I first played Battleborn [official site] back at E3 last year. Gearbox are calling it a hero shooter – a cartoonish FPS with a story campaign suited for one to five players plus competitive multiplayer options. I didn't write about it at the time because I didn't really feel like I had anything to say about it. It wasn't bad, but I didn't see anything in that demo – a mission set on the ice planet Bliss – which lured me in or inspired curiosity.
I confess I'd forgotten about the game in the interim but a preview event gave me a hands-on opportunity with Incursion (a mode from the competitive multiplayer side of Battleborn) and a chance to reappraise:
Incursion is a 5v5 lane-pushing mode. You get two sentry mechs each, a big, really strong one near your spawn at one end of the lane and a smaller one further forward. Your objective is to destroy these sentries as you advance down the lane with the bigger one acting as the major objective. We played on a map called Overgrowth – green, jungly, you know the sort of thing.
Groups of minions periodically spawn at your base and trundle down the lane attacking the first enemy unit they see. When that unit is a sentry the minions take down the sentry's shield allowing you to deal damage far more effectively. With that in mind a lot of what you'll be trying to do is escorting these minions past enemies in order to deliver them to the sentry. They're also useful for taking fire from the sentry which is like a tower or a turret in Dota or League of Legends – it does a lot of damage and can kill you pretty easily, especially in the early game.
Helping you to apply pressure are smaller objectives. You can pick up shards on the maps and spend them to build tactical structures like gun turrets on special pads for extra defence or accelerators to get you back into the action faster. There are also thrall mercenaries which you can get to fight for your team by killing them then standing on the spawn point to convert them to your team. They're like the mercenary camps you get in Heroes of the Storm.
Due to the timing of an interview I only got to play one round. It was as Galilea; a melee character themed around corruption. One of her abilities is a shield toss which deals damage and stuns the target. Another is "Desecrate" which curses the ground beneath her amplifying damage dealt to enemies in that area. Her ultimate transforms her into dark energy which deals damage. While she's in that form she takes less damage and regenerates health.
Over the course of the match you level up the character. Each level lets you pick from two options on a kind of skill tree designed to look like a helix which lends it a kind of mutation or evolution vibe. I picked options which let my shield bounce between targets and caused Desecrate to heal allies as well as damaging foes. This was because I thought the extra minion clearing power that the shield toss bounce would offer might help us shove forward and the extra healing would mean fewer deaths or returns to our base for healing.
The thing is, after each side had taken out the smaller sentry the match seemed to fall into something of a stalemate situation. We seemed to spend all of our time around the central area pushing forward a little and being pushed back a little. None of the objectives available to us seemed to help in breaking the tie either. Eventually the timer on the match ticked out and my side won simply because we'd done a bit more damage to the second sentry at some point.
This is the part where, only having played one game, I'm not sure how typical that was, or what exactly the problem was. Was it lack of familiarity with the map? Was it the composition of the teams in terms of roles? Was it bad timing of the objectives? Was it suboptimal character builds?
But here's the bigger problem: I walked away from the match not curious to find out. I didn't find myself wanting a rematch or getting that "just one more game" pang. I had the same feeling about Incursion as I had with the story level at E3. It's a colourful game, the team has clearly done a lot of work, yet I still don't see what it's offering that's unique or will drag me away from Overwatch or Dota.
But to reiterate the context, Incursion sits alongside a full story campaign that offers single player up to five-player co-op, plus two other modes of competitive multiplayer. So perhaps it wouldn't be the draw of the game, perhaps this would be a mode you play while you had some downtime and didn't fancy booting something else up?
When talking about the inspiration for Battleborn the creative director, Randy Varnell explains that he came to the project from Borderlands 2. "You always have this running list of all the things you want to do but you can't do right now." They go into this kind of mental storage box. "For Battleborn we opened up the box. It's like, here's all the things we want to do."
I think that's the thing which keeps pinging my radar as a problem but which Varnell has as a strength. For me and from my experiences with Battleborn I keep going back to the phrase "jack of all trades, master of none".
I ask Varnell what the thing is that keeps the game unified and stops it sprawling. He tells me it's all about the characters. There's a roster of 25 playable characters for launch ranging from a willowy archer to a penguin in a mech suit. "Your character is always your view into the world, right?" Says Varnell. "Whether you take Orendi [a multi-armed creature capable of dealing large amounts of burst damage] into competitive multiplayer or one of the single player story episodes, the controls are familiar and you understand Orendi's abilities and different ways to use them."
With Incursion on my mind, I ask why I would play Battleborn instead of, say, Overwatch.
"Two things in particular. One I've talked about the story episodes. Overwatch is really digging deep into competitive multiplayer. Blizzard acquired MLG – they're really going off there and that's awesome. So far they've not announced anything as far as story so if you don't want to play with internet 13-year-olds that are absolutely wrecking your face we offer you a part of the game that gives you a completely different experience. It has humour and story and fun and different ways of playing characters. In the story episodes you're still challenged. We failed a normal difficulty mission today with the group I was playing with because I couldn't pull out the clutch healing at the right time.
"The other thing that's fundamentally different about our games is growth. Overwatch follows that great, classic TF2 model. The character is what the character is and you can change characters mid match. You're always swapping from one to another. They call it a strength of their game and that's awesome. I'm going to play Overwatch, I love TF2, I think they're cool games. We wanted to take some of what we've seen in RPGs and MOBAs and other games and see if we can make a game that was approachable by more people.
"Growth is a central part of that. You go into a match, you start at level 1 and go to level 10. If I can outgrow a player I don't have to be the best at twitching and putting the crosshairs on someone and getting the one shot one kill sniper. I can outgrow you. I can kill minions over here, I can pick up shards here, I can build buildables over there. I can do other things that generate experience."
I'm not convinced on that last point. I think it's possible in the same way that in a MOBA you can try to gain an advantage or some experience by doing things other than gaining kills, but then it's more about playing catchup or at least keep-up, especially of other players are getting those kills. There's also the fact that in the match I played I reached level 10 and we then spent the remaining minutes trying to force the momentum into our favour with objectives and kills but not quite getting anywhere.
At this point I still don't "get" Battleborn. It seems to be a melange of all these different games and ideas but I'm not seeing the thing that will drag me in or keep me playing.