Even without the story content of its pedigree, Battleborn serves as a throughway into MOBA tendencies with charm and humor driving the carpool.
Borderlands 2, for my money, was one of the best games of last generation, and became such while remaining largely free of the competitive multiplayer scene. Yet, the times seem to have changed. Competitive multiplayer has come again, crashing upon the shore of popularity with a new zeitgeist to add. Arena battles, fad or not, offer a new take on what used to be centralized around climbing the leaderboard damning your team to do so. Battleborn embraces both approaches, allowing for teamwork to flourish as you gain ego in how destructively you move through the wide open fields of engagement, even as the story mode falls completely flat.
In doing so, the PvP online component feels rapturous as the spinning, taunting, killing centerpiece. Of everything that works, the roster and its diversity feels like the double helix holding the other elements in place. No two characters feel the same, and very few of them feel shoehorned into a specific role. Some such as Oscar Mike and Montana have commonalities along the lines of their shoulder rifles, but their usage completely differs on the battlefield. Oscar is an infiltrator while Montana will take anything the enemy throws head-on, and yet, neither is limited to that one role. Upgrading Montana a certain way – through the Helix that you begin each match with – can make him a perpetual death machine from afar while Oscar can rain death from all sorts of distances. Thanks to the Helix and other unlocks, you have options beyond just rushing with a strong character or evading with a speedster.
Without a huge amount of online options, the trinity of modes in the PvP space had to be prioritized as especially engrossing destinations. For two of the three modes, this is a successful case of online-centric battling. Meltdown and Incursion are the successful halfway marks between MOBA and traditional console modes, creating meaty experiences that can last far longer than a lot of players may be used to. You learn quickly about over-extending, teamwork, the importance of minions, and how concentrating on objectives can win you the day by simply experiencing the game. The two maps for each mode are well structured and colorful, creating hideaways for ambushes and litterings of turret opportunities after you gain some currency. The well of available strategies is just beginning to fill up, each of them either working or cracking based on character choices.
Battleborn’s roster almost raises the experience single-handedly with their wide variety offering strategic possibilities well beyond just a weapon switch. Even playing with different heroes of the same type is interesting because of both the larger – attack types, special moves etc. – and little differences – animation times, possible damage loops. The tri-sword wielding Rath is my go-to because of his ability to stun lock and pile damage to the roof when in close, and yet the lumbering swings of Shayne & Aurox feel way too long and Pheobe feels insufficiently peckish for damage. It’s a separation by degrees, but Battleborn allows those degrees to feel meaningful to your play style and chosen approach.
As you play through any mode, you will accrue experience and levels, up to 10 a session, as well as unlock gear and mutations. The pieces of gear are small buffs you can purchase during the matches as long as they’re slotted in and mutations can give you a third option in upgrading your skills. Still, the entire approach to leveling, basically starting back from scratch in each match, feels comparatively weak to Borderlands 2 and similar systems. Instead of constantly leveling and having the competition rise with you, it’s the same enemies at the same level each mission with you finding your one upgrade path and going through the motions until you max out. This all starts to feel tedious as the enemies hardly ever require different tactics to dismantle. The stacking of patterns feels rigidly uninvolving of your character’s progression inside the game world minus some new skins, and none of that feels particularly welcoming for long-time investors.
Speaking of ill-fated comparisons to Gearbox’s past, Battleborn’s single-player mode feels shockingly lackluster. The vast basin of story and lore from Borderlands 2 is here neither in shape nor capacity; your sole objective is to find more troops to stop Rendain from destroying the last star in the universe, without deviation. You can unlock a backstory for each character by completing challenges, but as far as in-game tales of humorous overcoming, far too few ever emerge. The humor is there and decidedly more blunt and sarcastic than previous Gearbox games, which works out just fine and delivers more than a handful of grins. It just feels like a shame that the prologue – with a full-on anime look that is teeming with potential – is the height of the story when so many story possibilities exist in this universe’s concept.
The missions themselves are perhaps the worst offenders as the manifestation of the most limiting game design decisions gamers dread to cross. Your variety includes escort missions, tower defense missions, and other protection points with health bars that aren’t yours having to be looked over. This would be a minor inconvenience except for the fact that missions can drag up over the hour mark in length, and if the life bar of the thing you’re protecting dissipates, mission over. You’ll still receive some loot and experience but you won’t have a restart option at all, won’t be able to re-up with teammates, and nothing besides the stats of the mission and the main menu await. This is a failure on a design level that actively frustrates former highlights from this same developer where originality and good will used to run free.
Beyond that, the story mode actively handicaps some of the characters in the missions. Rath, for instance, is warned to have a difficult time completing chapter four, making his usage hard mode for you and your team. This actively takes away from experimentation and funnels you towards specific characters, neither of which happens in the PvP arenas. That makes the story mode feel all the more unappealing as you will be bombarded with further challenges on top of the limited lives – which are usually not too bad a problem – and whatever scaling the game does for your team size. On these three levels, the story mode feels vacant, underwhelming, and downright inept enough times to steer only to online play past the first run through.
That said, Battleborn’s replayability factor still feels relatively high because of the online arena. You do grab packs (no microtransactions, no worries) to unlock gear and skins, adding a light completionist angle to the experience that will take many hours of play to fully satiate. Plus, new characters can take quite a bit of doing to unlock, and for those worried about online stability, put those fears to rest. This has been one of the smoothest openings for me in quite some time without a single match dropping because of server outages.
Battleborn has online offerings that are fun because of the variety in the game’s roster, showing Gearbox’s strength in character design that may be second to none. While the story mode doesn’t implode this glowing star, it certainly doesn’t help to have further limitations and no story to really sink the player into. For a lot of players, this game could be their first MOBA-like experience, and it cannot be recommended more from that angle because of the available familiarity of some characters and the ability to experiment freely. For seasoned vets, the roster is what may bring you in as it’s unlike any other you’ve shot through before.