The age of games aping Defense of the Ancients, or MOBAs as they’re often called, largely ended last year thanks to the closings of games like Infinite Crisis and Dawngate. There was a bubble, it started filling up, it got too full and it popped. That left a void. What’s going to fill it? Hero shooters, of course! Yes, games like Blizzard’s Overwatch and today’s subject, Battleborn, are out to show that MOBAs don’t have to be agonizingly slow RTS-lite slogs. They can be shooters! They can be action-packed! They can even be funny! Gearbox Software’s Battleborn is all of this and more.
It’s the future. Way, way in the future. So far in the future that we’ve rapidly begun running out of stars. Eventually there’s only one left; the villainous leader of the Jennerit Empire, Rendain, would very much like to claim the last star Solus for himself. It’s up to the Battleborn, a coalition of warriors from all around what remains of the universe, to stop him.
The Battleborn are a motley crew, of course. You’ve got your more standard heroes, like the hulking minigun-wielding lumberjack Montana and the triple-sword-wielding samurai Rath. Then you get a little weirder, like Benedict the rocket-launching bird man and Orendi, the four-armed chaos witch. Then you get really weird, like the girl/djinn pair Shayne and Aurox and Toby, a penguin riding around in a giant mech. There are enough heroes to choose from that you’re bound to find someone who suits your playstyle, though one slight annoyance is that the majority of the Battleborn are locked when you start off and must be unlocked via achievements.
Battleborn’s content comes in two delicious flavors. First you’ve got your story campaign, which lasts for a few hours and appears to serve largely as an excuse to say that Battleborn has something that Overwatch doesn’t. It’s not terrible, per se, but MOBA gameplay doesn’t really suit this sort of campaign very well; you spend a lot of time blasting away at incredibly stupid enemies and fighting bosses with Gearbox Standard Invincibility Phases. You’ll remember the latter from Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel, it’s where you’re meant to slow down and not rush through the game so a boss will become invincible every quarter of its life or so.
The campaign isn’t entirely a wash, to be fair; the Borderlands style is here in force, so it’s a surprisingly funny game and the environments you go through are stunning. You’re also able to try out the various Battleborn and their skills as you run through the stages blasting brain-dead enemies to smithereens, so there’s that. Perhaps most importantly, some of the unlockable Battleborn are most easily accessed through the story campaign, so that’s a big draw for finishing it. You can play through almost the entirety of the campaign in co-op mode and adding a few friends can help with the tedium of fighting baddies that don’t offer much of a challenge.
The real meat of Battleborn lies in its multiplayer modes. There’s three of these. Conquest is a first-to-1000 race to collect points by claiming extractors, essentially a sort of king of the hill mode with multiple hills. Incursion is a more traditional MOBA mode where you’ll use minions to defeat Sentries, giant spider bot things. Finally, Meltdown has you guiding minions into incinerators to please angry AI gods; whoever’s god gets too upset first simply vaporizes the offending team, leaving the other team as the victors. I found that Conquest ended up being my favorite, since it’s the simplest mode as well as the one that best supports an action-focused style of play.
Multiplayer combat, regardless of mode, tends to be a chaotic, action-packed affair with Battleborn and bullets flying all over the place. Assisting with objectives and scoring points will level your Battleborn, allowing you to choose ability modifications from that hero’s Helix; this essentially allows you to choose aspects of your hero to focus on, changing how they play significantly as the match goes on. You can also find Gear or purchase it with ingame currency, then take it with you into battle. Using Shards obtained during the match, you can activate your Gear and obtain its associated bonuses, which can be a big help; Shards can also be used to activate emplacements in the level itself, so deciding how to spend them is a big deal.
Battleborn’s presentation is absolutely fantastic, of course, both on consoles and on PC. The game absolutely shines on a higher-end gaming PC with all the bells and whistles turned up, but the console versions are no slouches either thanks to the game’s animated aesthetic. The voice acting is top notch as well, particularly if you’re a human being and enjoy fun so you’re able to get behind the classic Gearbox humor that’s all over the place.
Let’s touch on something important before we wrap this up: the most obvious comparison here is with Overwatch, of course, since Blizzard’s decision to hold both closed and open beta tests for their TF2-alike on the same week as Battleborn’s launch appears to be a deliberate nose-thumbing toward Gearbox. They’re surprisingly different games thanks to their varying take on gameplay complexity. Overwatch prides itself on simplicity; matches are easy to get into and over very quickly, leveling is kept to a minimum and used for cosmetic unlocks and every hero is available from square one. Even the game’s UI is intentionally squeaky-clean. Battleborn, meanwhile, is going for the more hardcore market with a game that boasts both obvious and hidden complexities. Hero builds can vary significantly with Helix and gear choices, opening the door for counter-picks and unique takes on how a hero is played.
Frankly, I can see myself eventually playing both. Overwatch is a great “snack” game, something you can hop into for half an hour and feel like you’ve had a fulfilling experience. Battleborn, meanwhile, wants you to stick with it. It urges you to dig for its depths and find the best ways to make your heroes as effective as they could be. It does all this without feeling as irritating and stuffy as your average DOTA clone as well, allowing new players to get into the action without being intimidated by a wall of arcane knowledge. All in all this is a great game, one that hopefully won’t wither under the assault of Overwatch so both can coexist peacefully for a long time coming.