It’s hard to not feel a little sad for Battleborn. The developers at Gearbox have clearly put a lot of work into the game, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with it, but being a hero shooter and releasing just two weeks before Blizzard’s hotly-anticipated Overwatch is not a good spot to be in.
Battleborn may ultimately be remembered as one of the most unfortunate victims of timing in video game history, but those who aren’t interested in Overwatch or just looking for a more budget-priced hero shooter (2K knocked the retail price down to $40 at most retailers just ahead of Overwatch’s release), will find a fine game worthy of their time.
The easiest way to describe Battleborn is “Borderlands Light.” Gearbox clearly took a lot of lessons it learned from its beloved looting and shooting series and applied them Battleborn. The graphics have a slightly cartoonish look to them, with damage numbers appearing above enemies each time they take a hit, and the story about alien races gathering around the last star in the universe has some very tongue-in-cheek moments.
But Battleborn has a very different type of depth than Borderlands. You have an overall Command Rank that you increase by completing missions and challenges, but each character’s level only maxes out at level 15. You can gain equipment by playing, but you can only carry three types of equipment at a time. Weapons can’t be customized, but with each campaign mission or multiplayer round you start at level 1 and work your way up to level 10, selecting different bonuses to your abilities as your level increases. These changes make Battleborn a more fast-paced game than even Borderlands, though it’s not nearly as customizable.
While theoretically Battleborn can be played alone, the game is clearly built for multiplayer. You can play the eight campaign missions with up to four other players, and depending on the difficulty of the mission you pick, you’ll need all the help you can get. While the individual levels are varied, most missions just come down to killing a bunch of enemies in an arena or defending a sentry or other object. Each mission takes anywhere from 30-45 minutes, but there’s stunningly little variety to the objectives. Still, the frantic pace of the combat and the ability to pull off a variety of different attacks in the heat of battle kept me coming back for more. Even if it’s not as deep as Borderlands, the campaign is a lot of fun, and has quite a bit of replay value with the addition of the advanced difficulty mode, and constantly trying out new characters.
Then there’s the multiplayer. At launch, the only three modes are Devastation (capture the flag), Incursion (which is like most MOBA games), and Meltdown, a mode in which each team of five heroes must guide their minions into the opposing team’s minion grinders to score more points.
All of these modes are fine. Meltdown is one of the more innovative online modes I’ve played in recent years, but even that didn’t really hook me. Either I’d feel woefully underpowered compared to some of the heroes on the other team, or my team would just have a lot of difficulty working together. Those who really get into Battleborn and get four friends together in a group might have a lot of fun in multiplayer, but I see most players sticking to the campaign levels. The lack of maps (only two for each mode) also makes multiplayer feel like an afterthought. Gearbos has promised more free updates down the line though.
Finally, it’s hard to talk about a hero shooter without talking about the actual heroes. While Gearbox has touted the 25-hero roster (with five more on the way), only seven of those heroes are actually playable when you start up the game. The rest have to be unlocked either by completing missions or increasing your Command Rank, neither of which occur particularly quickly, especially for some of the harder to unlock heroes.
On the one hand, locking these heroes up does increase the game’s replay value, but when some of them are out of reach for everyone except those willing to put dozens and dozens of hours into the game, that’s just going to drive away some players. Once you do start unlocking heroes, there’s a lot of variety here. While some heroes use traditional firearm attacks that wouldn’t feel out of place in Borderlands, most rely on elemental magic attacks or melee weapons. This makes each character feel more unique, though not necessarily practical.
With Battleborn, Gearbox has found an interesting halfway point between the cartoony style of its beloved Borderlands series, and more realistic shooters sci-fi shooters like Halo. Some heroes like Miko the mushroom guy and Kelvin the ice energy monster are Gearbox at its most creative, while other characters like Rath and Reyna channel more human characteristics through a highly stylized lens. The best thing that I can say about the heroes is that if you see them, you know they come from Battleborn. The game gets serious style points.
The effects that heroes generate in combat are varied, ranging from traditional bullets and grenades to massive blasts of fire, water, and miscellaneous magic energy. It can get chaotic and hard to understand exactly what’s happening (especially depending on who you’re controlling), but it all looks fantastic, and I didn’t run into any slowdown during my sessions.
There’s a lot of generic rock music in Battleborn. It fits the cartoon intros to the missions well, but it’s pretty forgettable in the middle of a level. At least it’s not distracting. While the music might be forgettable, Gearbox deserves a lot of credit for getting a perfect voice cast together. Everyone absolutely nails these characters and their lines, and the comedic timing of the Borderlands-style humor made me chuckle more than a couple of times.
If you want to see and do everything, Battleborn is a massive game. With 25 heroes to start with, and 15 levels per character, plus 100 levels of Command Rank, this is a game with dozens of hours of playtime at release. Even if you just want to max out a couple heroes and play through the campaign, Battleborn will easily last you a dozen hours. But whether Battleborn has the multiplayer chops to stick around for a few years is yet to be seen. At release, there are only three modes with two maps per mode. That’s not exactly the stuff that legendary multiplayer games are made of. But if Gearbox releases more maps and content, Battleborn could attract a dedicated community.
Reviewed by Chris Freiberg