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Beta impressions: Does Battleborn make the case for the first-person MOBA?

Battleborn

Another MOBA hits the market as companies battle for League of Legend marketshare. {.intro}

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.

Battlebored

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 - Boss

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.

Battleborn - PVE

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..."

Competitive Play

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.

Battleborn

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.

Battleborn

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.

Battleborn - Levels

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

Final Thoughts

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.

Battleborn - KO

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

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.

See Battleborn Open Beta on the Xbox Store (opens in new tab)

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

23 Comments
  • My favourite thing in the beta was that I'm convinced the Dog from Up! is voiced by the same person who does at least one voice in this game. I only tried the story mode, on my own and it was okay, for me it's hard enough getting people together online for Halo 5 at times and games like this always feel like you have to play them with friends to have real fun times. It's the main reason I didn't really play borderlands, organising regular games is hard when people have jobs and families and scheduled rarely align.
  • Aye, I have the same problem with The Division haha
  • For me, this stood out versus Overwatch because of the story mode. After the beta, I hold similar reservations for different reasons. I don't mind playing with randoms, as I'm interested in the story and unlocks rather than the MP (I think of them as bots, sort of). As a result, grinding it out with people I don't know (who don't bother plugging in their mic) doesn't get to me. However, my big issue is that this feels like Destiny to me: So much potential, completely squandered. Gearbox knows this gameplay, and have made wild, run-and-gun bullet hell their bread and butter. Flippant humour and off-the-wall graphics are completely their wheel-house. Insane moments of getting through the fight by the skin of your teeth is another day at their office. And this felt flat. Not bad, just flat. After putting too much time into Destiny and coming to the same conclusion, I don't think I'll be buying this. Now let's see what Blizzard manages with Overwatch.
  • I feel a lot of the same. I think Battleborn should've been PvP only, and free to play. As a fully priced title, shoehorning tired features in an attempt to justify it, they're gonna force themselves out of the market. Will see what the full game is like....
  • I think they can save the story mode, if they commit to it. Really, they have to, as it's one of the major methods to unlocking characters, with some tied to completing certain missions. They'll need to focus on the environment, with more interesting areas to fight in. Additionally, they could leverage some of the game modes as PvE encounters (wave challenges, etc) rather than just using mini-bosses and bosses (how Gearbox, after Borderlands, made boring boss fights is beyond me). The other opportunity is to release raids/raid bosses, which is really where I think they're going with this feature. The missions currently included are a lost cause, but they can improve. Gearbox just have to choose to. If they don't, they'll get forced out of the market just like you said.
  • You can unlock the characters by grinding PvP as well, but that'll potentially take a lot longer. I agree with you completely. I think it's a great concept, but man, the writing just feels so inferior compared to Borderlands, copy pasted bosses, that were SO EASY. No serious MOBA player is going to feel engaged by that stuff. It felt like watching a tween YouTube video at times. Maybe I'm getting old haha
  • Yeah, getting my command level to 40 for Ghalt will take a little while. (Assuming I even buy the game.) As for writing, Anthony Burch made BL2 what it was. Since he's left I really don't expect as much from Gearbox in terms of writing. The defining/differentiating feature of BB should be the story missions, and they've seriously dropped the ball. That's why I think they need to compensate with set-piece combats. Give me a reason to slog through. I completely agree on the rest you've said.
  • Anthony Burch wrote BL2? I had no idea, but it's not surprising. Without a quality comedy writer they should've just made the game a little more serious. When comedy writing is bad, it's *really* bad. I felt myself physically cringing all the way through the beta's missions. Also, the game needs an Evil Garden Gnome hero. ;)
  • Every game needs an Evil Garden Gnome! (Though Orendi comes close...) Anthony Burch may have had a hand in this (it would have been in dev when he left) but he wasn't on it as they'd have been completing/re-writing the script. You can hear his sister (Ashly Burch) as one of the character voices (not sure which as I wasn't paying close enough attention). The voice (but not the personality or phrasing) is almost copy-paste Tiny Tina.
  • Had a little look at this, my son played it for a bit. Nice and colourful. So many damned games.... Never tried One like this, but looks well. Possibly a post Quantum Break purchase, which is waiting for me to progress more in The Division. First world problems, but still problems. Nice to see a beta write up.
  • Thanks dude, not much interest in this game in general it seems like haha
  • It is a good game. But blizzards put a lot of money in overwatch.
  • The smite isn't First Person Game, Right?? Posted from my NoteBook.
    Keep Calm Because P.A.O.K. you are...
  • Nah, third person, but plays similarly.
  • the game was fun but the coding was a huge mess causing many problems at different times. I wouldn 't preorder or order it based on the how laggy and slow it was, Its nowhere near as good or stable as borderlands 2. I played both to compare at the same time. B2 was fast and accurate Battleborn couldn't keep up with its own gameplay and crashed on more than one occaision. TotalBiscuit does a good review of the game on youtube if you want more 
  • I had none of these issues on Xbox, were you on pc?
  • Did not share your experience during my playtime. What platform where you playing on? Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Xbox One
  • Im unsure it is a game I want to play. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Battlebored story mode? I guess we know the answer now :P
  • Multiplayer was great though! Just a shame that you have to pay full price to get it...
  • Nice review.
    I enjoyed the beta and agree the story was decent at best where as the PVP was loads of fun. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Cheers matey, hopefully the full game will bring improvements to story mode.