Battleborn is very Gearbox. We started off our hands-on with a story mission, and we could have easily been playing Borderlands 2. There were several moments - advancing through the level while an electronic voice taunted us, then later emerging from a base into a outdoor space where a giant robotic spider that may or may not have been called Jeff awaited us - that gave real Pandora vibes. The studio's signature visual style is in evidence here, but it goes beyond that, the tone is very similar too.
As we played the mission in question - Algorithm - we were given the story beats by a smart-mouthed AI who spouts claptrap while we blast away at his minions. He's trying to reset the universe because he thinks that reality is a simulation gone wrong, and starting again is his solution. It's nonsense, but for fans of the studio's work, it'll be reassuringly so.
The overarching story itself is equally silly. We may have covered it elsewhere so we'll only mention the basic beats here: the universe is dying, we're down to the last star, some aliens are trying to accelerate the process and bring about eternal darkness. The last surviving spacefaring species have assembled around the remaining sun and are making their last stand against the encroaching forces of evil.
After setting the scene for us during their presentation, Gearbox described to us a game made up of three main elements. Characters. Story. Multiplayer.
Battleborn features twenty five characters all told, although we were only given access to a roster that included fifteen for the purposes of this event and the upcoming closed test. There's a healthy selection - and we're saying that after having only seeing some of them. Balancing must be a nightmare given the sheer amount of differentiation offered by Gearbox. We tried both ranged and melee-focussed characters, and we got a sense that there really will be something for everyone.
Some we got on better with than others. During the PvE story mission - which felt like a mix of Borderlands 2 co-op sprinkled with elements comparable to a Strike from Destiny - character choice was less demanding, and we felt more comfortable experimenting with melee-based fighters than we did in PvP. Battleborn's unique hook is a MOBA-esque design, with players levelling up in each and every match or mission. By pressing up on the D-pad you can access the "helix", and for every time you rank up - up to level ten - you get a choice of which ability or skill to improve (there's also a mutations system that we weren't shown, and this will give you a third option every other time you level). When every player hits level 5 there's also a powerful new ability that unlocks, giving each hero three attacks on cooldown timers on top of their standard attack.
According to Gearbox, levelling up your character isn't just a case of statistical advancement, there's actually different outcomes to some of your choices. We only tried a handful of characters, and thus it's hard to say how many of the new skills add tactic-changing new features, and how many of them are merely buffs to existing abilities. What we can say with certainty is that during every match, every player is going to have some decisions to make, decisions which might well affect the outcome of the game.
The importance of levelling up is lessened in PvE, but in PvP it's going to make a difference, and a fully levelled team is going to be more powerful than a team that isn't keeping on top of their abilities. It's a concern then, what will happen when players inevitably drop out of matches; Gearbox are being generous in allowing players who lost connection the chance to get back in the same match, but it still doesn't explain how they'll handle matches where someone quits on purpose and it's four against five (we suggested that teams with more players should level more slowly). It was actually during PvP that we had the most fun - although that's probably more down to personal preference rather than one part of the game being better than the other - and we were able to sample two of the three game modes detailed by Gearbox.
Capture does exactly what the name implies. There's three capture points that both teams must compete over, and there's extra points to be earned by sending your opposite numbers to the respawn screen. The Battleborn levelling system underpins the action, and it's this and the range of heroes that differentiates the mode from similar offerings in other shooters. That said, it did feel like a mode best suited to offensive play, and we had much success playing against a team trying to defend instead of staying on the move.
Meltdown is a very different kettle of fish, and is more inline with the MOBA design that runs through the rest of the game. The map we played was long, and featured what can only be described as lanes. Players need to escort creeps/minions to gateways, defending their own while taking out those on the opposite team. There's two gates for each team, one closer to home, and the other parallel to your opponent's first gate, in their half of the map. There's turrets that can be dropped and upgraded; these sit in the lanes and destroy minions as they pass. Like Capture there are also shards dotted around the map.
Shards are interesting. You collect them as you play and when you've got enough you can use them to unlock items that you've previously selected and taken into battle with you. You can earn "gear packs" that contain items that each offer various buffs and perks. You can create loadouts to take into specific types of encounters, so defensively or offensively themed collections. Each item in your loadout can only be unlocked with a certain number of shards, so once you've grabbed enough during a match you might be able to deploy a particularly powerful shield or weapon buff, or you could opt for three less potent perks but activate them all quite early on in proceedings.
There's a third mode, Incursion, that has teams destroying each other's turrets, but we weren't able to play that, as it wasn't on the menu. Indeed, speaking of menus, after lunch there wasn't any more PvP (the Spaniards on the bank of PCs opposite weren't up for another thrashing being our guess) and so we jumped back into the PvE story mission for another bash. Having played through it twice, we certainly did get a feeling similar to running a Strike in Destiny, and PvE fans will surely be looking at this part of the game to get their kicks. There are other comparisons to Bungie's shooter; both games have taken two of the most popular genres on PC - MOBAs and MMOs - and have distilled them into something more console friendly, and then mashed those core features into a medley that includes their own respective signature styles. Halo + World of Warcraft = Destiny. Borderlands + Dota = Battleborn.
The question remains as to whether Battleborn will succeed in the shooter space in the same way that Borderlands did before it. The framework is in place, there's tons of personality, and there's a seemingly decent selection of characters to play. The fact that there's going to be no microtransactions in the game is an encouraging sign, and we think there's certainly a good chance that it will catch on. But success will rest on a couple of key elements, most notably the personalities of the characters and the depth of each individual offering, and the basic act of pulling the trigger in game, the satisfaction of combat. With this being an online-focussed title it's impossible to predict whether a potentially quality multiplayer offering will quickly find itself abandoned by the community, or whether it will draw a dedicated crowd that can sustain it for the months and years ahead.
We've liked nearly everything we've seen so far, but there's plenty more still to discover in terms of modes and characters, and it's going to be interesting to see how the different heroes are balanced against each other in PvP, and whether there's enough meat to the story missions to satisfy fans who prefer co-op over competitive play. If Gearbox can get the balance right, we envisage a bright future for Battleborn, if not, expect the last sun in the universe to set rather quickly on this MOBA-shooter hybrid.