Bat­tle­born

PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES -

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

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