Battleborn hoped to be unique. A first-person shooter mixed with a MOBA was a perfect idea waiting to happen, and Gearbox's Battleborn, at first showing, nailed it. We saw a roster of 25 heroes of all shapes, sizes, genders, ethnicities, planetary origins, and genetic kingdoms. We saw a small selection of fun-looking multiplayer modes. And we saw some twitchy, airy combat.
Today, however, it's living in a shadow. Overwatch, Blizzard's own shooter-MOBA, is waiting in the wings, while Epic's very similar Paragon is limbering up.
Blizzard has even been running interference throughout Battleborn's run-up to release, announcing news, betas and pre-sales whenever it could do most damage. We'd call that cruel, if this wasn't video game publishing red in tooth and claw.
In the fiction of Gearbox's game, the Battleborn are a ragtag collection of heroes gathered from several inimical factions. They've assembled to protect Solus - the last star in the universe. The other stars were all drained of their energy by the universe-hopping Varelsi, with the connivance of the magnificently-chinned Lothar Rendain. It's your role to stop him and them through the gentle medium of team combat.
That takes place in two sections. A co-op campaign houses both the tutorial and several spectacular levels of battle between its garish heroes and massed AI enemies. Meanwhile, three multiplayer combat modes promise long-term life for the game, letting players fight against each other in teams of five. Both share the same MOBA levelling, gear and crafting systems, and FPS combat.
Getting into the fights, each character has a normal attack and a small selection of abilities that give them their special mojo, including an ultimate that unlocks part way through a match. For example, the assassin Deande can cloak and deploy an explosive decoy, charge forward doing strong damage and weakening enemies, and her ultimate attacks and stuns ten times directly in front of her for massive damage.
That action is frictionless, frenetic and fast. Every single thing that's normally an obstacle to enjoyment - reloading, stamina, falling, sprinting - has been stripped away. Nothing stops the action except slightly confusing and overstretched level layouts, the endless hunting for cash crystals (which can be used to power your gear or build robots and turrets) and leveling.
However, like many of these arena shooters, the competitive edge is dulled by the aesthetic. Specifically, it can be often hard to tell what in tarnation is going on because of all the special effects. It's not unusual in Battleborn to have the layered clouds clear and find that you've been attacking an enemy who's already been dead for a few seconds, or to completely lose track of a towering boss.
Regarding leveling, your character can be improved ten times inside the game, MOBA-style, as they gather experience. You have a choice of two options at any time (with a third option unlocked a long way down the usual meta-game leveling chain), which heavily customize your character one way or another.
For example, at level 10 the mushroom healer Miko can upgrade his ultimate healing ability Fungus Among Us to either last longer or do damage to enemies in its area of effect. It's a good system and smartly implemented.
When Artists Ruled The World
As good as all this sounds, before you can get anywhere near playing the game itself, you have to sit through a music video masquerading as an intro video. It's not. It's Gorillaz meets Space Dandy with some chap rapping about the Battleborn over the top, and by the time it ends you feel like the heat death of the universe has been and gone, and someone forgot to kill you. If that's not clear enough: it's appalling.
Then there's a short tutorial level, showing off the basic concepts without excessive hand-holding, and then you're into the game proper. Before you go any further, it's worth saying that the servers are pretty well-populated and you can find a public game quickly. We had some teething troubles connecting to the game's servers at launch, but these were settling down at the time of writing. That carries across to the PvP modes too.
Inside the campaign levels, it's very Borderlands. You have the same waves of AI enemies running at you, the same batshit locations (except more so here), and, particularly, you have the same plot totally obscured by the sometimes-misfiring humor.
Whoever the writers are, they can do their style of Jackass character really well - but so well, it's sometimes hard to know what you're doing, why, and why you have to kill this guy for it.
Though this campaign can be worked through alone, it's no fun to play by yourself. It's really not tailored or balanced for that. Particularly, picking the wrong hero results in boringly-large numbers of enemies and endless kiting - which is dull, dull, dull. You're better off playing privately with friends or publicly with strangers.
Despite that, the campaign itself is fun enough to play through - once. It has varied levels, with unusual monsters and enough variety to keep you playing, though the enemies, themes and set-ups do repeat.
Unfortunately, the public servers put the choice of the eight levels up for a team vote, so you may end up playing them more than once, which is frustrating. Also the fact you can arbitrarily fail some of the missions makes no sense, either in the fiction or in terms of player frustration. If you've the friends available, play the private mode instead, where you have some control.
Having completed the campaign, you'll be more thoroughly-grounded in Battleborn's world and mechanics, ready for multiplayer. This is where the real game is at. There are three modes built into the game at launch: Capture, Incursion, and Meltdown.
It feels odd not to have the standard Deathmatch or at least Team Deathmatch modes in the game, but these three are fairly solid by themselves. And though the two maps apiece is stingy for an FPS, it's generous for a MOBA.
Lovers of domination modes will enjoy Capture, where you have to take and hold three points - though it doesn't offer much beyond that.
Incursion and Meltdown by contrast mingle FPS and MOBA gameplay to a much greater degree. Meltdown has players guarding and guiding friendly robot creeps to their deaths, while destroying the enemies'.
Incursion is much more pure MOBA, as players attempt to take down each the opponent's giant spider robots using their robot creeps, and build defenses to protect their own giant spider robots.
The human element means that all three modes encourage a more tactical mindset and more balanced team choices than in the brainless campaign mode. Yet they're weakened because they've removed something core to MOBAs - lanes.
By having multiple lanes, MOBAs like LoL, DOTA and even Fractured Space force players to split their team tactically, seeking to local domination into a long-term advantage. Battleborn doesn't have that, meaning most PvP combats descend into head-to-head messes.
The Fail Whale
Yet Battleborn's biggest failing, throughout its modes, is a lack of moment-to-moment variety. Though you can customize your characters in-match and out-of-match, what you're actually doing at any time is using one of up-to-six abilities - or trying to run away, so your shields can recover.
Most of the time, three of those attacks (your specials) are on cool-down timers, so you're restricted to the one or two normal attacks you've got.
Take a look at Marquis, for example, the dapper sniper android. He has a simple shot, a sniper shot, and a melee attack. He also has a super sniper shot on a long cool-down, a short-ranged sentry owl on a short cool-down, and a short-ranged time-slow on a medium cool-down.
He's fragile as hell, so what you'll be doing most of the time is staying back and using that single attack, and waiting for the super sniper to finish cooling down. That's all you can ever do with him, really, no matter how you upgrade him.
There's much more mechanical variety when changing between the characters between matches. There are tremendous differences in speed, resilience and skill set between the characters, which maintain interest as you wait for the next one to unlock. (It's arguable that the measly seven characters you start with isn't enough).
You can also add variety by using the gear you garner in-game ,which can be slotted into loadouts before entering a match. This gear has to be powered up with those aforementioned crystals, giving you a very simple pay-off to decide on - save the crystals for turrets and/or robots or turn on your gear which will give you a smaller, longer-term boost and specialization.
Verdict: Play It
There's a fine line between bravery and foolhardiness; Battleborn straddles it, legs akimbo. On the one hand, it's made a good effort to mingle MOBA and shooter mechanics, mixing the team combat, creeps cooldown specials and in-match levelling of a MOBA with the fast pace and face-to-face combat of an FPS. On the other, it's sacrificed much of the subtlety and variety of the MOBA in that transition.
Similarly, on the one hand the large and varied hero roster means it's hard to get tired with the game; on the other, each character's limited capabilities means it's easy to get tired with them on an individual basis.
We like Battleborn and we'd play it more - but we know Overwatch is waiting in the wings. It feels cruel, but our recommendation is to wait for the price to drop and pick it up then.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Techradar's review system scores games as 'Don't Play It', 'Play It' and 'Play It Now', the last of which is the highest score we can give. A 'Play It' score suggests a solid game with some flaws, but the written review will reveal the exact justifications.