Switch on your TV on a Saturday morning and, aside from the blue language, Battleborn could easily be mistaken for a 90s cartoon. As a first foray into MOBA territory, Gearbox Software have dipped their toes in the deep end, throwing players into something that’s part Borderlands, part-whole-different-beast. With a diverse cast of characters, each with their own abilities, Battleborn has a lot to offer. But does it succeed in bringing MOBA strategy to consoles?
A cartoon introduction to the world of Battleborn primes you for the information onslaught that’s just around the corner. As opening cutscenes go it’s a unique take - there are shades of Heavy Metal and 90s naffness like Biker Mice from Mars, all set to a song that personally didn’t work but which does a good job of implying this game is Cool As Flip™. Note the word ‘implying’ - as soon as you start the prologue you’ll quickly work out whether the Gearbox brand of humour and art design gels.
After the prologue you gain access to around six or so Battleborn - the titular characters being recruited to take on a universe-destroying threat… or something. While the game’s story mode offers contained levels akin to Destiny’s strikes and raids, their placement within the overarching story is hard to follow. Plot tends to be relayed through expository dialogue shouted in your ear as you’re otherwise engaged fending off enemies. Worse still, this dialogue is sub-Borderlands in humour and pop culture references, making it doubly confusing when there isn’t a direct narrative line.
Story mode can be played by up five participants and essentially works as a testing ground to try out each Battleborn and their requisite abilities. It’s here that you’ll start to attune yourself to Battleborn’s MOBA leanings - shards of various sizes are scattered around each map and act as currency, while XP opens up your upgrade possibilities. Holding L2 brings up a skill tree resembling a strand of DNA, offering a binary choice between two different skills. Given the fact he behaves closest to a standard FPS, we went with Oscar Mike to experiment with upgrading abilities. Levelling up not only unlocked whole new attacks (airstrike, hello!) but gave us options of grenades with a higher damage or wider area of effect. Once you have the knack of it it proves quite intuitive but there’s no denying that, on starting the game, the sheer amount of screen clutter is overwhelming.
The campaign is where you’ll get your bearings, discovering more about yourself as well as the co-operative nature of the game. This will prove vital in multiplayer but the structure of each campaign level funnels you towards teamwork - they tend to be waves of enemies punctuated by the occasional boss, requiring more co-ordination and directed use of abilities than mowing down cannon fodder.
Multiplayer adheres even closer to the MOBA formula with three modes - Capture, Meltdown and Incursion. Capture is the most vanilla option - a simple capture-the-hill mode with three points for teams to take and control. Far more interesting is Incursion where each team has a large, sentient turret to protect (made even better by the turret’s maudlin, Marvin the Paranoid Android-esque whining). As with other MOBAs, creeps are spawned at each base and need to be chaperoned in order to make any real impact on the opposing force. This is even more pronounced in Meltdown where the aim is specifically to push creeps into opposing territory, unlocking further enemy areas to invade.
To bolster your attack, the shards that dot the map can be used to purchase turrets, attack robots and health regenerating stations, all on a timer so that they can’t be immediately respawned if destroyed. Time in Battleborn is perhaps one of the things that will frustrate shooter fans looking for similar in Gearbox’s colourful universe. Characters aren’t all naturally suited to a run-and-gun playstyle - there are medics, tanks and so forth. While Oscar Mike works perfectly as a Call of Duty analogue, the movement and abilities of other characters might be too bizarre for your standard FPS fan.
Likewise, penalties for dying are far more severe in Battleborn. Team play underlies the whole experience - finding the best routes of incursion, supporting AI-controlled creeps, knowing when to retreat. Anyone playing to score kills (which is wrong to begin with) will find death comes quickly. Die too much and the respawn timer could hit thirty seconds; an agonising wait in such a fast-paced game. Add in the screen furniture and one too many particle effects and Battleborn can easily become a maelstrom of confusion for even the most seasoned shooter.
Therein lies Battleborn’s main problem - there are so many systems at play but there’s a nagging feeling that a FPS doesn’t quite work as a MOBA. Dressing everything up to look like a Ben 10 episode doesn’t help, muddying the waters with an art direction that makes it difficult to differentiate some characters. And, loathe as Gearbox probable is to the word, the recently released Overwatch seems to do all of these things in a more nuanced and player-friendly way. This is a shame - there are hours of fun to be had in Battleborn exploring the different characters and their abilities. But it all feels half-baked when placed next to Blizzard’s behemoth.
So Battleborn is an acquired taste. There’s a lot to love but equally there’s a good deal of irksome design choices that could be forgivable were Battleborn the only option on the market, but with Overwatch upon us it’s easy to forget about Gearbox’s latest. Likewise, it paints itself as a colourful, bloodless romp, so kid-friendly, right? That’s scuppered by the blue language and Borderlands’ risque humour. It just never feels nailed down and, even with so much on offer, a lack of direction can seep into the player’s experience too. Enjoyable but flawed, Battleborn is a curious release, then - one that feels incredibly brash (most likely - it’s Gearbox after all) or ridiculously stupid coming out against a fan favourite like Overwatch.