic soldier archetypes. With the obvious choices accounted for, some of Battleborn's heroes step completely off the grid as well, featuring a mech piloting penguin, cyborg luchador, and a healing mushroom ninja.
While Battleborn's characters see a lot of variation, some of the location designs are a little lacklustre. Each multiplayer mode only features two environments apiece, which makes PvP battles a little more repetitive than they otherwise could be. Thankfully, Gearbox is planning to include free multiplayer maps as DLC, and further story missions as part of a paid season pass.
Speaking of the campaign, Battleborn takes place in a universe in its death throes. Only a single star remains, and the various alien civilizations are locked in a battle for control of its diminishing energy. It's certainly welcome to see a hero-based game inject more serious depth into its lore, putting teams of players in RPG-like dungeons complete with boss battles, loot drops, and some plot context.
Each of the game's campaign missions take place on different planets which feature the occasionally exciting set piece, but there's pretty heavy amounts of copy, paste, and color-swapping, particularly when it comes to enemies and general level layouts – but the campaign offers variety in other ways.
The story mode features the occasional (but gorgeous) 2D animated scenes, and each mission sports comedic narrative – usually between the characters each mission focuses on. While the jokes are a little on the tired side and the palette-swapped environments get a little repetitive, the campaign does add some value to the overall package, particularly if you find you enjoy the co-operative loot-fests seen in the likes of Borderlands, The Division, and Destiny. More on that later.
Battleborn is an incredibly stylish overall product. The intersecting animation styles, diverse color palette, and an impressive array of hero designs make for a visually exciting product. The story mode offers some much-needed depth to the character's lore, and despite not finding a single smirk-worthy jape throughout my time with the campaign, the banter adds an extra dimension to its characters, which is often sorely lacking in other MOBA-like games.
Battleborn's hero designs give the title distinction in an increasingly crowded multiplayer market, but it'll be gameplay that determines whether it achieves long-term multiplayer success.
As mentioned, Battleborn offers a story-driven campaign mode that can be played both online co-operatively and offline, either alone or in split-screen co-op. It offers various PvP gameplay modes as well, including a typical FPS point capture mode; a true MOBA-like Incursion mode, where players compete in a tug-of-war style battle to guide A.I. minions towards the enemy base; and a somewhat unique Meltdown mode, where players compete to destroy the enemy team's A.I. minions the fastest.
Battleborn's scattershot approach to content appears to offer a lot of value on the surface, but I feel as though the game might have benefitted from a sharper focus.
Each character has a deadly array of skills, some tuned for offence, some for defence, and others for support. Like a typical MOBA, characters undergo a constant reset cycle, climbing to level 10 before resetting back to zero after each battle. Gearbox has provided a unique spin on this formula, though, which gives the game a sense of addictive progression outside of its core gameplay modes.
Performing activities in-game, whether it's in the campaign or in multiplayer, reward various types of experience (EXP) that pour into a frankly dizzying multiplex of character progression, unlocks, loot, and challenges.
Some of the game's 25 heroes will require specific conditions to be met before you can utilize them in battle. Whether it's obtaining silver ranks in the game's dungeon-like story mode missions, or killing several hundred minions, or winning a certain amount of multiplayer matches – if you seek to unlock every character for use, you'll find its most efficient to partake in almost every activity Battleborn has to offer. If you don't want to meet the more specific requirements, you can also unlock the characters by grinding up your 'Command Rank', which is an overarching level system that rewards participation in every aspect of the game.
In addition to the 'Command Rank', Battleborn also features 'Character Ranks', which you level by performing various challenges associated with that character, in addition to regular participation. While Command Ranks unlock characters, Character Ranks unlock skins, taunts, and lore items, making the investment in a particular character more rewarding. Sadly, the 'skins' are simply color swaps, rather than unique models as seen in Heroes of the Storm or even Overwatch, but they are at least a way to show off how dedicated you've been to that specific hero.
Along with Command and Character Rank EXP, you'll also be rewarded with credits that can be spent on loot packs full of randomly generated items. Higher level loot packs reward more powerful items, but those higher level packs have Command Rank requirements attached to them. You can equip three items to use in battle, and to activate their stats you'll have to spend shards (yet another currency) obtained within Battleborn's live PvP and PvE battles.
Confused yet? While the various progression systems do make participation feel rewarding, I can't help but wonder if Gearbox couldn't have streamlined it a little. Thankfully, the studio resisted the urge to add micro-transactions for those loot packs, as some of the items can significantly boost your prowess in battle. Battleborn uses matchmaking algorithms to create fair contests, but it's too early to tell if loot impacts balance in PvP situations – particularly the hero-specific legendary gear available for completing campaign missions on higher difficulties.
As you level up over the course of a multiplayer or campaign mission, you'll unlock increasingly powerful augmentations and skills, all the way up to your Ultimate ability, which is usually on a long cool down timer. Lining up Orendi's Paradigm Shift blast with several enemy players at low health can make for hilariously satisfying multi-kills, and Shayne and Aurox's ultimate can lay waste to entire groups of players or enemy minions in one single glorious fireball. Each character has a diverse arsenal of damage, support, and defensive skills that really shine in team play, but don't always perform as well in certain other game modes.
One example of this issue can be found in the game's PvE campaign. Some of Battleborn's abilities that are designed to be used reactively in multiplayer totally lose their depth in PVE, making the experience feel little more than a spammy bullet sponge-laden shooting gallery.
Some of the boss fights in the campaign are far more ambitious than the trash mob combat sequences in between, but the overall experience is a far, far cry from a real first-person shooter. The repetition is compounded when playing characters with abilities and talents seem designed around strategic PvP uses rather than destroying hordes of A.I. bots.
Ascending through the gear progression the PvE campaign offers can be quite addictive.
In a typical FPS, the playable character usually has access to multiple weapons and abilities to keep combat from feeling stale, and, as mentioned, the most enjoyable skills you have in Battleborn are often on extremely lengthy cool-down timers. Playing on higher difficulties enhances the campaign a little, though, and ascending through the gear progression the PvE campaign offers can be quite addictive – especially if you're playing with friends cooperatively online or locally.
Given the amount of copy and paste in the campaign's environments, and the way combat abilities feel tuned for PvP balance rather than PvE fun, the campaign comes across like an afterthought – but it can be useful if you want to take a break from slugging through PvP. Battleborn's strengths lie firmly in its multiplayer mode, and thankfully, you can avoid either mode entirely and still unlock everything.
Battleborn's multiplayer isn't fast and frenetic or run 'n gun – the time to kill can be incredibly slow, and requires a methodical hand. You'll be rewarded for patience, tactical thinking, and team play. Different heroes require varying levels of skill to play competently, and Gearbox notes whether a character is 'easy' or 'advanced' in the Command Menu – which is where you'll see all of your unlocks, stats, and loot packs. Some heroes, such as Oscar Mike, handle very much like your typical first person shooter, while other characters, like the blade-wielding Rath, handle more like an action RPG protagonist.
Knowing when to expose yourself to danger and when to flee to your minions or team mates is key to survival, and making a great play against an enemy player does feel incredibly satisfying. Still, it's worth warning that this type of PvP could be an acquired taste, particularly for core FPS players. Matches in Battleborn's Incursion mode can last anywhere up to 30 minutes, and the sheer number of systems that come in to play – from shard collecting to unlock your gear and construct turrets, contracting mercenary Thralls, and learning the vast array of counters and abilities your enemies utilize requires a significant investment to learn.
Battleborn trades accessibility for depth, but finding that nuance can be a difficult task when playing with random people. Teams that work together to synchronize complementary roles while playing the objectives can pull off some deadly tasks. If you're playing solo with random players over Xbox Live without voice communication, a lot of that cooperative depth will get stripped away – but this isn't necessarily the game's fault.
Battleborn's engine simply doesn't hold its own against similar shooters it hopes to compete with.
What I will blame on the game, however, is the unimpressive engine. Battleborn on Xbox One just doesn't feel as fluid as a modern FPS should. Collision issues with the terrain and the various A.I. mobs running around on screen can make for extremely frustrating experiences, especially when you're killed at a crucial moment because you got stuck in the floor or blocked in a door way.
When you combine these problems with a 30fps frame rate, Battleborn's engine simply doesn't hold its own against similar modern shooters it hopes to compete with.
When the stars align, Battleborn does provide incredible moments of exciting PvP action, with damage, defence, and support skills balanced fairly well for team play. Overall, Incursion and Meltdown PvP modes feel well tuned – dare I say fun – where players can shine in various roles, and the more fragile heroes can sneak away in a crowd of A.I. minions when things get too hectic. The bot-less point Capture mode feels a little less balanced for some classes, as certain abilities and strengths just don't translate well in duel situations, where your counter character will simply stomp you unless you're hiding behind team mates.
Perhaps it's by design that certain classes are less engaging to play in certain PvE and PvP situations, but for me, it just narrowed the amount of appealing content.
Gearbox's diffuse approach gives Battleborn a "jack of all trades, master of none" identity that might see it struggle to compete with similar titles that dedicate finer focus to a smaller set of features. The loot and progression systems do give the game an addictive, rewarding quality, but I would've liked to have seen a little more polish in the game's engine and mechanics – even if that meant some of Battleborn's systems and characters got scaled back, or even scrapped entirely.
- Great character designs
- Incursion and Meltdown put an exciting spin on the MOBA format
- Wide assortment of content and progression systems
- Some gameplay aspects feel unpolished or poorly tuned
- 30 FPS and collision issues detracts from the game's fluidity
Battleborn is an incredibly ambitious title, and beneath the issues, there beats the heart of a robust and strategic MOBA shooter – and it occasionally reveals itself in exciting moments throughout both PvP and PvE. Methodical, strategic players will potentially get a lot out of the game – particularly if you're playing with co-ordinated friends – but the clunky engine could dissuade traditional first-person shooter fans. It'll be interesting to see how Battleborn develops further over the coming months.
This review was conducted on Xbox One using a copy provided by the publisher.