Since first glance, Battleborn has had an identity crisis. A new shooter from the quintessential “gun company,” Gearbox Software has struggled against attempts at labelling Battleborn within conventional genres like MOBA, team-based shooter, or the recent surge of “hero shooters.”
In over 100 hours of Battleborn, through countless matches, team compositions and intense nights of heated debate, I’ve had similar difficulty nailing down Battleborn within reasonable bounds and restrictions. In every piece of this game you can see the influences of a thousand before it: heroes that mimic the diversity of fighting game rosters, map types that reflect the Battlefields and Call of Duties before it, even gear and raids reminiscent of the better parts of Gearbox’s own Borderlands.
Battleborn exists as a melting pot, a veritable “best of the best” from dozens of influential games and themes, yet the interweaving glue and the sublime execution of each flavor creates something wholly unique, and unlike anything else I’ve played in a long time.
From the outset, the narrative landscape is laid out for the carnage and explosions to follow. Stars are disappearing, consumed wholesale by a mysterious alien force known as the Varelsi. Solus, the last star, is the center of Battleborn’s universe, and the few remaining species and factions have huddled around it for survival as the Varelsi encroach on every corner. To stop the Varelsi and their leader, the power-hungry commander Rendain, the greatest warriors from each faction come together to form the Battleborn, a motley crew of heroes dedicated to saving the last star.
It’s a little ‘80s Saturday morning cartoon-esque in nature, but Gearbox leans heavily into the aesthetic, delivering a gorgeous animated 2D intro and opening credits for each “episode” of the story campaign. If you’ve played a Borderlands game before, you might feel a strange sense of deja vu here; the same sense of humor and overall brightness contrasts the veritable plight of the universe, and the heroes aren’t immune to cracking a few macabre jokes during missions.
The roster of the Battleborn is worth the price of admission alone, as this is exactly the kind of diverse and interesting cast of characters you would want from a game so focused on the interplay of its heroes. Some, like cloned super-soldier Oscar Mike and angsty archer Thorn, look like standard additions to any shooter line-up. Others are oddities, like the hulking Attikus or mech-riding penguin Toby, who serve to add an air of absurdity to the chaos. Some are giant talking chunks of ice, or an old psychopath in a floating chair. It’s rare for any hero in Battleborn to feel too much like another, and each serves a vitally different role on the battlefield.
Shooter is still the closest analogy for the perspective of Battleborn, but it’s how these heroes operate within those confines that makes them so compelling to play for hundreds of matches. The first and most notable mention is that melee feels good, in a way I’ve yet to see other shooters manage. Galilea is a titanic warrior, sprinting through waves of enemies with her sword-n-board combination, and playing her like a pissed-off Link (her kit even has a few subtle references to Nintendo’s series) is as natural as shooting Whiskey Foxtrot’s signature three-round burst assault rifle.
Other characters might resort to different means, like Isic’s charge cannon or Phoebe’s cavalcade of fencing swords, but they all handle naturally and feel unique from each other. This extends to abilities as well; each Battleborn can have multiple styles of basic attacks, as well as an inherent passive and two basic skills, with an ultimate skill gained at level five. Skill pools are wide, and each Battleborn brings a holistically different kit to the team. As heroes level up, they also gain helix levels, which let them augment their skills and statistics in different ways, while making you choose between two (or three) options each level. Should you take the augment to make your boomerang bounce to more enemies, or a perk that greatly increases your shield regeneration? Even within playing a single character, you can find yourself laying out ideal helix builds, augmenting them with gear loadouts and constructing new ideas and synergies just for a single hero.
After several matches, I found myself debating team composition and theorycrafting. What are the merits of having Ambra as our cardinal healer over Miko, or the pros and cons of different ranged DPS characters? There’s significant depth to be found here, in organizing team compositions and mastering characters. That subtle nuance within the roster only works if each character feels unique, and in Battleborn, each character feels like their own persona, wholly separate and yet melding together as a team perfectly.
Finding those ways that the Battleborn intersect is key to completing story missions, the main cooperative portion of the game. Each story mission plays out like an episode of a television show, taking place tangential to the overall narrative arc but operating within its own episodic boundaries. In one episode, you seek to disrupt and capture a rogue artificial intelligence, to bring it on to help the Battleborn. In another, you guide fragments of a race’s historical archives to safety off-planet, as the planet crumbles and burns around you.
These moments, where planets crumble and massive Varelsi gun-hulks rise out of voids to impede your progress, show the graphical power and effective style of Battleborn in full form. The aesthetic of Battleborn is colorful and varied, from the massive sheen of the Jennerit halls to the earthy tones of the Eldrid homeworld. Animations are well-crafted, with 2D explosions and effects littering the 3D battlefield to create a comic book-style look to fights. It can become a sensory overload at times, as characters become difficult to discern amongst the fray and ten different players are all unleashing moves and abilities in a small area. In many episodes, though, I found myself stopping to admire the surprisingly detailed skybox, or the little mannerisms in a character’s taunt animation, as those little bits of visual goodness add up to build the character of the universe.
Each story episode can stand alone, and each provides anywhere from thirty to forty or more minutes of engaging gameplay, along with a few pieces of treasure to keep you coming back for more. They’re highly repeatable, as the difficulty can scale with either the number of players you roll with (up to five), or through increasing levels of difficulty, including a “hardcore” setting that limits the lives your team can go through. Higher difficulty means better gear drops for your Battleborn, but pressing through these missions isn’t just a means to an end; I was surprised by how entertaining it was to run the missions over, with different compositions and difficulties. Though it can sometimes feel like a grind when you’re just rolling missions for legendary loot, it’s still satisfying to work out the most efficient and effective means to do so.
Gear is a thread running through all of the modes, and is a complicated but very important part of Battleborn. The out-of-mission, meta-progression of the game is broken up into several different level ranks and meters. You have your individual account rank, which levels up persistently across all your actions and helps you unlock different Battleborn and titles for your player card. You also have a rank for each character, and completing missions and multiplayer matches as said character will increase your level with them, giving you new helix mutation options, skins, and taunts. You can also unlock little bits of lore by completing specific achievements for each character, giving you more of their backstory and unlocking their ultimate skin and Legendary gear.
Gear loadouts are the out-of-game items you can bring into gameplay, and they act as progressive power-ups for your Battleborn. Shards, a byproduct of the Varelsi’s universal star decimation campaign, litter the battlefield in every mode. These shards are your currency, the closest analogue to “gold,” and you can spend them on different things like turrets or healing supply stations, or on activating your gear.
Once activated, your gear can give you different boosts: one might improve your damage reduction or attack speed, or a cheaper one might do the same for less while also reducing your health or regeneration. As you earn blue coins for completing multiplayer matches or story missions, you can spend them on booster packs that unlock more powerful gear, or special skins and taunts. Gear runs the standard gamut of white commons up to greens, blues, and purples, with orange signifying Legendary gear. These Legendary pieces of gear can offer a major buff, like gaining life-steal on your abilities, or even character-specific buffs, like lowering Benedict’s cooldowns for every rocket hit while airborne.
All of this, the nuanced roster, the constant progression and the gear loadouts, funnel into multiplayer matchmaking. Split into three modes, multiplayer in Battleborn is a complex beast. Incursion is the closest analogue to a MOBA game type, with waves of mindless robotic minions crashing against each other on a single lane as each team vies for ground, builds turrets and support structures, and pushes to destroy each other’s massive walking turrets called Sentries. Meltdown is a little more varied, as two waves of minions run down each lane to be fed to a mechanical deity called Min-Rec, with the victor being the team that can most satisfy the boisterous robot-god. Capture is the third and most recognizable, as a “domination” mode where teams contest control of three designated areas to earn points.
Incursion is where the most relegated, MOBA-esque game theory surfaces, as team composition and organized play become crucial to manipulate the tug-of-war to your favor. Tankier characters take up the frontlines, disrupting the less bulky melee characters and locking down anyone out of position. Ranged attackers line the outskirts, either as wave-clearing warriors like Oscar Mike or high-damage snipers like Marquis. Melee assassins and damage dealers weave in and out, looking for openings to get a quick kill and avoid the hail of fire coming their direction. Healers and supports keep them topped off, and provide slows and stuns to help keep their team members alive. It’s organized chaos, and depending on the map, it can feel like a careful dance back and forth or a violent mosh pit. Knowledge is critical, though, as knowing when to buy turrets, gear, or when to take out the nearby mercenary camps for frontline support is key to gaining the edge on your opponents.
Meltdown is a little more open to interpretation, and so it tended to be the favorite among early players. Lanes are shorter, and the two-lane division lets players dodge tough match-ups and be effective in spite of team composition issues. I found myself gravitating to this mode more than the others, simply because each match felt like the right length — Incursion could often fall to a standstill, and Capture games felt too lopsided and fast, with any earliest advantage often granting the win.
Still, multiplayer in Battleborn is incredibly compelling, due to both the clever interplay of heroes and the constantly varying scenarios you can face in identical matches. Many other MOBAs try for the same quality of “no two games ever feel the same,” but it maps perfectly to Battleborn’s hectic battles. In one match, I might be having a tough time as Shayne & Aurox, as I struggle to find any pickoffs and feel outmatched in one-on-one combat against other melee contenders like El Dragón. In the next, though, I’m grabbing Benedict out of the air with my Fetch ability, and dropping massive Tag Team ultimates in teamfights thanks to my ally Kleese’s clever use of his Black Hole.
Where it falters is in the mundane moments, where matches begin to grow stale and the same compositions roll out over and over. Balance patches will be an obvious solution to this, but Battleborn will likely be a game that has swings of balance similar to other hero-centric titles. In some cases, this can lead to issues of certain characters just being overpowered, steamrolling enemy teams with ease, or others feeling inferior to all other Battleborn. Though some of the early balance patches alleviated some of the more egregious offenders, balance will be a fluid thing in Battleborn, and that might already be an issue for some.
Performance is also an issue, as the PC version saw individual maps having massively varying framerates for different rigs, and the console versions have limited options compared to their computer counterpart. If you have a fairly decent rig, you should be fine for the most part; for reference, I played solely on an i5 with a 970, and had only the most occasional frame hitches. Console players will have to deal with a smaller field-of-view and a 30 frames-per-second cap though, and that might hinder the presentation for some. It all depends on what you’re looking for — if you want a fun PvE experience with friends you might not notice those, but in a competitive environment, the occasional framerate hiccups can create issues.
Presentation strikes an odd balance as well; while stunning you with an opening intro backed by Deltron and a cinematic (if barebones) prologue mission, the launch build of Battleborn has been prone to crashes and odd quirks. There’s no option to select specific story missions to publicly queue up for either, an issue that might dissuade lone wolves from queueing up if they’re looking to finish the campaign.
You also have to buy into what Battleborn is offering, and that’s not the easiest sell. This is, by all means, a complex game, with many different game types, characters, pieces of gear, and more. For the competitively inclined or groups who enjoy indulging in cooperative games together, it could provide hundreds of hours of entertainment; but there is a level of buy-in that can’t be understated, no matter how easy the entry curve is.
That complexity, nuance, and intricacy is what had me obsessed with this game for weeks. I spent nights theorycrafting team compositions and helix builds. Massive victories over five-man premade stacks were huge achievements, and each new piece of legendary gear or lore achievement met was like Christmas day. Although I’ve started to feel the cooling out process now, that’s after a hundred hours and change. Battleborn is a new venture, an amalgamation of different influences and games that are as much reflective of the current industry landscape as they are of the developers themselves. But from that diversity emerges something truly special, a surprise I never knew I was waiting for, and one I’m likely to stay engaged with for a long time.