Battleborn is - as you probably already know and as the box art trumpets - is from Gearbox, the same people who made Borderlands. The question is, can this new game make the same kind of splash that Borderlands did? Mixing seemingly disparate elements from the world of FPS, RPG and MOBA, does it blend into a delicious smoothie, or will it all end in tears?
From the moment that you fire the game up, we think the correct way to describe the game is "intense". The story, such as it is, revolves around the last star in the universe, the only source of light. Naturally, there's a bad guy who wants to destroy it, and bunch of hero types who want to try to save it. The tutorial mission puts you in the shoes of Melka, an Eldrid warrior whose mission is to rescue Deande, the defecting spymistress for the game's main baddy, Rendain. As you run through the level, the controls are instantly familiar to anyone who's ever played Borderlands, as is the mission indicator - the ol' diamond waypoint marker. Listening to the dialogue will also remind you of Borderlands, as the witty wordplay and interaction between the characters is straight out of the Big Book of Borderlands Dialogue. Indeed, the Gearbox/Borderlands DNA is present throughout the game, from the art style, to the character design, sound, everywhere. The only thing missing is Pandora!
Continuing on with the tutorial, you're introduced to another RPG-like feature. As you rack up EXP, every so often your character will level up, as expected. Pressing up on the d-pad will allow you to choose between two options via the left and right triggers. These usually give extra power to each character's special attacks, which in this game are mapped to the left and right bumpers. Melka, for example, gets blades added to her melee gauntlet, or an area of effect added to her ground pound attack, or any number of other variations. After blasting through waves of enemies and rescuing Deande, it's on into the game proper. After the tutorial, you're treated to a spectacular anime style cutscene featuring the Battleborn characters, and we have to say that the art style and overall stylishness of this interlude is amazing and well worth a view. In a nice touch, from this point on, each time you select a character to play a mission or a bit of multiplayer, the intro features your character's snippet of the cutscene, so can be enjoyed over and over again.
So, onto the main game then. The main menu is a little sparse, giving options for multiplayer or story, and then in much smaller sections, multiplayer private and story private. By putting the multiplayer option first, and making the solo play a much smaller button, Gearbox are clearly setting their stall out for this to be a proper multiplayer experience, whether that be co-op or competitive. In multiplayer, anyone who has played Conquest in any of the Battlefield games will feel at home in Capture. There are 3 flags and you have to hold them in order to rack up points, first to 1000 points wins. Even given that we were trying this a couple of days after launch, the match making process was very slow. VERY slow. Slow enough to make us think the game had crashed. Eventually, we found some other players and as soon as the game began, we sprang into action, quickly capping two of the three flags, and from that point on it was more like a game of chase than an actual competitive multiplayer game. You'll cap a flag while the other team caps another, then occasionally have a little skirmish in the middle if your paths cross. Most often, you'll just cap a flag, move on. With only five players per team side, it's difficult to come up with a plan to defend three flags, and with the majority of people we played with not communicating, it makes it just that little bit harder.
Lag is also a real issue, with enemies and allies alike popping in and out of existence, interesting bullet mechanics where you'll die despite being clearly behind cover on your screen, and so on. We hope that these are teething issues due to playing in the opening week, and indeed Gearbox seems to be on the case, as their Battleborn site is giving details of the first "hotfix" to go live already. The other multiplayer modes are a lot more fun. Meltdown requires you to guide a squad of minions to the centre of the map, defending them from all comers, with points being scored for each minion that safely reaches the middle. An escort mission against actual real live players, rather than AI, is an interesting challenge. Here, the other team is usually fully invested in defending their minions, and the middle of the map becomes a grinder, spitting out bits of minions and players alike. The third and final mode is Incursion, which sees teams of players defending their base from waves of AI attackers, while simultaneously trying to get their minions to destroy the enemy base. This is the best of the three modes on offer in our opinion, with matches lasting upwards of 20 minutes as you try and overrun the defences of the other team and then destroy their final sentry. The games can get really intense, especially when it's neck-and-neck and going down the wire, and almost any mistake could cost your team the game. In multiplayer, there are two maps per mode currently, which doesn't sound like many. However, because the maps are quite large and feature multiple routes through them, it will take a while to learn their intricacies, and because Gearbox already have DLC planned, we don't expect that this will be the final count.
Even choice of character can make a difference to the way the games, in any mode, play out, with a choice of class being important. Whether you're an attacker, more defensive-minded, or prefer to play as support, one thing's for sure, there is a lot of replayability here and if you get a team that talks to each other and works well together (rare as that may be), then we can see that this could be quite a timesink. One thing we don't like, however, and this affects all game modes, is the timer for respawning should you die. Each time you die, the respawn timer gets a little longer, and by the end of one match of Incursion, was over a minute, and this is too long. If you're learning the game or just aren't as highly-skilled, you'll find that sitting there watching while the rest of the team fights isn't much of a good time.
In Story, you can play either in co-op or private mode. Confusingly, private mode can also be played with co-op compadres of your choosing, but actual co-op mode will match you with other players and also make the choice of mission a matter for public vote. We did try a few co-op missions just to give it a try, and although the game ran fairly smoothly (there's always that one guy with a "rural" internet connection who slows everything down) they soon degenerated into a complete shambles.
We had our full complement of players: Leroy Jenkins, who ran off ahead and was killed time and again as we couldn't reach him to revive him, we had The Standers, who stand on the spot they were spawned and don't move (we hate these guys, and luckily Gearbox seem to as well, as the inactivity warning period is quite brief before you're kicked), we also had The Spinners, who stand on one spot but spin in circles to try and avoid the inactivity timer, and we had the obligatory Foul Mouthed Child, who'd apparently gotten to know our mother quite well. Safe to say, we never actually completed a mission with randoms. Having roped in some like minded recruits from our friends list, the missions actually turned to be really good fun. They are classified into a few categories, Raids, Escort, or Rescue, and they are all entertaining, and all very different. The length of the missions was also a pleasant surprise, as even the first one, played in co-op with people we were communicating with, was 45 minutes long, and none of that was filler. It followed the standard kind of "Minions, mini boss, big boss" layout, and the game is very self-aware, taunting "Well, you're about half way to my lair, time for a mini boss!" and such like. In another very nice touch that you don't see very often, the dialogue for certain parts of the game isn't the same each time. Just when you think you know what's coming up, an entirely different line will be presented, and this adds to immersion, as you then listen to what's being said and this draws you deeper into the game's world. The story missions are set out like episodes of a TV series, right down to the start screen saying "<your GT> starring as Oscar Mike", for example. These episodes fit into the overarching tale about saving the last star, but to be honest, the story isn't awfully strong this time, but you'll be having fun shooting things so it isn't a mortal blow.
Gameplay and control wise, this game is as tight and pin sharp as any of the Borderlands games, with the characters reacting instantly to your inputs. The feel of the game is also bang on, as the different characters and their styles and personalities are represented brilliantly. Playing a level as Thorn, an Eldrid with a bow and arrow, feels completely different to doing the same level as Montana, a man mountain with a massive minigun. Thorn is fast, agile, and gives better results with a surgical playstyle, while Montana is an archetypal tank, standing in the middle of the firefight, giving and taking huge amounts of damage. Finding the character that suits you and your preferred way of attacking the missions is a huge amount of fun, as whichever you take for a "test drive" you will find features that are good and features that you don't like. But with 25 characters at launch, and another 5 promised in the DLC plan, you shouldn't have any trouble finding someone you like more than the rest.
Once you've chosen a character, you'll need to get used to the levelling up mechanics. Each character has a level that they have achieved overall, but when a mission begins, the "mission level" of the character is set to one, regardless of what that overall character level is. As you gain EXP in the mission, the Helix menu fills up, and as it gets to each level, an "augment" becomes available. This is the process we sketched over in the description of the prologue, and allows you tailor the character to the mission you're trying to complete. For example, Oscar Mike has a grenade throw special move. Using the augments, you can decide to make that throw go further, leave a pool of fire behind, or cause more damage, and so on. So, if you're building a long range character, being able to throw grenades from further away will help, but if you build an up close and personal version of Oscar, being able to drop a pool of fire and skip out of range is very useful! As you complete missions and rank up outside of the missions, more options and mutations become available to choose on the Helix menu in mission. This means that Battleborn plays in a fairly unique way, which in turn adds a breath of fresh air to the whole process. Add to this challenges straight out of Borderlands 2 and there will always be something for you to be working towards, as each character has their own challenges, in addition to challenges that are common to the team. Completing missions and ranking up your "command" level unlocks characters as you go, so the game doesn't just hand you all 25 characters, you have to earn them. In addition to this, loot packs can be picked up in mission, containing useful equipment, and gear loadouts that can be assigned to help your characters out, and the permutations that are available seem almost limitless. The loot that's available will again be familiar, as it's graded according to colour, with purple and gold being top level, and there's an element of grinding that's also introduced to find the best gear, to give you the best chance of completing the missions.
The Battleborn experiment has been largely successful. Fusing humour and shooting together with the mechanics from a MOBA sounds like it should be a recipe for disaster, but the charm of the graphical style and characterisation lifts the whole game. The story (or lack of it compared to Borderlands 2, say) is a bit of a let down, but it does enough to keep you interested and eager to see the next mission. There are issues with online play, which we're hoping get ironed out, but there's fun to be had as you and your fireteam roll up the battlefield, combined with the genuine laugh out loud moments.