Gearbox's blend of shooter and MOBA is generous and inventive, but the marriage of genres doesn't fully convince.
Battleborn's in for a rough ride, and it has nothing to do with Gearbox's rapid decline in public approval. No, unfortunately for this curious and ambitious hybrid of bombastic FPS and tactically astute MOBA, it has a little game called Overwatch gatecrashing every party it tries to throw. Battleborn beta time? Here's Overwatch. Battleborn release day? Try the Overwatch open beta. Capitalism isn't pretty, even when it's masquerading as interactive Saturday morning cartoons.
It's particularly tough for Battleborn. In some ways, Gearbox's effort is the bolder and more inventive of the two. Both wear their influences on their sleeves, but Battleborn positively eschews many of the trappings of a modern shooter and firmly sets up camp with the MOBA crowd. Plus, in a move that's proving increasingly rare for shooters these days, it has a significant and well-judged PVE campaign.
More on that later, though, as the most interesting aspects of Battleborn do take place against real-life competition, and the multiplayer's spot at the head of the main menu suggests this is the real reason to play.
After sitting through an animated music video that feels like it lasts three and a half hours, then battling through a simple campaign prologue, you're awarded a handful of heroes - the titular Battleborn - and are free to test out the trio of multiplayer modes; Capture, Incursion, and Meltdown.
Capture is the most instantly familiar of the three. It's essentially Domination with a few little quirks of its own, and is the quickest of the match types. Battle for control of three points, stop the other team from doing the same, win. The first few notes of MOBA flavour come through in the form of shard 'trees' dotted around the map, which can be shot and collected, forming the in-game currency.
Get enough shards and you can activate a gun turret, health station or 'accelerator' (which speeds up members of your team and slows down the other), meaning you can leave a capture point knowing it's at least a little protected. Occasionally, AI enemies will spawn in corners of the map too, and teams race to slaughter them for XP, which leads to MOBA taste number two: in-match levelling.
As you collect XP, you quickly level up and are prompted to hold the left trigger to select one of two perks or powerups. Oscar Mike, the moderately amusing Halo solider spoof, has a choice between a red dot sight and a scope when he hits level 4, for example. The trick is to level up as quickly as possible. The nuance - and here's where the tactical stuff comes into play - is in figuring out which characters benefit from levelling more than others, and how you're going to force that type of levelling as a team.
There will be hours of experimentation to be had before you settle on a Battleborn you're comfortable with. While they do slot into the traditional RPG archetypes (tank, medic, support and so on), the fact that you're relying as much on player skill as character abilities means that finding the right fit is all-important. On the flip side, the focus on both character abilities and class could prove very offputting to FPS fans; some characters are just not built for gunplay, and if you're trying to use the mushroom-headed Miko as anything other than a cowardly medic, you're in for a world of fungal failure.
The most divisive design choice in Battleborn stems from this commitment to character and class. Simply put, this isn't like other shooters. The time-to-kill (TTK) is enormous, surely longer than any commercially successful FPS, and if you're coming from Call of Duty then this is going to seem hellish.
The point being, of course, that you're not really supposed to be clattering around the battlefield collecting headshots. Kills come from double and triple teams, skilful outmanoeuvres and considered rushes into enemy territory. Death has serious consequences; losing a couple of team members from your squad of five could leave them out of play for over 30 seconds each, meaning the enemy can chew through your remaining defences like a chaingun through dense jungle foliage.
This is most evident in Meltdown and Incursion, both of which take the emphasis off straight-up combat and place it ontp the MOBA tradition of 'pushing creeps'. It's a turn of phrase that meant almost nothing 10 years ago, but is now a widely accepted piece of jargon to describe the action of supporting a group of AI controlled minions as they march into enemy territory, trying to do damage.
Incursion asks you to take out two separate sentry tanks deep in enemy territory, while Meltdown actually wants you to guide your creeps to their own death at the other side of the map. Both have the potential to be tactically intriguing and rewarding theatres of conflict. But Battleborn's move away from the traditional three-laned MOBA map means that much of the action bottlenecks, making flanking and pincer attacks trickier than perhaps they should be.
Also, despite the impressive variety in character styles, special attacks and levelling options, the question remains: does a MOBA actually work in first person? There's no questioning Gearbox's commitment here - the amount of work that has gone into Battleborn is evident in every pixel - but the lack of an isometric or overhead view does tend to obfuscate the action. Taking down an enemy with a well-timed team attack can be glorious, but many matches break down into confusing carnage, where the absence of the verticality of a typical FPS is all too apparent.
The campaign is altogether less cumbersome and controversial, although rarely reaches the same heights as multiplayer at its best. The 'story' offers eight lengthy missions that sit somewhere between Destiny's strikes and raids in their execution and demands. They support up to five players on one team and provide a welcome showcase for the arsenal of abilities and possibilities you can have on a carefully chosen group of heroes.
Bosses and mid-bosses are more inventive than most of Destiny's, too, requiring teamwork and class knowledge to conquer on the higher difficulties. While the moment-to-moment gunplay can't hold a candle to Bungie's behemoth, there's no denying Battleborn has a snap and a bluster all of its own.
Be warned, though. The script takes the worst of Borderlands' self-referential humour and vomits it at you relentlessly, offering a lower gag hit rate than Joe Pasquale and an apparently genuine belief that repeating the same soundbite 50 times in a single boss fight will enhance the experience.
If you can handle that (and it's far less grating in multiplayer), then there's plenty to admire in Battleborn. This is clearly a labour of love - Gearbox believes in what it has created and has filled the disc with content - and when the multiplayer flows, it's fresh and new in a way that even Overwatch can't boast. It'll take time to see just how the online modes balance out, but there's definitely something here that could be worth pursuing.
Will that be enough when Blizzard is dangling that shiny trinket in front of your face the whole time, though? There's only one way to find out... fight!