PC, PS4, Xbox One
The first thing you see upon loading Battleborn, before being granted access to any kind of menu or even an intro, is a full-screen advert inviting you to buy the season pass. It’s a distasteful move, sure, and comes across as more than a little desperate, but it also proves emblematic of a game that’s often off-key.
There are positives to be excavated from the cacophony, however. The game offers up a colossal roster of 25 playable characters, all with primary and secondary attacks, plus three special moves (the third of which must be unlocked each round). Despite this breadth, every member of the lineup plays differently, and ensuring that your five-person team has the right mix of abilities and playstyles can mean the difference between a close match or a humiliating defeat. But while there’s plenty of variety on offer, and it’s clear that Gearbox has worked hard to provide meaningful combinations of characters, the resulting combat feels rather insubstantial. There’s little feedback from the hits you register on AI or player-controlled opponents, and weapons feel weak thanks to an enormous time-to-kill average that may be offputting to anyone more used to scooping up a handful of headshots in a matter of minutes.
The game’s substantial health bars are the result of Gearbox’s bold attempt to spice up the firstperson team shooter with elements of MOBAs, and it will come as a profound shock to anyone who hasn’t dabbled with the genre. Success is reliant on efficient teamwork, and you’ll need to work closely with your allies to down even a single member of the opposing team. But while there’s pleasure to be found in a well-orchestrated sortie behind enemy lines, a lucky escape or a heroic last stand, these moments are hamstrung by the unfulfilling combat. The singleplayer and co-op campaign missions suffer the worst in this respect, the problem compounded by repetitive objectives and a glut of unimaginative enemies only occasionally broken up by a handful of more inventive boss encounters.
The most striking lift from MOBAs, however, is a ten-step in-game levelling system that’s intended to allow players to quickly experience, within a single match, the kind of character upgrade arc that might normally play out over a full campaign. As you reach each XP threshold, you’re presented with two mutually exclusive options that augment your two primary special abilities. Squat, stocky dwarf Boldur’s first decision, for example, is between Axe Ricochet – which sees his Axe Toss ability immediately returned to him, cooldown-free, if he hits an enemy – or Crash Helmet, which generates a temporary overshield when he uses his charging Boldurdash attack.
These skill trees work well in the co-op campaign where there’s plenty of time to study each upgrade description and make an informed decision on the direction you want to take your character, but in multiplayer things are less sure-footed. Initially, at least, trying out new characters is a daunting prospect as making sense of the busy, text-heavy upgrade screen is an unappealing prospect in the heat of combat. But a bigger problem is the potential for imbalance that the system creates: lose your hold on a match and the gap will widen as the other team thunders up the upgrade tree. Rather than address this problem, Gearbox has instead applied the common, divisive MOBA get-out clause of a vote-to-surrender option (an outrageously frustrating way to conclude a session if you’re not on board with your sullen team’s decision to give up). At the game’s core are three main modes: Capture, Incursion and Meltdown. Capture is the most accessible and familiar, a stripped-down spin on Conquest or Domination in which both teams vie for control of three points on the map. Collectable shards form an in-game currency, which can be exchanged for turrets and drones, healing stations and accelerator towers, which speed up allies and slow enemies. Incursion and Meltdown are more obviously influenced by the MOBA genre, both requiring players to escort minions along each level’s single lane to reach an objective (two mechs in the case of the former, and a guilt-inducing grinder in the latter). In all cases, objectives are far more important than kills, and simply pushing back the enemy can be just as effective as assassinating them.
But the strategic possibilities of traditional MOBAs are eroded in the absence of multiple lanes and an aerial view, and while full-team clashes can be thrilling, it’s often difficult to keep track of what’s going on. This is compounded by a remarkably ugly Saturday-morningcartoon aesthetic that drenches everything in lurid, saturated colours, which often makes characters difficult to distinguish, and fills the screen with spectacular – but obfuscating – weapon and ability effects. Organised, communicative teams will be able to carve out success from the disarray, but play without a mic on a match-made team at your peril.
Disarray is perhaps the best way to sum up Battleborn. It’s a well-intentioned, brave muddle of ideas that never quite gel, and even occasionally cause friction. In its attempt to meld FPS and MOBA, it manages to underwhelm in both areas while somehow feeling overcomplicated at the same time. Its boldest ideas feel gimmicky after a short time spent with them, and a litany of design choices that serve to derail what could have been a streamlined experience (being kicked back to the main menu after every multiplayer match rather than immediately voting on the next one, for example) dumbfound as much as they rankle. Perhaps it was a sensible decision to front-load the game with a sales pitch after all.
The possibilities of traditional MOBAs are eroded in the absence of multiple lanes and an aerial view