I’ve been hanging out for Battleborn for quite some time – since its announcement at PAXAus, in fact – and now that it’s here, I feel somewhat conflicted. The game isn’t bad, it just feels oddly unfinished in some areas, and, overall, it feels far different from what I was expecting. The PvP multiplayer is mostly solid, with some minor balancing issues, but the singleplayer leaves a lot to be desired. As is the case with most online games these days, I suspect that a lot of my incoming complaints will be addressed and improved, since Battleborn is expected to have a long shelf life. All the right ingredients are here for a great MOBA-FPS hybrid, Gearbox just needs to seriously rethink how they’ve put it all together. I still personally enjoy it and if you’re just a fiend for FPS’ or MOBA’s in general, there’s still a good chance you’ll enjoy it. Depending on what you’re looking for, caution is advised – at least for the moment. And f*** Toby.
F*** him right in his stupid face.
I have a weird love/hate thing going on with the Battleborn story mode, and I’ll focus on what I love about it first. For starters, it’s an awesome concept; the last surviving races of the universe have collected around the last, failing star, Solus, with each faction having their own intentions and machinations for it. After years of fluctuating factional conflict, the Jennerit Imperium, led by the devious Rendain, has stabbed everyone in the back by signing up with the Verelsi, a terrifying alien race that wants to consume the star and plunge all into darkness. Sensing an impending, universal apocalypse, the remaining factions put aside their differences to go wreck the Jennerit and Verelsi’s collective shit with giant guns, robots, swords, and all manner of crazy weapons and sorcery.
The eclectic mix of characters means that there’s a lot of diversity in their design (though some feel a little samey), both cosmetically and regarding gameplay. The campaign mode and character dialogue also perfectly encapsulates the humour that Gearbox honed and refined under the Borderlands series. Some have complained that there’s a few old memes that get used in the dialogue, and that much is true, but enjoyment is in the eye of the beholder, and, as ISIC would say, this beholder just straight up doesn’t give a f*** about what you think is funny. The missions also have a lot of “alternate” dialogue, with characters saying different variations of the same things in an attempt to at least keep the humour fresh. It was a small detail, one I appreciated, and the game had me in stitches for the most part; if only just a little bit, it made up for some of its failings.
At least we have ISIC, easily the best representation of Battleborn’s humor. Oh ISIC, you hilarious, terrifying, vulgar freak of science-magic.
The problems with the story mode start with its length, which is to say that it’s really goddamn short. Too short for my liking, too short for the cast of characters, and far too short for what it was attempting to accomplish. Characters are named, or concepts are brought up, and are never revisited again (I would love to know who MINREC is and why he seems so important), which is frustrating, to say the least. Things also just happen with very little connection to one another besides “it pisses off Rendain,” which would be fine if so much importance wasn’t attached to each event or accomplishment. In the end, it feels very disconnected and it’s just bad storytelling – without the humour to tie it all together for me, I wouldn’t have much to say about it. Given the aforementioned description of the base concept, it’s a disappointing presentation and makes me wonder why they put so much effort into it for such a small payoff.
The problems with the story are compounded, frankly, by some pretty boring gameplay in the campaign missions. Almost every mission’s activities can be summed up as “go here and here, fighting off x many waves of enemies until a boss shows up, then win.” Yay? The single player does help obtain some much-needed equipment to buff your character during the PvP matches, but this quickly stops being important after the first few missions. About the only upside, gameplay-wise is that the campaign missions give you a decent chance to try out new characters as you unlock them before running into multiplayer matches. With this in mind, I feel like they should have either put in the extra effort to make the single player worthwhile, both regarding story and gameplay, or otherwise not bothered and focused entirely on PvP. A fleshed out training area with rewards for better performance feels like it would have been the better choice over a campaign mode at this point.
Or, you know, maybe don’t try to cram two games into one?
There’s also a few things I have to get off my chest about the main draw of the game, which is its PvP mode. As with all online games, there come the usual issues of playing with Rando’s online, which I’ll list off quickly here within the context of Battleborn. For instance, if you’re Miko (a healer/support class) and you spend the entire game healing a ranged character instead of the Melee or Tank characters actually taking damage? I hate you. If you’ve spent the entire match playing your character as though you’re some kind of sentient potato and then feel the need to give your team a hard time because of their KDA ratios? I hate you. If you pick a character you’ve never played before for an online match and suck, when you can easily practice in the campaign mode, then call the rest of your team garbage? I hate you. If you play a support character and try to play as an offence character? I hate you.
I’m not saying I’m the best Rath player out there, but when you actually have someone with you who knows how to play support and does so commendably, this is what can happen:
Shout-out to Steam user The Wrangler for being part of the best Miko/Rath combo going.
When you play with someone that spends the entire match healing Thorn, a ranged character, and force your melee team-mate to take on two higher-leveled melee characters with no healing support, this happens:
Names have been redacted, however, I can confirm that the Miko in this game was about as useful as a brick to the face.
The game is something of a MOBA-FPS hybrid, with the gameplay modes and characters being designed with this in mind. It’s a classic MOBA trope for characters to have abilities that relegate them to being considered a particular “class.” As you might have gathered from my little rant above, Battleborn characters are very much defined their abilities and playing to their strengths is crucial. There are a few issues with this, however, the first of which that seriously needs to be addressed is how powerful some characters can become in such a short period of time. Some severe balance issues need to be ironed out, with particular character’s being way OP compared to others (looking at you, Toby, you annoying PIECE OF SH-).
The second issue, which, in my eyes, is the biggest flaw of Battleborn, is the enforced rigidity in play style that extends beyond the class of your chosen character. As I said earlier, you can take gear into battle, but you cannot change it during a match, nor can you change your character. You can create load-outs that you think will best serve and buff your characters abilities but your chosen loadout is the one you’re stuck with for the entirety of that match. This is all decided before you’ve even seen who you’ll be playing against, which is hugely detrimental. It means that if you’re placed against someone that can perfectly counter your standard (and only) playstyle, there’s no flexibility to change things up for yourself in that match.
“Hi, I’m Toby, and I’m going to F*** YOUR SHIT UP. Buddy.“
You can build your character to play in different ways, with a choice of two, sometimes three abilities with each level-up, supposedly allowing every match to be different. It doesn’t offer a huge amount of variation, however, and feels just as rigid as everything else. They can’t be reset once you’ve chosen them during a match and the “mutations,” unlocked by ranking characters up over time and offering alternate ability choices, aren’t exactly game changers. What’s more is that unless you go in with a “balanced” team – i.e. a tank, a healer/support, an offensive melee, an offensive ranged, and a sniper – you’re pretty much boned. If the other team has even one of those things and yours doesn’t, it’s a massive gap that can be difficult, if not impossible to fill. On top of all of this, Gearbox has opted to keep the obscene respawn times that MOBA’s are generally known for without the benefit of using that time to tweak your character or loadout. A lot of the time, it’s basically GG before the match has even begun based entirely on out-of-match choices.
One last thing about the design is the way characters move, and how that movement is affected by the environment and other players. Moving through the environment can be difficult in itself as the terrain is very “sticky.” Characters get caught on stuff very easily, often by things you either don’t notice and can’t see, or things you would expect to be able to pass through with relative ease. It might seem like a small thing when you first think about it but you’re also not able to move through other characters on your team, and this is a big issue. Some of the characters are friggin massive and can literally block entire pathways. This would be a great tactic if it only applied to enemies/opponents, but it often means that your escape is blocked by an unwitting teammate, and a second is all it takes for things to become disastrous.
Seriously, Montana, you’re too freaking huge for words and you constantly get in the way.
It almost seems pointless to talk about the presentation given the design problems mentioned above, but there are a few things I think are worth mentioning. The writing and voice acting is definitely on-point, coupling well with the cartoony appearance and atmosphere of the game. The character designs are also cosmetically excellent, and Gearbox has done a great job of having each one feel like they’re part of the different in-game factions while still maintaining their own style. This is where the praise ends, however, because there are some other serious problems with how the game presents itself. For starters, there’s an enormous amount of visual overload; particle effects, explosions, ability effects and more can, and often do flood the screen making it impossible to see what’s happening. There is a lot of lag caused by some of the outdoor scenes, as well, regardless of what graphics level you’re running at; things are simply too busy for the game to keep up with.
More than anything else, however, I both loved and hated the “comic book” style animations used in the campaign mode. While they look great, I feel like they say a lot about Battleborn’s development and the decisions that were made. They’re only used in cutscenes at the beginning and end of the game, and sometimes they’re fluid, anime-style animations, and sometimes they’re like “motion comics.” For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s where you have static images that kind of pan around the give the idea of movement and animation instead of things being actually animated. If you were to use it as a gauge for the rest of the game and how it was made, “rushed” feels like the best word to use.
I have no doubt that things will improve over time, as is often the case with online games – things will have to if Gearbox hopes to keep this game alive. However, there is no denying that Battleborn is in dire need of improvement, and in some crucial areas. While funny and mostly entertaining to listen to, the campaign mode is short, disjointed, and a little boring in terms of gameplay. The cast of characters are brilliant but have a lot of balancing issues, with some getting a much larger power boost over others very early on in PvP matches. The PvP mode itself really drops the ball regarding MOBA design, which is clearly what was being aimed for in development, and makes the gameplay feel rather stiff. In some cases, poor design choices mean that the outcomes of matches are decided purely by pre-match decisions before players have even fired a single shot. Personally, I still love Battleborn, and I think it can be a great game yet, but Gearbox really needs to re-think some decisions about how they’ve put everything together.
Author’s Note: Special thanks to Icemanix, Syphilotron, Ballsack, and The Wrangler for many of the hours and matches spent playing Battleborn for review. You guys made it well fun, and I likely would have hated both this game and myself if not for your good selves. And, seriously, f*** Toby.