At a glance, Battleborn presents itself as a game bringing several ideas together from first-person shooters, MOBAs, RPGs, and MMOs. On paper, it sounds like a win-win by heavily enmeshing various game types into both singleplayer and multiplayer, all from the developer known for their humor-fueled shooter franchise: Borderlands. This is all topped off by a very unique look, personality, and presentation to the game. Unfortunately, somewhere within the mix of attempting to appeal to everyone, Battleborn dwindles into mediocrity.
In Battleborn, the universe is being destroyed and a cast of twenty-five heroes have come together near the last remaining star to destroy the evil organization Varelsi. This somewhat cliched story serves as background for the campaign and characters. The cast, although versatile, has only a small bit of backstory and is, unfortunately, far from fleshed out leaving them feeling shallow. The story is filled with various bits of humor including benign quips regarding the circumstances of your characters’ situation and fourth wall gags. Comedy is always subjective, but a lot of it missed for me. I don’t believe I laughed once during my time with the game and many of the one-liners left me cringing rather than grinning.
The story mode in Battleborn is a relatively straight-forward, loot-based, MMO-inspired shooter campaign that feels like Destiny involving linear paths with corridor or arena shooting and bullet-sponge bosses. Much of the game will ask you to run to an area while listening to chatter before shooting enemies until they are dead, then repeat. There is a little variety in terms objective that comes in the form of escorting or hitting a switch with some light puzzle elements and platforming. When this is all you do for several hours without much change in terms of presentation, abilities, or even objectives, the formula grows stale very quickly.
The style of Battleborn stands as one of the game’s highlights. I personally really liked the art present in the game although I could see it being a bit over-the-top for some. The characters have a sickly, Burton-esque quality combined with a Disney animation appeal that makes each of them visually interesting. The AI and environments within the campaign have plenty of visual variety making things a bit more engaging when shooting droves of enemies. It’s an unapologetically inconsistent art style that helps make the universe and characters aesthetically unique. Even in cutscenes, the art style changes drastically from one scene to the next. Within the introduction alone, there’s hand-drawn animation seemingly inspired by the Aeon Flux cartoon, panning shots of still images drawn in a completely different manner, and CGI animation.
Although I enjoy the artwork, it can get muddled during gameplay. The biggest contributor to this is the HUD. I’m sure fans of the game are tired of hearing this, but simply put, the HUD has too much going on. At just about any point during a multiplayer match, you can see several HUD elements including the map, abilities, armor/health, the status of objectives, the score, currency, gear, power-ups collected, damage to your shield, notification of an upgrade, notification of challenge progression, indication of healing or damage, friendly names and health, enemy names and health, visual representation of who is speaking, button prompts, and of course your own weapon which, at times, can take up serious real estate. All of this overlays the environment, teammates, enemies, projectiles, particle effects, environmental representation of objectives, turrets, shards, and power-up pick-ups. The game is busy enough as it is including a constant barrage of enemies and projectiles but gets even worse when someone dies or uses an ability and the screen fills up with particles. I constantly found myself wondering what was damaging me and running away from the action simply because I could not figure out if I was about to die.
In a game like this, the learning curve is very important due to the complexity of Battleborn’s combat. The gameplay mechanics are similar to traditional MOBAs wherein the player has their normal attack, a secondary attack, two abilities, and an ultimate. These abilities can also change during a match based on upgrades that occur as the player’s level increases. For instance, Rath’s Catalytic Smash is a shockwave that knocks players into the air for a brief period of time. If the player chooses, they can alter this ability by selecting an upgrade that stuns enemies rather than elevating them. These upgrades are implemented by selecting one of up to three variables upon reaching each subsequent level during a match. This means that in order to be effective against opponents, players must know character’s abilities along with potential upgrades at each level. This concept is similar to ones included in games like DOTA or SMITE and is something that some players will enjoy while others will find the metagame impenetrable.
What I imagine many would consider to be the meat of Battleborn is the multiplayer experience. There are three modes (Capture, Incursion, and Meltdown) to experience five-on-five PVP combat. The objective of Capture is to secure three points on a given map; Incursion is the most MOBA-esque mode consisting of escorting minions to destroy the opposing team’s sentries; and Meltdown asks players to escort minions to an objective located just within the enemy’s side of the map.
My personal favorite is Incursion as it has it’s own style of gameplay that is a little more frantic and fluid than your average MOBA. In this mode, the maps are designed with the standard three-lane MOBA structure where the majority of the combat will take place in the middle lane while the outside lanes serve primarily as flanking routes or a means to pick up extra XP or currency. What makes it more frenzied are simplified lane shifts that make it easy to traverse from an outside lane to aid teammates or engage enemies in the middle of the map. It takes the typical MOBA formula and adds it’s own flare.
Although the moment to moment combat is done well due to above average gameplay mechanics, there is a major problem within the balancing of the game. This occurred in the form of late game advantages for the team that’s at a higher level. Throughout my twenty hours with the game, I did not see a single comeback victory, and only saw one match that ended with a score differential under 25 points (out of 100). This is a design flaw that I have not seen discussed previously but saw the effects of constantly.
Some will read this and say that this is how MOBAs work, but that’s not necessarily true. In most other MOBAs, certain characters are designed to be beneficial during various segments of each match. This is why characters like Doom or Medusa are known for carrying late game DOTA matches. Or why Poseidon dominates the early game in SMITE. There’s a balancing system dependant on understanding characters’ progression systems. This is present in Battleborn as well, but seems either much more muddled, misunderstood, or simply inefficient. My theory is that there’s too much benefit concerning late game perks and abilities creating matches in which, after a certain point, one team easily dominates the other. I believe this combined with the punishingly lengthy respawn times creates an unfair advantage. This is not only frustrating for new players but completely destroys any chance of an appealing metagame.
In the end, Battleborn has a lot to offer in terms of fun, frenetic combat with an over-the-top presentation but falls short in several key departments that negatively impact the overall gameplay experience. It may be worth playing with a group of friends if you’re willing to invest the time the game demands, but if you’re looking for something to pick up and play more casually, I would recommend looking elsewhere.
Forgetting Form Follows Function
Although Battleborn has some great art design and gameplay mechanics, its attempt to be too inclusive leads to combat that feels convoluted and riddled with balancing issues.