Moments before entering my first game of Battleborn, I looked at my eager team of four heroes beside me. There was a guy with a mushroom for a head, a gold robot with a monocle and bowler hat, a slender elven archer with white dreads, and a massive Mexican wrestler with a levitated crown on his head. I knew straight away that this wasn’t going to be your standard shooter.
It’s this sundry and imaginative cast of characters that makes Battleborn so unique. Over in Sydney for my hands-on experience, I spoke to the two art directors about the diverse mix and how much it impacts the gameplay. Basically, there is a character type to suit everyone’s playing style: there’s a range of melee characters, such as Rath or Phoebe; long distance sniper-esque characters such as Marquis or Thorn; tank-like soldiers like Montana; and then all-rounders like Oscar Mike or Whiskey Foxtrot. There will be an impressive 25 characters at launch, with another five on the way not long after.
This creative mix of guns, magic, swords and muscle also produces some action-packed, diverse and blisteringly colourful gameplay. Every match is different, thanks to the infinite number of different mash-ups you can create and you can even customise your character throughout each match. But the downside to this is Battleborn is an intense, surprisingly complicated game to get a grip of.
It’s true that the basic gameplay is accessible. The controls will feel familiar to anyone who’s played first-person shooters, and the fact that you can experiment and find the ideal character to suit your style will help attract new-comers. But once you’re in the thick of the action, understanding the number of shifting objectives, the confusing level-ups, the special ability triggers, and the overall pace of the game will require a lot of practice and knowledge of the core game mechanics.
In our hands-on session, we played through two different gameplay modes. The first was a co-operative campaign mode where our team of four heroes worked together against AI forces in story-based missions. After a visually impressive opening cutscene, which will surprise a lot of viewers due to the mad mash-up of art styles (think early 80’s animated fantasy movie Heavy Metal meets Afro Samurai), we discover that there is a dark evil force that has threatened the galaxy. Because of this, species from completely different planets have come together in an effort to fight back - which explains the varied cast.
From here, the co-op mode plays out like roaming horde maps, where players will move between checkpoints completing random (and sometimes confusing) tasks, taking out enemies, and leveling up along the way. Battleborn revolves around a dynamic levelling system, where players can pull-up an in-game “Helix” menu at any time and decide how to advance their character. A lot of the options are either defensive or attacking upgrades, but every decision you make will impact your team and you’ll need to consider your surroundings each time you level up.
The co-op gameplay was good fun, especially when surrounded by intelligent players and working together as a team. The enemies are just as diverse as your crew, and with the larger foes, players will definitely need to use each character’s strengths as a collective effort to take them down. Players can be revived when they fall, as long as a fellow team-mate gets to them in time - and while they will respawn if they cark it on the battlefield, there is a limited number of respawns shared across the whole team.
Overall, the story mode is a great way to get to know your character, but things ramp up significantly in the team based competitive mode, Incursion. This PvP mode pits two teams against each other, where both sides have to play equal offensive and defensive strategies to win the match. Each side is given AI robot squads, made out of minions and a large Sentry bot, and is tasked with escorting their minions into their opposition’s base to take out the other Sentry bot, while defending their own.
Apart from teamwork amongst your crew of four, players can also build turrets and other defenses and the game quickly becomes a balancing act of defending your turf and attempting to assault your opponent. The action in Incursion is manic, and it definitely takes a while to adjust.
I tried a variety of different characters in each play-through, having the most success with Benedict, an Egyptian Horus-like creature armed with rockets. But it was disturbing to see how effective the melee characters were. While I’m sure things will balance out with practice, I personally felt that the pace of the action leant in favour to the fast moving characters who can inflict large amounts of damage up close. Caldarius and Rath, in particular, seemed to be almost unstoppable at times.
The action in Battleborn is intense and it’s interesting that a game that looks so friendly and accessible on the outside - thanks to the colourful, crazy cast of characters (did we mention Toby, a cute, tiny penguin who drives a massive robot suit?) - is anything but simple.
Players could inject hours and hours into this before even finding their groove, just through experimenting with characters, learning the maps, and understanding other characters’ weaknesses. If Gearbox manage to get the balancing just right (especially between firepower and melee characters), then Battleborn could definitely become an online hit - offering a lot of variety to keep players hooked. There’s certainly no shortage of updates that the team can roll out over the coming months too.
Battleborn is due for release on 3rd May 2016 and we’ll give you our thoughts when we review the final release.
Angus was flown to Sydney courtesy of 2K Games and Gearbox to play an early build of Battleborn.