Battleborn [official site] is Gearbox’s hero-shooter-sometimes-a-MOBA-sometimes-co-op-story-sometimes-all-these-other-things… thingummy. Having spent many hours with it I’m no closer to a succinct definition of what it actually is but I can tell you I did not have a great or inspiring time. Here’s why:
Battleborn is… Hmm. The best way I can describe it at the moment is that it’s a Jack-of-all trades bant-fest. There are single player options, co-op story mission options, a lane-pushing MOBA option, some capture point maps and a minion protection game. It feels like, ultimately, your affinity is intended to be primarily for the characters you unlock and you’ll develop preferences with the modes based on your mood and playstyle.
In that respect I think it’s intended as a cross between a toybox and a toolbox, where you pick the things you want to play with and combine that with how you want to play. That concept is a big part of the appeal of games like League of Legends where you develop pools of favoured champions and roles within a team or with games like Destiny where you have a main character and kit them out according to what you need at any given time. But in Battleborn my experience was of an unfocused sprawl that often tipped over into boredom or confusion.
Before I go on, let me be more specific about what you’ll find in Battleborn. It’is a cartoony first person shooter/melee affair. There’s a story campaign of eight chapters and a prologue which deals with the team of Battleborn characters trying to prevent the destruction of the last remaining star, Solus. This can be played alone, with friends in private mission lobbies or on public servers where your group is filled out with strangers. There are also three different PvP modes. One is Capture where you try to capture and hold points, one is Meltdown where you escort minions to a point while trying to prevent enemy minions from doing the same and the other is Incursion which is the game’s lane-pushing map.
Outside the individual play arenas you have your broader account where you level up characters, assign gear to bolster particular builds of characters or styles of play and keep track of various stats. You can also see the entire roster of characters and what you need to do to unlock them. Each has a rank unlock which you can eventually reach just by playing more but if you want to try and get them early they also have a challenge unlock. The stealthy assassin Deande unlocks at level 38 or when you complete The Heliophage mission on advanced. Telekinetic swordswoman Phoebe is bound to rank 22 or you can get her for killing 50 enemy players.
You start out with the prologue which is largely an animated music video and some basic explanation of the game through a primer mission. You need to be online for this even though it’s just the video and a primer. In fact you need to be online for the entire thing, even solo story missions so if you’re playing solo and get booted off the server or your internet conks out, that’s it for saving Solus. I got booted a little bit early on but the servers seem more reliable now so it hasn’t happened the last few days, although I’ve had a few instances where multiplayer post-match information is unavailable thanks to server errors.
Anyhoodle. Yes, prologue. Music video/downbeat hip hop cartoon followed by a mission which introduces several characters and the game’s basic concepts. These include destroying big shards which power things (usually gates to the next area) and using character abilities which are bound to Q and E, with an ultimate ability on F. There’s also one of the better explanations for having limited lives in a game that I’ve heard.
After that you’re informed of some potential mission locations and deposited in the menu.
At this point I decided to try some of the co-op story missions. The game pushes co-op as the main way to play, making those option buttons on the menu screen colourful and enormous compared with the private modes for solo or friends-only co-op which are small and plain.
The thing is, when you do the online matchmade story missions you don’t get to pick the exact mission you want to do. You get matched with a group and offered a selection of three missions which you can then vote for (there’s a fourth option for if you don’t mind). Whatever gets the most votes is what you play. I wanted to follow the story campaign from episode to episode but there wasn’t a way to do that and still play multiplayer unless I got lucky with the maps and the votes.
Assuming that perhaps it didn’t matter about the order of the episodes I played a few of these multiplayer missions but I found them to be confusing. There is a *lot* of information to deal with on screen and in conjunction with the art style’s bright colours and particle effects means there’s a lot of stuff – environment, user interface, other characters, enemies… all competing for your attention. The first person perspective can also make melee combat a really confusing experience, particularly if you find yourself in the midst of several spell effects. When playing Rath and jumping his skirt thing also flips up into your face like this for a moment:
Something which helped me explain this a bit better was dipping back into the Overwatch beta. Obviously that game is hyperfocused as a competitive shooter but it does also involve a roster of diverse characters and is designed around fulfilling map objectives so it’s a useful comparison as you’re often dealing with similar amounts of information. The difference is that the design has been more successfully honed around clarity. When I hear footfall, or the cues for particular abilities in Overwatch I tend to know whether they’re enemy or friendly as well is the character they signal. When I roam the map I rarely lose my bearings because landmarks and structures change. When my ultimate ability is charged the reminder is front and centre on my UI. There’s a crispness in Overwatch where I find woolliness in Battleborn.
Overwatch also doesn’t have to deal with leveling up. Battleborn does, and I can see the appeal because I play MOBAs and those are about guiding your character into particular strengths, curating them according to the needs of the match. But Battleborn’s implementation I found quite clunky. With each level you can pick an augment from a kind of DNA helix which you bring up by pressing 1. At first it’s a choice of two at each level but eventually you’ll progress with a character to the point where a third unlocks.
They work like Heroes Of The Storm upgrades and often tweak abilities adding a lifesteal here or a knockback effect there or maybe a percentage damage increase. But when you have that process in first person rather than the top-down MOBA perspective I find it far harder to parse. It feels like you need to take a few seconds to consider the choices in front of you. In PvE that’s easier to do – wait for a pause between minion waves or step away from the action to a safer space. But in PvP you very often don’t have the luxury of safety during those few seconds so I found the process stressful and disruptive.
The sense of confusion also manifested when it came to narrative objectives in these first co-op story missions. On an archive mission I later found out that we were supposed to have been guarding minions on their way to a point as they transferred data, but when I initially tried it as a co-op thing with strangers it seemed to be that the maps were big enough that it was possible to lose your way exploring side bits and fall behind, thus missing bits of explanation which a teammate had triggered because I was trying to work out how to get back to the group. We ended up failing and I didn’t actually discover why until I played the same mission solo.
The missions themselves feel much of a muchness. They tend to be variations of the themes “waves of minions” and “boss which you hit for a while and then you hit the things which are powering its shield/concealing its weak point and then you hit it for a while again”. Some involve more minions or different kinds of minions but the basic patterns are the same and I found myself zoning out, holding the left mouse button to keep firing at whatever was in front of me. I think more variation in enemies and in how you need to deal with them would have helped, but as it is they can feel like a slurry of bodies to be slogged through rather than separate challenges to face and master.
I don’t think you needed to play through them in order, but alone or with other people I still found them dull. The main difference was that solo they took longer but no-one was unpleasant on voice comms. I should stress that the unpleasantness wasn’t extreme, it’s more that no-one used it apart from to occasionally say things like “for fuck’s sake” and other similar expressions of frustration with teammates. There’s a lack of joy in the actual gameplay – it’s rote and that’s in stark contrast with the layer of non-stop BANTS which the dialogue layers over the whole experience. The dialogue isn’t unfunny, but it is relentless and the jokes do have a tendency to get hammered home. I think I’d be fonder of it if it wasn’t so at odds with the play experience of the story missions. As it is I get that vaguely uncomfortable feeling like when a comedian is performing to the wrong audience and there’s a cavernous silence absorbing the humour.
A particularly frustrating experience was when I got stuck on a mission when playing solo. It’s called The Saboteur and I believe it’s actually problematic enough that it’s going to be tweaked soon. I’d get pretty far and it would take up the best part of an hour with me left clicking my way through minions and using my abilities as per the demands of the situation. One particular wave was giving me (and apparently a lot of other people) trouble towards the end, though. I didn’t get killed but the objective did and thus the mission was a failure. I’d need to start the process over again. I’m not taking issue with the fact I needed to repeat – I’m fine with needing to learn or change – but I am taking issue with the fact that the repetition wasn’t entertaining or interesting as I tried to unpick what I needed to do differently. I tried several characters and got to the same point but the feel of the mission and the ways of dealing with the waves didn’t change in any meaningful way despite me deliberately picking characters who seemed geared to solving the problem I was having in various ways.
I would have liked to immediately swap to playing the mission co-operatively with strangers but the limitations on selecting campaigns mean you need to gamble on getting the mission you want in your selection and then on other people voting for it. Gearbox have said on Reddit that this is due to not wanting to fracture their player base while it’s still small and end up with long load times but it’s still frustrating. That issue also bleeds into the PvP modes, too. For example, I’ve tried multiple times to have a go on the Incursion map called Echelon but every single time the alternative, Overgrowth, gets more votes so I haven’t even set foot in it. Oh, and to complete The Saboteur mission I was stuck on I ended up waiting for a friend who also had access to the game to install it and we did it in tandem.
Let’s move onto the PvP side of the game as that’s where I think the people who do click with the game will spend a lot of their time.
Incursion is the lane-push mode. I’ve spoken about it before and I know some people are enjoying it but it still hasn’t clicked with me. You have a basic lane set up and minion waves waddle down it towards the enemy end. You’re not trying to destroy a base, just the two sentry units which obstruct your progress. To help you out there are thrall mercenary camps which you can get to fight for you by beating them up and crystal shards you can collect in order to build little turrets on marked platforms which will also add to your firepower. You can also set up gear loadouts to augment your character during a match.
As with pretty much any lane-pusher it’s about knowing when and how to apply pressure. Sometimes that will be by taking a mercenary camp and adding more bodies to a fight, sometimes it will be about holding off on using abilities until there’s a good opportunity, sometimes it will be about leaping in and hammering your abilities into the opposing side’s faces. The thing is, I only caught glimpses of that potential.
The developers have said that there is an Elo-based system running behind the scenes. But for whatever reason the matches rarely felt even. There were frequent one-sided stomps and, where the matches did go on for longer they felt more like a stalemate than a back and forth or a tussle. The game also displays people’s command rank when you boot into a game (which is linked to the experience earned and time spent playing rather than any match-making ranking) so the *impression* is of weirdly imbalanced teams. I’m wondering if just removing that number from the match screens would help in giving a better impression of the balance of matches.
At the moment teams seem prone to surrender, assuming they can’t make a comeback, as soon as their first sentry goes down. There are also expressions of frustration which aren’t new to the genre but I think are exacerbated by the present appearance of matchmaking and the stompiness of some games – one chap accusing people of wasting his time over voice comms when they didn’t agree to a surrender vote, another player kicked off about noob players.
Obviously these accusations and strops might happen anyway because of the joys of competitive gaming but I think that actually being able to see that players with fledgling accounts are bundled in with the people who have been power gaming and zooming up the ranks primes the playspace for problems. As an example, my last match had one rank 49 player and two rank 3 players on one side and their opponents didn’t have anyone higher than rank 16. Even if you know an Elo system is in play it looks weird and, even if they’re being matched in terms of skill it’s probably fair to assume a rank 3 player doesn’t have the map familiarity of a rank 49 player.
I enjoyed the Capture mode far more because the mode seemed to have more clarity just by dint of the objectives being more obvious, perhaps, and the players seemed more inclined to fight for comebacks if they fell behind – fewer surrenders and fewer players simply dropping out. This is the one I’d probably play if I stuck with the game, although it still doesn’t achieve the excitement and more-ishness of Control maps in other games. To bring consoles into the equation for a second, this is no Destiny Control.
Meltdown felt more prone to stalemates, fights shifting from one side of the arena to the other but not feeling particularly momentous. Smite does a good riff on the minion-delivery-to-portal idea with its Arena mode. You have a circular space with some buff camps down the side and the minions charge down the centre. You’re sort of keeping an eye on them but also just rampaging around, killing foes and using that to also contribute some victory points. It seems to better understand the relationship between what players enjoy doing and rewarding them for that. By contrast Battleborn’s Meltdown mode felt… how do I put it? Mulchy? Out of focus?
I found myself wondering whether matters could have been improved by going free-to-play and adopting a far longer beta phase. Maybe that could have helped build up the player base or point out the parts which people loved and thus direct the focus. Peeking at the daily Steam stats a few times last weeks the peak concurrent players I saw was about 12k – nowhere near the top ten. Checking now it’s a little over 6k. To give you a bit of perspective, that puts it at 57th on the list. Three places lower than Gearbox’s four year old game, Borderlands 2.
That’s the problem for me, really. For everything Battleborn does, another game does it better. Maybe there are people who want all of those things in one place and want to play them with these particular characters but if you want a MOBA, Dota 2 and LoL have huge userbases and passionate communities just waiting to hook you in. If you want a console-y shooter with character malleability and cool toys you want to slog for there’s Destiny. If you want a competitive shooter with that fun, cartoony element Overwatch is coming. If it’s story you’re after there are whole libraries of games with more compelling narrative, same if you’ve got a yearning for co-op.
Battleborn isn’t a bad game in the sense that it lacks work or effort – the team has clearly put in the hours – it’s just that, for me, it’s an uninspiring result which can’t justify its hefty price tag.