Battleborn isn't just a PvP shooter with a bunch of weird competitive modes; it's also got a bunch of weird single-player story missions, to establish the world and introduce some of the characters. (Of the twenty five Battleborn characters, only seven are unlocked at the start).
Essentially, Gearbox are selling this as an episodic TV show style story mode (because everyone's loving the episodic DC and Marvel shows, like Gotham and Daredevil presumably - see also Hitman.) There are eight episodes and a prologue coming out at launch, and another five coming distributed amongst the game's five paid add-on packs. These tell the story of the formation of the alliance, defending the last star - Solus - against the Varelsi and your traitor friend Rendain.
We got hands on with two of these episodes ahead of launch. We played five person multiplayer co-op, but you can play it solo or two-player splitscreen if you want. And every mission can be replayed, if you're chasing the rare loot that's the core of the PvP metagame.
The first was The Renegade, which is the mission to unlock the armoured flying hero, Caladarius. He's being held prisoner in some sort of prison machine and you have to reach it then defend him until his restraints are down and his armour is powered back up. Which also means defeating the head jailer Hylis, some sort of forcefield-protected goat man with a giant gun. Complete it, and you unlock Caldarius for play in all game modes. It's not a complex mission, to be honest.
The other, more interesting mission was The Void's Edge. Here, the Varelsi (the spidery extra-dimensional humanoids who you're battling) have managed to create a stable portal to our universe, meaning that the last star will fall soon. You've got to escort a wisecracking sentry robot to the portal's location and fire it into it to shut it (because: I don't know.) This involves defeating a Conservator - some impossibly tall static Varelsi that's maintaining the portal, and which briefly teleports you between worlds to defeat you.
The sentry is the focus of the mission, which is handy because a) it's got a weird sense of humour coupled with a death wish and b) it can be buffed, meaning you're balancing killing enemies with gathering the shards you need to keep it going. It feels like a classic Team Fortress 2 mod.
We played both these missions on a lower difficulty setting, which is something we really can't recommend. Though we rarely wiped, we ploughed through the enemies rather too fast, without ever feeling threatened, and the game is much more enjoyable with slightly more challenge (as we found with the incursion mode).
Incidentally, whilst playing these missions, we got to try out a few of the new heroes. Kleese, was the first, an old man in a very ornate, expensive armchair. He's the former director of Minion Robotics and he's basically grumpiness incarnate. His chair comes with all sorts of neat gadgets, including tasers, a pair of hand cannons and a mortar, which is nicely long-ranged and does area damage with its six shells. The chair can also deploy Energy Rifts - small turrets that recharge allies' shields within a short range. As his ultimate, Kleese can fire off a miniature black hole, which sucks enemies and crushes them - and which synergises nicely with his mortar attack.
Playing as Kleese is a little odd. Because the chair floats, because his abilities mean you never want to be in the centre of the action, and because the leather seat is so damn comfortable, you hardly feel like you're involved in the fight at all - and as soon as you are, you tend to die. That said, if you like playing as a glass cannon, he's your man.
We also tried out El Dragón. He's a champion luchador with giant robot arms. Because just what this game needed to bring it together was an absolutely random cyborg Mexican wrestler. He's a nice contrast to Kleese, with a range of melee attacks that can hit multiple targets and that get stronger the more enemies he kills. His special attacks include a sprinting clothesline and a splash area attack. Finally his ultimate has him exploding with fire, then doing extra fire damage with every punch.
El Dragón is a much more satisfying hero than Kleese. His clothesline sprint lets him get into the thick of the action and he's tough enough to stay there, treating enemies like piñatas - but if everything goes badly, the clothesline allows him to get away quickly too. The splash is useful, if a little hard to target reliably. But it's the En Fuego special combined with his damage-ramping melee attacks that allows him to wade through piles of enemies. With no ranged attacks, however, he does have to get very close to do damage.
Can we find flaws with Battleborn? We are a little bit put out that the humour undermines the story - it's difficult to often know what the plot is inside a level, because the characters are chewing each other out so much. Similarly, the amazing flashy special effects that accompany every attack make it damn hard to know what's going on during combat at any given time - a perennial problem with action games, so not something we expect to change. And compared to its inspiration, DOTA, there's much fewer abilities per hero due to limitations of a console controller over a keyboard, meaning the more straightforward characters - like El Dragón - have relatively repetitive move sets, even with the slight customisation of the skill choices.
All that said, Battleborn is shiny and silly, like a Saturday morning kid's cartoon. It's definitely not po-faced like Destiny, despite the plot similarities - if anything it's closer to Wildstar, but with that anarchic Borderlands humour and design running cheekily through it. And the new modes like Incursion and Meltdown are innovative for this genre; we're intrigued to see how much playtime they get compared to the pure PvP at launch.