If someone had told me at the beginning of the year that I'd be reviewing Battleborn in May, I would have asked them "Which one is Battleborn again?" Now that I've spent a couple dozen hours in Gearbox Software's latest I think I've figured it out.
It's not Battleborn's fault, really. Announced in July of 2014, it was at the forefront of an eruption of hero shooters, an online shooter sub-genre defined by a roster of distinctive characters with unique skills. Think Valve's Team Fortress 2, only not quite as uniform. These new hero shooters often integrate elements of multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games.
Once the industry realised that three or four MOBA games (League of Legends, DOTA 2, Heroes of the Storm and possibly Smite) has that market covered, it turned to the more action-oriented hero shooter.
And so we have Battleborn, Gigantic, Paragon, BattleWar, Paladins, Overwatch, HeroFight, BattleCry and any I may have missed. With that many games with similar concepts floating around it's easy to get wires crossed. Hell, I made up two of the names in that list and some of you just accepted them and moved on.
All of these new hero shooters just sort of blurred together in my head, save Overwatch, because Blizzard is very loud. I cannot tell you how many times I typed "Battleborn" into the Google search bar over the past year, just to remember which one it was.
Which One Battleborn Is
* It's not Overwatch. It's not really like Overwatch at all. Stop comparing it to Overwatch.
* It's one of the few Gearbox Software-developed games released since 2009 that isn't Borderlands, the other two bring Aliens: Colonial Marines and whatever was left of Duke Nukem Forever. Don't worry, it's better than those.
* It's the one with a story. It's a rather cool science fiction story about the last few races gathering together around the last star in a dying universe, battling against the evil that caused the catastrophe in the first place.
* It's the one with a story mode on top of competitive multiplayer. While most other games in the hero shooter subgenre are focused solely on competition, Battleborn features eight lengthy campaign missions playable alone or with friends and strangers online.
* It's the one with the kick-arse animated intro.
* It's the one with strong MOBA elements in two of its three competitive multiplayer modes and not many at all in the third.
* It's the one with Shayne and Aurox, not-at-all teen detectives (but secretly teen detectives).
Teen detectives. That final bullet point punctuates Battleborn's strongest feature. I came because somebody on staff needed to review this game. I stayed for Shayne & Aurox, the dynamic duo of a rebellious teenager and the rock demon that would love nothing more than to break free and kill her. Together they are a delightful combination of brute force and stealth, mildly good and terrifically evil at the same time.
Not pictured: the 24 other characters. Unlocking and advancing characters is my primary motivation for playing Battleborn. When I get tired of burning through the same seven story missions (one day I will unlock the eighth) and the thought of another round of online multiplayer leaves me cold, I find comfort in the fact that the next new character, skill permutation or lore page is right around the corner.
We want more, blood and lore. There are 25 characters in Battleborn at launch. Five are available at the start. The rest are unlocked by finishing story missions, reaching new player ranks or completing various tasks. Each unlocked character has a story to tell, a role to play and the potential to be your new best friend — even the ones that aren't Shayne & Aurox.
Attikus is also a favourite. He hurts. The characters in Battleborn are interesting and compelling, much more so than the things you do with the characters in Battleborn.
The game begins on a couple of high notes. First we have a lovely animated intro that's a little bit Heavy Metal and a whole lot of '80s Saturday morning cartoon. That takes us to the prologue, where we're treated to a solo story mission that serves double duty as a tutorial and setup for the story that unfolds across the game's campaign missions.
Scaling nicely for solo play and featuring wonderful dialogue between Mellka, the player character, and Deande, a spy defecting to the player's side, the prologue mission sets a lovely tone that the rest of the game's campaign missions do not match. Built with multiple people playing a random selection of characters, the core campaign is a more impersonal affair, relying on non-player character dialogue to drive the narrative.
The campaign missions lose their charm after the first three or four plays. From then on they're a grind, a place to level up your characters, try new helix (skill choices that pop up with every level gained in a mission) builds or gather equipment and coin.
Enemies sometimes get stuck behind walls, which is great when you're trying to finish off a wave of attackers. Doo-dee-doo. Not that grinding can't be entertaining. It feels good to enter a familiar mission with your favourite character to see how well you remember what spawns where and how much destruction you can pull off without dying. It would feel better if the campaign missions had a little more variety to them beyond defend this thing, escort that thing or kill that boss, but there's joy to be found in honing one's warcraft.
Besides, it's more variety than is currently available in Battleborn's competitive online battles.
Three game modes, each with two different map, are what Battleborn currently has on tap for the more competitive player. There's Capture, which is a relatively standard capture and hold mode. Incursion is most like a traditional MOBA, with teams escorting their minions across the map to the enemy base to help destroy their opponent's sentries. Meltdown sees players escorting minions once more, only now they are being sacrificed to appease a crazed Magnus with plans to devour the lesser team.
Rath is about to die. Player versus player battles can be quite entertaining. They generally start off with low-powered characters flailing about at each other, then slowly escalate as players gain experience levels and activate more powerful perks and power permutations. Like the MOBAs Battleborn is inspired by, powering up faster than the other team is a key component to success, as is gathering resources to activate defence and drones, this game's equivalent of a MOBA item shop.
There just isn't a lot of variety. It's a problem a lot of these MOBA-inspired hero shooters are going to run into. Traditional MOBA fans are fine with a small smattering of maps to play on. But this is a first-person shooter with MOBA elements, and first-person shooter players love their maps and modes. I know I do.
Really what I want is more interesting things for Battleborn's cast to participate in. We've got this strong cast of colourful characters and a fascinating science fiction setting. These are ingredients that could be combined to create an action adventure easily as epic as anything Gearbox has done with Borderlands. Instead I'm running Shayne & Aurox through The Experiment level for the fifth time. Still having a good time, but it's more about the company than the activities.
At least now I know which one Battleborn is. It's the one that needs to do better by Shayne & Aurox.