I'm standing on a platform, waiting silently. It's a co-op session of Battleborn, Gearbox's upcoming shooter that feels awfully like a cross between Borderlands and a MOBA. There's four other players on my team, and we're escorting a tank of sorts to an endpoint.
There's four platforms in total. I'm on one of them, waiting for the rest of my team to venture over so we can break through a wall that's blocking our progress. But one by one, the same thing happens: a teammate wanders over, stands on the platform, sees another wave of enemies spawn, and then runs off to go shoot another endless wave.
More than five minutes. That's how long it took four out of five people to wander over to a glowing beacon and stand put.
That's not the only reason I wouldn't play Battleborn without a group of friends — but before that, let's cover what Battleborn actually is.
After spending a few hours with the story and multiplayer, it's not unfair to liken Gearbox's shooter to a compressed Borderlands experience. Imagine removing the open-world element of Borderlands and the mission to mission traversal, but keeping that experience of slaughtering waves of enemies, running through their base, and having a boss fight at the end.
If you were to give an elevator pitch for the co-op experience, that'd be it. But there are plenty of important differences from Gearbox's flagship loot shooter. Borderlands has always focused on strong character development — narratively as much as practically — while Battleborn has more characters, with fewer skills and more individual personalities.
Across the board, Battleborn trades on its personality. The opening cinematic is an anime-esque sequence showcasing some of the heroes in action, with a visual style and soundtrack reminiscent of Samurai Champloo. It's actually quite long, so much so that it felt like it was beginning to overstay its welcome.
Whether you like the approach, Battleborn is quite upfront about it. Bosses are introduced with a stylised, Borderlands-style intro. The beginning of every mission shows off each of the characters and the names of the players controlling them in an entrance that would make the Vault Hunters proud.
Even the ebb and flow of the missions themselves feel like a wander through the Borderlands universe. I played two missions: the first a wave-centric mission centred around an engineering core, while the second was a mission to shut down a Varelsi portal.
Objectives were largely straightforward, despite my team's aforementioned lack of communication and co-ordination. Move from location to location, defend waves of enemies, explore for a little, escort units to and from locations, fight a boss and hold down areas.
Two neat tricks that help keep the action from getting stale are the levelling and in-game currencies. As you wander throughout each mission, you'll earn or find shards that can be spent on a variety of things. Some areas of the map will have turret placements — something that's crucial to make use of in the multiplayer Incursion mode — and you can pay to construct a variety of towers.
Those shards can also be used to equip one of three special items from your loadout, which is assigned before the match starts. Your loadout's filled with loot that you've acquired from previous missions. That loot could range from sneakers that improve your movement speed; weapons that buff your reload time; armour that enhances the recharge rate of your shields, and more.
It's designed to be flexible as you encounter more loot. And that goes for the levelling too: your character starts every match, single or multiplayer, on level 1. You can grow to a maximum of level 10, with a choice of two skills at each level. There's a few different play styles, although their effectiveness is tied into the same thing: the synergy of your team, rather than your loadout or personal preference.
It's all about the team.
That was made painfully evident after a few rounds of Incursion, one of Battleborn's multiplayer modes. It's a 5v5 affair where waves of minions spawn and charge en masse to the enemy base to kill gigantic robotic sentries.
It's the mode where Battleborn borrows most heavily from MOBAs. There are Heroes of the Storm-style mercenaries that have to be killed before you can capture their services for your own. There's turrets and defensive structures dotted throughout that you can spend shards on, much like the singleplayer.
Respawning takes longer as you level up; the value of the mercenaries as meatshields and diversions becomes more pronounced as the match wears on. Characters need time to do damage, so large-scale fire fights are largely the back and forth, pokey affair until players or teams decide to fully commit.
Just like MOBAs, although from (quite literally) a very different perspective. And like MOBAs, games tend to be rather slow. There's a good deal of downtime between major fights, given the simplicity with which characters can clear out minions as a group. That means there's more time for finding shards, upgrading turrets, small-scale fights over mercenary camps, and so forth.
And this is largely why I wouldn't want to play Battleborn with strangers.
It's not that I didn't enjoy my few hours with Battleborn, or that I couldn't see myself doing so once the game is released. It's just that I have a more realistic appreciation for what Battleborn is, and what would be required to fully enjoy it.
There's essentially two parts. There's the game for people who like Borderlands but don't want to spend tens of hours roaming the wasteland in between missions. The game you'd play with your partner or a couple of close mates while having some drinks. Get some loot, unlock some levels, then call it a night. Battleborn could work well for that.
And then there's the multiplayer, or at least the Incursion mode. The element where you're paying as much attention to the spacing between players, waiting for an ambush, the absence of movement on the mini-map, the timing of abilities.
It's a first-person shooter, but you can't affect a great deal of change alone. And that grates with a core aspect that I love about my competitive shooters — the ability to change the course of a round, no matter the odds, no matter the numbers.
But to survive the endless waves and the raid-esque style boss fights in the co-op, you need friends. And as attractive as the loot might be, as much as the in-game narration might make me smile, and as vibrant as the game's 25 playable characters are in style substance, if I don't have friends — I don't want to play.