It's not a welcoming hand that introduces us to Battleborn, the new FPS hybrid from Gearbox Software. We're unceremoniously thrown into fairly obscure menus without further instruction, and once we get started on our adventure, we're bombarded with small boxes filled with text that's hard to make out even on the big TV, and then to compound things everything is explained at pace. It's hardly the world's most complicated game, but a more intuitive and informative start should have been put in place so as to ease us into this new online offering from the studio that most recently gave us Borderlands 2 and Aliens: Colonial Marines.
While the learning curve might be steep, the foundations of the first-person shooter genre are, however, familiar enough, and we work out how to get around and when to pull the trigger as we're getting to grips with the well implemented controls. It doesn't take long to notice how it offers a few touches that we would normally expect to find in a MOBA, with in-match progression across both the co-op and competitive modes, although there's RPG elements in there too, with persistent skills to unlock across a range of characterful heroes over time.
We start off focused on the co-op half of the game, and by that we mean running around filling our enemies with hot lead, listening to (sometimes) funny conversations that drive forward the fairly nonsensical story, while slowly rising through the ranks and gaining access to new abilities. The fact that it has a narrative and a story mode makes it even harder to categorise or label it in a specific genre, even more so because fighting the big bosses at the end of each level makes it feel more like an old school action game.
The story itself is nothing to write home about; it revolves around a number of factions fighting over the last star in the universe. It is, however, told with the studio's signature playfulness, even if it doesn't always hit the right notes. In many ways it reminds us of the type of story you'd find in a fighting game, which are always contrived because it's impossible to logically explain why twenty people regularly and repeatedly get together only to beat each other up over the course of several years (as is the case with many fighting series today). In fact, the existence of Battleborn's story probably only exists so there's an explanation for why a lot of very colourful superhero-like characters have gathered in one place to fight.
That in itself is no problem. Good gameplay in an action game is always preferable over a decent story. If we're going to play them again and again, they have to remain enjoyable on a mechanical level. And that's perhaps the main problem with Battleborn: it's never really a huge amount of fun to play. While you can tackle the story missions by yourself, that's not how they've been built, and naturally you will have a much better time if you have someone with you and can play co-op, but even then it still never reaches the level of Gearbox's last decent shooter, Borderlands 2.
It's not enough to turn up and start shooting; playing as a team in Battleborn is extremely important and it's often essential that you stick together, and before that, choose the right classes to complement your cohort. Several passages of play are almost impossible otherwise, and you'll want the one who heals to be good at doing their job, and the one who has the most powerful attack to really make the most of it and hand out plenty of destruction. If you fail during a particularly important section of a mission, the game quickly ends, likewise it's all over if the team simultaneously runs out of health. Several times we had the misfortune of ending up with people who just threw themselves into battle and burned through our limited supply of communal lives at a furious pace, making it hard for us to make forward progress when things got tough later on.
If you hit the "game over" screen there's no checkpoints to fall back on, which means it hurts even more when it happens, and it's particularly galling when you've made it to the latter stages of a mission. While the arrangement is ingenious and could have made for great co-op, we found ourselves constantly let down when playing with strangers. Anyone who can't fill a team with friends, or those who play alone but can't find good people to work with, will sadly have to endure a sub-optimal gaming experience.
The concept is somewhat reminiscent of the Strikes in Destiny, but often these story missions lack variation and creativity beyond the design of the bosses. In several places we got stuck in something akin to a horde mode, where wave after wave of seemingly never ending enemies attacked us. It also has characteristics reminiscent of the tower defence genre, where you're allowed to build, for example, turrets that can be upgraded several times. In terms of co-op, you could think of it as Borderlands 2 with limitations, and while many of you will like that the humour remains intact from the looter shooter, it still ends up feeling like Battleborn has been a little undercooked, and that it lacks the clear vision of its predecessor.
Cooperative play aside, it's the multiplayer aspect that we consider the real main course in Battleborn (others, of course, may disagree). There are two levelling systems to tell you about; one that you climb up slowly, gradually unlocking more characters and loadouts, and one that is temporary. The former we've already mentioned, the latter is where its MOBA roots shine through, with your character levelling up throughout an individual match, and as in the games that inspired it, when the match is finished your rank disappears. In-game you're given the opportunity to level up your character to fit with the others in your team, or you can work solely towards thwarting your opponents - preferably you'll be able to find a balance between the two.
The system works well, but unfortunately a lot of content is locked away from the start. We see what Gearbox is trying to do, with content to come in waves post-launch, but we're not fans of having roughly half of the ensemble cast inaccessible at first. We're struggling to think of many examples where this approach has aided the design of a game. Here we're forced into playing as characters that we might not even like in order to unlock someone else (who we might not like). It also means that the games are filled with low level players who are using the starter figures, whereas a lot of the newer ones aren't used enough. It means a less dynamic battlefield, and subsequently there's less interesting interactions between characters; it's an outcome that felt unnecessary.
We find it hard to shake the feeling that Battleborn looks and feels like a free-to-play title. Graphics are of course not everything, but there's elements of design and some technical aspects that don't feel particularly cutting edge. The unlockable characters require a lot of grinding before they can be used, which further contributes to this feeling, and we found ourselves wishing that we could throw in a couple of quid and unlock the entire game. Instead it's the banal Oscar Mike, a typical "run 'n' gun" character, that becomes our favourite and remains thus even after we've unlocked cooler alternatives like the Shredder-like Attikus and the crazy ol' Kleese.
Several of the multiplayer stages don't feel as cleverly designed as they might have been. A few of them have no natural choke points to draw the action, and this results in players running around a little aimlessly looking for people to kill. Building turrets and the like gives no meaningful advantage, and it seems as though they get taken down like they were made of cardboard. Fortunately, the game mode Capture focuses the fighting around a few specific points and sends everyone running, guns drawn, in the same direction. On the other hand it makes the matches all feel kind of similar, and it doesn't take long before we've worked out what doesn't work and what are the viable strategies.
The game mode that was most hyped ahead of launch was Incursion, where a collection of Minions (no, not the yellow guys from "Despicable Me" - think Dota's creeps) need to be escorted to the enemy base where two mini bosses - called Sentry Bots - have to be taken out. The problem is that everyone is rushing around like headless chickens; there's too much momentum, too many guns, upgrades, and turret repairs. In short, it's all a bit too busy. Maybe we just had bad luck, but we were seldom able to enjoy a really good game where we felt like we were working with our randomly assigned team-mates towards an objective, despite there being a number of common goals.
Overall, we think we're going to need a significant improvement in terms of both stages and gameplay from the upcoming DLC if Gearbox is going to create the necessary longevity Battleborn needs to survive. Right now it feels like everyone is playing Deathmatch despite the fact that this particular mode doesn't even feature. Moreover, we felt like there was too little content, which of course further adds to the feeling that this is a free-to-play title that has been put in a box and sent out to retailers.
In the end, we're struggling to muster the enthusiasm needed to return to Battleborn. Unless something radically different is added in upcoming updates, we find it hard to imagine ourselves waging war here in the future. As you'd expect from Gearbox it boasts great presentation, and it was reasonably fun while it lasted, but it doesn't have the charm, the content, or that special something to inspire us back for more. Its structure makes it feels like a budget game even though we know that's far from the case, and as such we find it hard to give it a hearty endorsement.