I love Borderlands and I like the idea of MOBAs. The reality of MOBAs, however, generally scares me half to death. Now listen: if I'm not describing someone who sounds a bit like you, stop reading now because the following will be a waste of your time. (Well, even more a waste of your time than usual.) If this does sound a bit like you, however, stick around for a minute or two. I'm about to answer a question that I woke up thinking about this morning: Is Battleborn any fun if you don't know what you're doing?
Background. Battleborn is the new first-person MOBA-like thing from Gearbox, who made Borderlands (and some other stuff that we shall not speak of). Borderlands is a handy touchstone, in fact, because Battleborn has the same colourful brashness, the same taste for brutal sci-fi comedy, and the same focus on classes who start off nutty and overpowered and only grow more nutty and overpowered as they go. Because it's a MOBA-like thing, though, I haven't been following it very closely. Then the free open beta popped up (it runs until the 18th), and it reminded me that A) I like Borderlands and B) I like things that are free. Also, as I didn't know what I was doing, the pressure was off. In I went.
First discovery: Alongside standard competitive MOBA stuff like Incursion, in which you lead minions through your enemies' defences, taking out their turrets as you go, Battleborn has a story mode. Well, it's largely just a bunch of raid-like missions strung together with pleasantly incomprehensible narrative and boss fights in between, but no matter: I set it to private (nobody should ever have to suffer alongside me when I learn the ropes) and leapt in.
Second discovery: There's a daunting number of characters to choose from, even though most of them are unavailable at first. This is generally where MOBAs initially paralyse me with fear, but since I don't know what I'm doing, I have nothing at stake. I pick the randomise option and end up as a snooty golden robot with a german accent. He has a golden steampunk gun, which seems on-brand for him, and he can conjure a bubble of time-distortion, which seems useful. Also, he has a bowler hat that he can doff to reveal an owl that you can then launch around the map, finding enemies and eventually powering up to do damage. Owl drone! The randomise button was clearly my friend. All I have ever wanted was an owl drone, and now I have one.
Third discovery: Whoa! Even in story mode, It's definitely faintly MOBA-ish. What are these little guys waddling towards me? They're the equivalent of the little guys who waddle towards me in LoL, right? Maybe. I start blasting away at them and in seconds I've levelled up. Levelling up is super neat here: each ding! gives you two options to choose from, and you select the one you want with a squeeze of the appropriate trigger. It's a nice speedy way to build a character: do you want a time bubble that lasts a bit longer, say, or do you want one that does extra damage? It depends on how the last few minutes went, I suspect. At least it does if you don't know what you're doing. It's very reactive levelling: you're making decisions that only matter for the next twenty minutes or so.
Fourth discovery: It's definitely still Borderlands. The mentality at least. The names may have changed, but the angular space architecture is a close fit, as are the delicate ostrich-leg robots knocking around, the spider mechs, the way that loot sends up a thin beam of light. Shields and health still work the same and even look the same in the UI. Ten minutes in I'm fighting a couple of robot bosses who are introduced in classic Borderlands style. One of them's called Barbara, which seems nice. Nobody's really called Barbara any more. Also, stringing together the parts of a fairly lengthy mission is the comical taunting of a nasty robot overlord I've been sent to kill. He says plenty of funny things that I forget to write down, just like Handsome Jack used to. (All told, I am not sure if it's a brilliant idea to put so much comic dialogue into a game you are expected to replay endlessly.)
Fifth discovery. (And this is the final one, because after this I was starting to get a sense of what I was doing, and that made it all a little less thrilling.) This is a busy game, filled with collectables, speed boosts, cooldown-cutters and different sorts of money, but it all seems eager to let the uninitiated orient themselves without hassle. It's a game about pushing forwards and levelling up as efficiently as you can while you do so, and the main resource I had to keep an eye on as I fumbled towards my goal was how many respawns I had left. Like Borderlands, target prioritisation seems very important in combat, and I can imagine, if I was a more competent human being, enjoying the feeling of playing a specific role in a team of friends. It would take someone who knows a lot more about MOBAs than me to sound out the depths here, since the life of the game, if it has one, is going to lie with the competitive multiplayer modes, but in terms of sheer immediacy, I was pleasantly unbewildered - and I remained pleasantly unbewildered in a subsequent story mode chugalong with real humans.
Battleborn, then: surprisingly fun if you don't know what you're doing.
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