I’ll concede that, before playing Battleborn’s 10-day open beta on PS4, I hadn’t been paying much attention to this FPS-MOBA hybrid. I was aware it was being developed by Gearbox Software (the same studio who created the wonderful, irreverent Borderlands series) and published by 2K Games, but hadn’t seen or heard anything to get me overly excited for its release this May. However, as I had some free time in my gaming schedule, I decided to take a punt on the beta and was pleasantly surprised by what I found; a fun, immersive and challenging shooter, liberally garnished with the witty and humorous flourishes we’ve come to expect from Gearbox Software. Whether or not my experiences with this generous sample of gameplay will be enough to convince me to purchase the full release, however, the following passages will relate.
To set the scene (using information sourced from elsewhere on the internet, as there’s very little narrative exposition in the beta itself), the game’s campaign focuses on Solus, the last star in the universe, which is now a hotly contested battleground between two warring factions. On one side we have the Battleborn, a diverse group of 25 elite warriors, tasked with defeating the perpetrators of the catastrophe that destroyed the other umpteen-billion stars (Brian Cox could tell you the actual figure, whilst simultaneously charming your pants off) in the cosmos. Opposing this cadre of eponymous heroes, are the enigmatic and aggressive Varelsi, whose motives at this stage are far from clear. Only 2 missions are playable from the main campaign, both of which can be enjoyed individually, with friends locally (on the same system! Who’d have thought it possible) or with up to 4 other players online, with the difficulty of each mission changing, depending on the number of participants. After the controversy of Star Wars Battlefront’s homogenous, online-only set-up, Battleborn’s configuration will be a welcome change for gamers who desire a more varied FPS experience; one which allows them to explore the game and acclimatise themselves to its exigencies, before taking that first, bold step into the world of competitive online multiplayer. Even so, there are one or two facets of the campaign, as demonstrated in the beta, that suggested it might not be an entirely thrilling experience. Most notably, I found the missions themselves to be rather long and repetitive, orientated primarily around destroying waves of AI enemies in rather lacklustre locations that don’t feel as imaginative as games of a similar artistic style; I’ll go into more detail about the graphics and aesthetic further down. Regardless of these, personal, issues, Battleborn’s undeniably fantastic sense of humour, just about, retains the player’s attention throughout the 2 missions.
Ultimately, like the majority of online FPS titles, the biggest selling point of the game is its PVP capabilities. Though the final game will include 3 different competitive modes, only 2 were playable during the beta: Incursion and Meltdown. Incursion splits 10 players into two teams of 5 and tasks them with destroying 2 opposing AI mechs, whilst simultaneously defeating as many enemy players as possible for a better individual score. Suffering from the same pacing issues as the story operations, I nonetheless enjoyed Incursion’s highly tactical combat and emphasis on co-operative play; an important theme that permeates the entire game but is perhaps most noticeable here. Meanwhile, your objective in Meltdown is to lead groups of diminutive AI ‘minions’ (not the incomprehensible, yet unaccountably endearing one’s from Despicable Me – fun as it would be for certain people to see them incinerated) to machines located in pre-set areas on the map, at which they willingly sacrifice themselves to appease ‘the dark lord’ (not Sauron, Voldemort or Donald Trump – as far as I’m aware). The first team of 5 to successfully euthanise 500 of the poor little bastards are named winners and, like Incursion, receive an individual score based on enemy players defeated and minions sacrificed. Meltdown, on average, offers a more rapid experience than its counterpart, due chiefly to the condensed arena in which the action takes place. It’s also a more testing environment that makes it slightly trickier to overcome human-controlled foes; though to be fair, that could be I’m a personal issue based on my desperately average FPS abilities.
Moving on to the gameplay mechanics themselves, I was really impressed with the variety of playable characters and the customisation and development options available. Indeed, though the size of the character roster is impressive in and of itself, what excites most is the uniqueness of every single Battleborn. Each and every one has their own specialities and specific uses within the broader categories of melee fighter, healer, support and ranged warrior, allowing players to identify a play-style that best suits their skills. Finding a fair balance between new and experienced players appears to have been an important consideration as well if the multiplayer’s initial set-up is anything to go by. At the beginning of each online operation, every participant begins with a level 1 character and can only unlock additional abilities if they perform well during play, ensuring Battleborn veterans don’t enter each new match in an overpowered state, without actually handicapping them in an intrusive manner. That’s not to say there are no permanent records of your success or benefits to regular play. A command score chronicles your past victories and gives you access to a variety of titles as your general abilities progress, whilst individual Battleborn likewise have a general ‘affiliation’ level, giving you access to additional attires, taunts and ability buffs. Furthermore, your performance in battle is rewarded with a form of currency which can be used to purchase loot, which is in turn used to create a loadout composed of temporary buffs that can be applied during combat.
Before summarising my overall experiences, I think it important to clarify my earlier remark regarding the slightly uninspiring art design. Although I recognise Battleborn employs the same colourful style as Borderlands, managing to replicate the comic book aesthetic that Gearbox Software is known for (one which clearly suits this type of game perfectly), I nonetheless feel the results lack a sense of distinctness and visual impact, because of these similarities. Given the widely differing subject matter of the 2 IP’s, I would (perhaps unfairly) expect something more evocative, engaging and encapsulating of the inherent mysteriousness of space. Of course, this is only a small concern and, if the wonderfully written and performed dialogue is anything to go by (Cristopher Sabat – Vegeta from DBZ – provides the voice for Rath!) it won’t make the slightest difference to the majority of fans.
All things considered, though I had an unexpectedly good time playing the Battleborn beta, at heart I’m someone who prefers RPG’s and games in general which incorporate complex, character-driven narratives. So, although I would be happy to play this again in the future, it isn’t quite engrossing enough to convince me into parting with £40 upon its release on 03/05/2016. Notwithstanding my gaming proclivities, I would strongly urge any FPS or MOBA aficionado to pick up a copy as soon as possible; you’ll have an absolute blast.