Early Impressions: BATTLEBORN
In this Crossfader series, our video games staff takes a look at early versions of upcoming releases so that you can know which hype trains to board.
Though unreleased shooter DRAWN TO DEATH has been widely billed as the closest we’ll ever get to a moving representation of the fever dream sketchings of a middle schooler, that classification may be better suited for BATTLEBORN. Gearbox’s upcoming title mashes together the shooter conventions of BORDERLANDS with the format of a MOBA like LEAGUE OF LEGENDS and DOTA without an inkling of inhibition, and it recently began its open beta on consoles ahead of its May release. Though I’m far from a fan of either the BORDERLANDS dev’s earlier work or the entire MOBA genre, I decided to give the beta a spin for educational purposes. For those of you who will be wanting to practice without your account taking a shun or wanting an account that has been leveled for you, there won’t be any services like these lol accounts that people purchase and use for this game, maybe not ever.
BATTLEBORN’s beta is a fairly representative experience of the final product. Over 20 playable heroes can be used in both a pair of cooperative story missions as well as a pair of competitive multiplayer scenarios. What became immediately apparent is that BATTLEBORN is the carbon copy of BORDERLANDS, rather with a focus on PVP over PVE. The same cartoonish art style, sophomoric humor, and inflated progression system from that earlier franchise are applied to 40-minute play sessions in place of 40-hour campaigns. On paper, it’s a perfect system that is sure to leave any audience satisfied; BORDERLANDS fans will get to enjoy a more varied experience than that offered in that previous franchise, while any self-respecting human being will only have to suffer the impact of Gearbox’s “wit” for a fraction of the time.Yet after playing the game, I wonder if BATTLEBORN will truly appeal to anybody.
Ah, “cool” characters
I say this because, like BORDERLANDS, BATTLEBORN’s story mode is a series of fetch-quests and capture points loosely contextualized by trademark “humor” and “plot.” Each of the TV episode-themed missions opens with a character intro for each of the parties’ selected heroes, yet dialogue is entirely relegated to a handful of offscreen characters trading banter. The playable protagonists are largely mute as they mow down wave after wave of robot drones and alien beasts, and the missions they go on never exceed the concepts of “kill this guy” or “blow that up.” To complement the compelling storytelling, BATTLEBORN takes place in a universe where comedy is defined by shouting the loudest hyperbolic declaration of “badassdom” that comes to mind, much to the chagrin of anyone listening above the age of 12. If hearing a spastic adolescent hold an expletive for twenty seconds doesn’t tickle your funny bone, you’ll be having some problems with BATTLEBORN’s script (and if it does, then the game will hardly offer anything new that you already haven’t heard in the average lobby of any other online shooter).
Structure and wall trimmings aside, the missions also play like your typical BORDERLANDS quest. But where BORDERLANDS featured foes that were scaled to party size, BATTLEBORN’s bosses, who are borrowed from the multiplayer, are all set to “Bullet-Shamwow” levels of durability, making them a chore enough to dispatch with a full group of five, and a complete pain while solo. Side objectives can be completed for additional experience used to upgrade your heroes’ stats between matches, and there are plenty of chests to bust open, though loot is exclusively relegated to health pickups and powerups. Without the allure of BORDERLANDS’s seemingly endless loot system, nor any cosmetic upgrades for the cast of heroes, there’s scant incentive to replay each mission to master each side objective or explore every crevice.
One billion one million thirty guns to discover!
Though the story content is hollow and lackluster, BATTLEBORN’s multiplayer offering truly feels like an explosive affair. Much like a standard MOBA, two teams of five heroes, assisted by endless waves of AI minions, try to destroy the opposition’s base. Experience from kills is spent in-game to upgrade and unlock abilities, and teams can attack tough NPC camps to temporarily recruit the monsters for their side. The difference here is that it’s all from a first-person perspective, and success is determined more by twitch reflexes and accuracy than strategic management. Yes, specialized roles like speedy glass cannons, lumbering tanks, and healers still exist, but a support class can still feasibly defeat a DPS-focused assassin character in combat provided they’re good enough at strafing and staying on target. The emphasis on player skill means that each opponent kill feels like more of an accomplishment, rather than the rock-paper-scissors calculations that most MOBAs fall prey to.
Unfortunately, not everything in a MOBA translates well to the FPS perspective, and it’s the core concepts of the genre that suffer the most. Lane management and a general awareness of where each team member and enemy is are still paramount, yet each task is only made harder from the lack of an overhead view. By only being able to see one lane at a time, it’s easy for players to be unaware of what is going on next door to them. Even harder to discern are enemy players from the teeming masses of minions they’re hiding behind. Though such a task is simple from a top down viewpoint, trying to do so while aiming down a scope can be downright impossible at times. Though a minimap with player locations is always present, such a tool is meant to be a help, not a crutch. That the majority of my time in BATTLEBORN’s multiplayer was spent focusing on the map, not the action in front of me, should be telling of how successful Gearbox’s experiment is.
If this looks confusing as a still, imagine how it is in motion
As both MOBAs and “hero shooters” grow in popularity, the idea to combine them must seem lucrative to developers. Players are still keen to get boosting boss league boosting accounts, after all. Yet if Gearbox’s attempt is any indication, the genres go together about as well as toothpaste and orange juice. BATTLEBORN still has a month to tighten the screws, but at this point, its fate seems to be sealed. The sources it borrows from are insipid, and the areas it tries to innovate are the least conducive to change. In the end, it just feels like a match that wasn’t meant to be. Let’s see if anything changes come May 3rd.