Gearbox's character-centric shooter Battleborn's [official site] open beta will begin on PC on 13 April, including access to two of the game's story episodes, the multiplayer modes "Incursion" and "Meltdown" and all the characters, loot, gear and progression systems.
I've written about Incursion before but let's talk about story mode - here's what it is, how it's referencing episodic TV and some more about how it works:
First a bit about the game. Gearbox are calling it a hero shooter. What that means is that you have characters – the titular Battleborn – which you level up during story episodes or multiplayer matches and who come with a variety of skills as well as basic attacks. The shooter bit is kind of a misnomer as you have some melee characters in there – I played Rath who wields swords, for example. The easiest way to describe it is like plugging a MOBA-style cast into a story campaign and a bunch of multiplayer modes.
The story itself is being billed as a season, taking its inspiration from episodic television. The first season consists of eight episodes and a prologue, and where each episode has a specific story and mission but the overall point of all of them is that you, playing as various Battleborn, must try and save the last star, Solus, and defeat the evil Lothar Rendain. The game hams up the TV idea with an intro screen to each mission which introduces all the players as "Starring so and so as CHARACTER NAME."
One mission which I played was "The Renegade". It was about moving through a level and defending particular points against waves of enemies as we sought to recruit a prisoner by the name of Caldarius. In doing so we would unlock him as a playable character. I say "we" because the story levels are designed to be played solo or up to five player co-op. Another level was about escorting a payload in the form of a kind of mobile sentry unit capable of performing a vital (and fatal) maneuver to aid your motley crew.
As Rath I had a crossblade I could throw to deal damage from further away than my usual melee range, a shockwave that dealt damage and knocked enemies up in a line in front of me and my ultimate ability was a spin attack that made me into a slashing windmill of a man for a few seconds. It took a couple of goes to get the hang of the shockwave because I think during my first attempts I was playing with a solo mentality so I think I disrupted a couple of other people's attacks by knocking the enemy upwards, but then I settled into a better rhythm, experience with MOBAs being rather a boon for getting started.
As you go through the missions you can also destroy crystals which litter the landscape in order to collect shards which you use to build tactical objects - turrets, healing stations and the like. These structures can help you defend points as we found on the Caldarius mission where it helped boost our damage output. You will also level up, which means selecting options from a helix. It's reminiscent of how leveling up and character builds work in Heroes of the Storm. You pick from a couple of options - left or right - at each level and in doing so you can hone your character's abilities to better suit the situation.
"We have all the different story episodes you can play and they have very different challenges," adds the game's creative director, Randy Varnell. "You played one that's a payload today and another that's a series of defensive scenarios. We have some that are very much like a standard heroic raid from World of Warcraft that's "fight through miniboss, fight through miniboss, fight through big boss". Then you get to start mixing it up with different teams."
He's referring to the roster of characters and how you can mix and match them to suit the players or the scenario – ideally both. Varnell sees the characters as the unifying force for the game which is interesting because I've struggled with seeing Battleborn as a coherent project. I think that's partly been because of the multiplayer mode I played where I didn't really see what it was adding to the game.
"The character is always your view into the world right, and whether you take Orendi [Orendi is a chaotic multi-limbed character] into competitive multiplayer or one of the single player story episodes, the controls are familiar, you understand Orendi's abilities, you can understand different ways to use them. I think what's cool is once you find that group of characters you centre on first then you have all sorts of experiences with that character."
In terms of tone, it seems similar to what I've played of the Borderlands games – lots of cartoonish wise-cracking and dark humour – which isn't surprising given people like Varnell worked on both properties. I found I didn't warm to it here, but it was energetic and in keeping with the style of the missions.
The story missions were a lot more interesting than my multiplayer experiences. That's because the the story and objectives offer structure and variation from one episode to the next, so despite the two modes appearing to be given equal presence in terms of play time at the event I was attending my feeling is that multiplayer will act as more of a challenge mode or a kickback thing when you're taking a break from the main game but not booting up something else.
Something I find interesting in games like this is how to persuade people to play support characters. Perhaps that will be less of a problem if you're playing co-op with friends but it's more of an issue when playing with strangers so I asked Varnell if there were ways Gearbox was trying to incentivise those characters particularly:
"When we started support in Battleborn they were far more dedicated support," he says. "The original Miko could barely do any damage at all, it was negligible." Miko is a kind of sentient, combative fungus who can heal allies, slow enemies and hurls out poison-tipped kunai.
"What we ended up doing is while all of our support characters can support in ways other characters couldn't touch they're all fairly viable combatants. Reyna's awesome at overshielding but she has a combination she can do that's the pistol play and her power cannon that does a decent amount of damage. Not as much as Marquis standing back and going "headshot headshot headshot" as a sniper, but they're viable and they can mix it up.
"That's really important to us because all of the characters have to be able to play single player through the campaign. Some of the characters might be a bit more challenging than heavy damage characters in that but I think some people will really enjoy that. It's a different-paced game and you have to approach it and think about it differently. But they're all Battleborn, they're all warriors to some degree."
Some Battleborn you'll have access to from the start but others will need unlocking. I mentioned Caldarius above and how you need to complete the relevant story mission to get access to him and his burst damage grenades and ground-pounding ultimate. In the build I played, Eldrid commando Mellka is available if you complete the game or reach rank 34 with your player account and cranky scientist Kleese comes with rank 36 and a silver rating on all story missions.
In terms of what the full game and its first season will entail, Varnell explains: "There are nine episodes [eight and the prologue]. Depending on your speed they're 30 minutes to an hour long. You've got a good 8-10 hours. It's a little bit longer than your standard shooter campaign. Then we've done a lot with the missions. You can actually come back and get completely different chunks of dialogue so you can choose to come back and replay. Then we've done some of the tricks we did in Borderlands – you come back and fight the ones with bosses and the bosses can drop legendary items.
"So one runthrough is a little less than ten hours but we really tried to find ways to make it interesting to come back to that content and challenge yourself. As far as long-term there's a lot more story to go. I have a lot more that I'd like to do with the universe, it's a big place, there are a lot of characters, there's a lot going on."
Open beta runs on PC from 10am PST (5pm UTC) 13 April until 7am PST (2pm UTC) 18 April.