The basic idea behind almost all of Battleborn's 25 launch characters can be conveyed in just two words. Sword mage. Jetpack trooper. Chaos witch. Mushroom ninja. Vampire knight. Space elf. Those two words and a lot of bright colours are all there is to them, really, and as archetypes in an online co-operative and competitive shooter, that's probably all they need.
Battleborn's creators at Gearbox, no strangers to creating their own hybrid genres, describe it as a 'hero shooter' with levelling systems similar to Borderlands, "but on a shorter loop." They still flinch at the word MOBA. "Every time you play a competitive match or co-operative story mission, you start at level one," says the game's creative director Randy Varnell, "so you'll make decisions on how to customise your character, and each character has different trees to explore." The idea is that during any given mission or multiplayer match, players will level up every couple of minutes up to the cap of level ten. Every time you level up, you'll be able to choose one of two new powers from the character's unique DNA-style Helix column.
The game will offer three 5v5 online multiplayer modes; Incursion, Devastation and Meltdown. Incursion is about defending your base while trying to invade the opposing team's; Devastation is about capturing and holding points, and in Meltdown, I'm told, you're attempting to "get your minion to the goal" while the opposition attempts to do the same.
During our hands-on, however, we aren't seeing any of that. Instead, we're playing through a mission of the game's co-operative story mode, which can be played solo or with up to four other players. The overarching narrative is suitably epic; save the last functioning star in the galaxy from aggressive alien race, the Varelsi. This particular mission, To the Edge of the Void, takes place on a frozen moon where those Varelsi - spiky and purple, so you just know they're evil - have opened a portal from their universe that threatens to shortly stabilise. Ten of the game's 25 characters are available from the main menu at this stage, so for my first play-though I choose beardy dwarf Boldur who attacks using his shield and axe. I regret the decision almost immediately. Boldur can take a kicking but he's exceptionally slow, and as a melee build, he really needs to be up close to enemies to be of any use to anyone. Even with a shield bash that'll allow me to cover a short distance quickly, I'm usually waiting for the cooldown while watching the other players nip straight past me on jetpacks, or legs significantly longer than mine. Some can double-jump too, depending on how they've levelled up thus far.
Do Gearbox anticipate any character balancing issues at launch? "It's an ongoing process balancing that many characters, especially when you're dealing with multiple modes," the game's art producer Sara Rosa tells me. "There's getting them feeling right, and then this balance back and forth of getting one character feeling right and then getting it feeling right with all of the other characters as well. One thing we do at the studio is we do a daily playtest - so everyone sits down and plays the game and then they can all offer feedback, and then slowly over that process we're able to tweak and make adjustments."
On my second playthrough of the level, I choose Orendi, a diminutive four-armed witch that feels much more my style. She also feels a bit more familiar to someone who has played and loved Borderlands, hurling a steady stream of hyperactive insults at the waves of Varelsi Thralls that come our way. The game's art director, Scott Kester, worked on the character concepts for Borderlands, but the entire development team collaborated to come up with the diverse cast for Battleborn, drawing inspiration from anime and 80s toys. Rosa mentions that someone recently brought a He-Man art book into the studio for reference. "One of the ways we pitch characters is we'll actually have artists concept up what they want to see, and then design will have a say," she explains. "Sometimes they'll get together beforehand and they'll team off to deliver a more solid pitch and they'll say 'hey, I saw you do a concept like this, I wanna use that.' Then we'll get everyone together and everyone will vote on that character. It's been fun because it's a nice back and forth. it's good for the whole team, and it's awesome because everyone gets a say."
Orendi's regular attacks have her shoot quickfire globs of dark magic from her hands, but she can also summon a giant pillar of black and pink flames, and if enemies get too close she can send herself flying backwards in an explosion of chaos magic. At level five, all characters gain access to their Ultimate attack. Orendi's is Paradigm Shift; essentially a massive AOE spell that deals considerable damage to any enemies caught in the blast. She's probably the shortest character in the game, and the beefcake soldier Montana towers over me as the two of us bunch together to survive the oncoming onslaught, but she packs a punch.
Gearbox are proud of their quirky character concepts, that much is clear - but I wonder how much of that characterisation will realistically come across in the game, especially one that is designed with online play in mind. There are hints of the old Borderlands-style tongue-in-cheek humour, including one nod to Destiny's fondness for 'hacking' doors by a robot sentry we're instructed to escort. Most of these humorous moments happen via radio transmissions by NPCs, including ageing ally Kleese and the primary antagonist Redane, but naturally there isn't much chat from the playable characters themselves. And, sadly, no Butt Stallions in sight.
The true test of the campaign's staying power is in its co-op gameplay, which, from our hands-on, does feel satisfying if a little samey. In this one level, at least, there isn't much variation in the enemies we encounter and the final boss of the demo, a so-called Varelsi Conservator that uses magic and teleportation to fight, isn't too much of a challenge. Since players will see full growth on a character in the length of a single story mission or PVP match, you'd imagine the key to keeping online play interesting may be to regularly switch between different characters and playstyles. Does Gearbox imagine players will do that, or just find one individual they like and stick with them? "We expect that people will do a little bit of both," says Rosa. "We try to plan for people that will do either - so if you really want to drill down and specialise in a character then cool, we've got the Helix for you to play around with so you'll start getting different experiences that way, and whoever you're playing with is going to change your experience as well. But then, we have this huge variety so there's an opportunity to just jump in and run through it with everyone."
If players are left wanting more, there will be secondary objectives aside from the main story missions. Similar to the mini-challenges of Borderlands, you'll have little events pop up from time to time that you and your teammates can attempt together, such as 'collect 600 shards in 60 seconds.' These orange shards, which mostly drop from enemies, can be used at certain points on build nodes to create sentry guns or turrets to strengthen your defences. They kind of look like an in-game currency, so I ask if there's more to them. "They're still a work in progress, but they will have more uses," is the shrewd reply. Will there be alternate costumes or anything like that to collect? "Obviously Gearbox likes things like skins; right now we're focusing on getting the main game finished and then we can look at other stuff. right now it's just all about getting a polished product."
I enjoyed Battleborn for the time I was playing it, but I can't shake the feeling that the experience will get stale rather fast, even with 25 characters to choose from. Admittedly that's from a very short slice of gameplay, but for all Gearbox's talk of this being a "very ambitious" game, I'm not seeing anything wildly evolutionary. Mushroom ninjas and gentleman robots and jetpack troopers are cool and all, but I think I'd like to see a little more meat on their bones.