One of the most common things I’ve heard about Battleborn since its announcement was that it was a “first-person MOBA.” Gearbox Software, the developers of Battleborn, prefer to call the game a “hero shooter,” a label that has stuck a little more. But after several matches of the new Incursion game mode, I began to wonder if both weren’t right or wrong; that maybe, Battleborn had found a way to strike through the middle, and make something new that wasn’t as easily defined by conventional genres.
Incursion is certainly the closest game type to a MOBA in Battleborn, pitting two opposing teams against each other in a tug-of-war contest to destroy each other’s Sentry bots. Teams of five contest control over the map, as regularly spawning robotic minions charge mindlessly down a pre-set lane towards the objective.
Minions, objectives, five-on-five hero combat — everything in this screams MOBA. There’s Thrall (big bad guys with swords) mercenary camps that you can kill and then convert to your team. The Sentry bots act as the typical lane “towers,” easily striking down greedy low-level heroes who get too close, but succumbing to an orchestrated push of minions, Thralls and heroes. Different emplacements, like turrets and elite bots, dot the arena to help defend against enemies or push the wave further to your goal, and these are purchased with shards that you receive by destroying the shard crystals littered in back alleys and pathways of the map.
So on paper, it’s easy to draw comparisons to the giants of competitive objective-based gameplay, but it’s in the execution that Battleborn stands above those restrictions. At its core, Battleborn plays like a shooter; combat is fast and chaotic, as hero abilities and waves of minions combine for huge eruptions of warfare. Small skirmishes for control of different map objectives become game-changing plays, but it’s a very different feeling when you’re in the thick of it, rather than observing from above.
In one match I was playing Rath, a vampiric dual-wielding swordsman who loved to get up close and personal with his targets. I went to check the mercenary camp, and saw the enemy team’s Benedict and Toby cleaning up the Thralls. I waited for them to stand on the capture point to secure the mercenaries, then leapt in and used my ultimate ability, which turns Rath into a spinning blender of blades and blood. In their weakened state I wiped both of them out and secured the Thralls for my own team, shoving the enemy advance back and leading to us taking their first Sentry.
Moments like this are all made possible by the great care put into designing the characters. Each member of the Battleborn is unique, with their own strengths and weaknesses, and mastering them is both a hefty and rewarding task. That task doubles when you begin to notice that for a game most analogous to a shooter, there’s a surprising lack of guns. Heroes like the wrestler El Dragón and tag-team Shayne & Aurox rely almost solely on their fists, while others throw magical bursts, swing swords or wield kunai rather than a firearm.
Scott Kester, art director for Battleborn, told me that taking that step towards more melee-focused characters was difficult.
“For better or worse, we were the company that was kind of known as ‘the gun company,’” says Kester. “We made tons of guns for Borderlands, and did a lot of different things with a lot of different stats and attributes.”
“I remember sitting there, going ‘I want a character with no weapons, I want a character with big weapons, I want a character with a sword and a shield.”
Kester explained that it was a team effort that made the melee experience happen, from the animation team to the game designers to the balance and level designers. Levels were especially difficult, as a frequent issue was making each map be a compelling arena for both guns and fisticuffs.
“If it’s in an open field, the sniper wins. If it’s in a labyrinthian cave, then the melee guy is probably gonna win, because there’s no line of sight,” says Kester. “So I think one of the things that was super hard to balance was, ‘what are your line-of-sights?’”
The levels, however, allow for that odd balance to teeter perfectly in place. Often, an El Dragón or Rath would charge carelessly into the open and get ripped to shreds by long-ranged fire, but the result was that the player had to learn to adapt. Finding avenues, advancing under cover or with support of healers and shield-givers like Miko and Reyna, that same melee character could close the distance on a sniper and turn the tables.
Mastery of those skills and match-ups becomes an art, as match after match I began to pick apart different ideas and theories, crafting compositions and strategies in my head. It helped that I had a rather proficient player with me, helping to guide our team through selecting a good chemistry for each match, but that got me thinking about the potential there for competitive play.
That level of mastery is furthered by the gear you can bring into battle. As you play through matches, you earn currency to buy loot packs, which unlocks gear for your different loadouts. Equipping these loadouts lets you unlock gear in matches with the shards you collect, further boosting your character’s strengths or shoring up their weaknesses. Healers can equip gear that boosts their regenerative abilities, tanks can get an extra bit of movement speed, and assassins can get that extra bit of damage to ensure a downed target.
All of this culminates in masteries: character-specific achievements that take a great deal of time to earn, but show off true holistic skill with your favorite Battleborn. Unlocking each mastery rewards you with character-specific gear and skins, as well as tiny bits of lore and background. Kester told me it might take players anywhere from 15 to 20 hours just to fully master a single character in Battleborn.
What my time with the Incursion mode did, more than anything, was make me re-evaluate Battleborn. I’ve been cautious about the concept of “hero shooters” in the past; but the passion and dedication put into balancing Battleborn not around existing blueprints, but instead into a new one, is a step towards something that could be great. Battleborn might not fit any one given definition, but it doesn’t need to — right now, the team at Gearbox is busy writing the future, not conforming to the past.
Look for more Battleborn coverage as we approach May 3, when the game launches for PC, Xbox One and PS4.