Class based shooters have been around for a while. Team Fortress 2 is the obvious one that comes to mind, and it can probably be considered the granddaddy of those who came after. The emerging so-called “hero shooter” genre is the current result of the evolution of what TF2 started years ago. When a new (using the term broadly here) genre arises, the all present risk is that a juggernaut will impose itself on the market and will have so much success that months or even years of clone games are going to be released trying to emulate its success. That’s what happened when World of Warcraft did its thing to the theme park MMORPG genre. In this scenario, the only way for the scene to not get stale is to have developers that decide to try new things, add new twists to the status quo and ultimately make a game that is its own beast. Gearbox did exactly that with Battleborn.
You’ll probably be bored to hear how and why Battleborn is different from Overwatch, Paladins and/or Lawbreakers (but mostly Overwatch). In case you are not, let’s put it out of the way. Gearbox created a game that feels like it has its own style and raison d’etre. Despite belonging to the same genre than the others, Battleborn plays very differently, with peculiar PvE elements and progression system. It would be a disservice to evaluate the game just as a comparison to another, so none will be made.
Now that we dealt with the elephant in the room, let’s get to the meat of the review.
Battleborn’s lore revolves around a mysterious phantom-like alien race that decided to take away all the stars in the universe, and it escalated to the point where there is only one star left. The single player campaign revolves around the twenty-five currently available Battleborn and the five factions they belong to cooperating to stop the alien menace in eight story missions that will keep you busy for around five to six hours in total.
While the story itself does not exude originality, it is delivered well enough to keep you interested for the duration of the campaign, and the interesting and funny characters play a part in that. The gameplay in the campaign is pretty similar to how Borderlands used to do things. There will be hordes of AI controlled enemies through which the player and its comrades will have to shoot to complete the objective of the mission at hand, be it protecting a sentinel robot while it opens a door or destroying power generators. Most of the narration is delivered by characters talking to you or each other off screen, and a lot of the humor of Borderlands is still here even though they limited the pop culture references this time around. Of course, it would not be a Gearbox game without giant bosses with obvious weak points. Some of them in Battleborn are just spectacular.
In both the campaign and the multiplayer, the action is fast and it just never stops. When you choose a character, you’re stuck with it for the duration of the game. On one hand this means that a team’s composition is a strategic aspect in each round. On the other hand, the gameplay allows for minimal handicap if you happen, for example, to play without a healer. The fact that the choice of the Battleborn to play is definitive for the duration of the game allows for the introduction of an in-game progression system which is both interesting and flexible.
Your character gains experience during the game, just like in a MOBA. When it levels up, you’re given the choice of two mutations which are passive bonuses that can radically change your style of play and what your abilities do. This helix system works well because it manages to compensate the lack of the possibility of changing class mid-game by still giving players a way to adapt to the enemies and to the course of the game.
The other aspect of the in-game progression are the shards. This currency is available in both story and multiplayer mode, and it’s acquired by killing enemy players and minions or picking it up from nodes. You can use shards for either build or upgrade structures and defenses, so you can help the team and defend the objectives, or to activate the items in your loadout, giving you a stat boost for the rest of the game.
The loadout system is noteworthy by itself. At first glance, one could think that having an equipment based system in a game like Battleborn could give an unfair advantage to veteran players over new ones. It’s a valid point but in this case, there’s nothing to worry about.
Loadouts are sets of three items that you can configure out of the actual game to take with you during the matches. These items follow the widely known color-based rarity scale that is present in most loot-based games (yellow is common, orange is legendary). The trick to making this system balanced is that the items of the loadout are not active when the game starts. You have to activate the items using the shards you collect and more powerful item require more shards. This means that you can just pick your best stuff and go on with your life, but you’ll probably want to mix some common but cheaper items in your loadout as well. Also, investing your shards into your loadout means that you will not be able to invest it in building defenses.
Having multiple gold sinks is beneficial for new players that will not necessarily find themselves behind just because they entered the game without any equipment. At the same time, this system introduces some level of decision making in the playthrough. For example, you may find yourself in a situation where you have enough shards to activate a health boost item, but the enemy team is pushing, so it may be more important to upgrade the Stinger turret by the Sentinel. This is the kind of strategic depth that benefits a shooter like Battleborn because it allows you to adapt your strategy without slowing the pace or hindering the actual action.
Credits are the other currency of the game. It is acquired by completing matches (PvP and story missions) and can be spent in the command center. These credits will allow you to purchase gear packs, extra loadout slots, and page banks. Gear packs are the way you’ll be able to acquire new items and, aside from credits, you can get them in story missions and by winning PvP matches. Of course, the packs received this way will usually be on the lower end of the rarity spectrum. The gear packs (both acquired and purchased) may contain taunt animation and skins in addition to more gameplay relevant items.
Opening Gear Packs is almost as enjoyable as the game itself. Of course, Gearbox knows well that opening a chest and seeing a violet or orange glow coming out is something that makes the hearts of their players skip a beat. It’s a bit disappointing to see that almost all the skins available in the game at launch are only recolors of the base aspect of every Battleborn. Nothing that some content update can’t fix of course but it would have been nice to see more variety from the get go.
The PvP portion of the game is well crafted but a bit poor in variety. There are only six maps split among three modes, so you’re bound to see a lot of the same terrain for a long time if you happen to prefer a certain style of play. Of the three modes, Incursion is the most exciting and the most populated. It’s a MOBA inspired mode with a single lane where robotic minions will advance to destroy the enemy Sentinel. This does not mean that it plays like a corridor shooter, though. There are many secondary paths, sniper nests, and even mercenary camps to capture so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to flank your enemies or do stuff away from the minions themselves.
The other two modes are a classic capture the point and a mode where you have to escort your minions to suicide to gather points (similar to SMITE’s arena mode). While not bad modes, these are not as impressive as Incursion and as a result are less played in my experience. Hopefully adding new maps in the future will bring more players to these modes as well.
On the technical side of things, there are highs and lows in Battleborn. Aesthetically, it looks gorgeous. The game has a clean, regular and colorful style that reminds plenty of Borderlands but without all the cell shading. The characters themselves are well characterized and interesting, even though not all of them are hugely original. Despite not having the most advanced graphics, this aesthetic makes Battleborn a joy for the eyes.
The other side of the medal is that despite not having the most advanced graphics, Battleborn has some performance issues on many systems. Now, the machine the game was reviewed on is of course not exactly top of the line (i56600K Skylake, 16GB RAM Corsair DDR4, Radeon R9 270X) but it’s good enough to run this game at medium-high without much effort. The reality is that the game has some noticeable frame rate drops from time to time, especially during the campaign. Luckily this happens way less often in the PvP, but it’s still annoying when it does.
Looking around the internet, it would seem that this issue happens on a wide variety of rigs. It would also look like that the game is not particularly kind to AMD cards specifically. Now, this is nothing that some driver updates (a driver update that alleviated this issue was released the day after the game came out) and some game patches can’t resolve, but as of now, Battleborn has reportedly unstable framerate from time to time. Nothing to make it unplayable, but it’s there.
Battleborn proved to be a solid title, full of quirky characters, fast action and the potential for building a long-term community around it. It has a few issues in the lack of customization options, technical problems and the fact that not everyone is going to appreciate the particular brand of humor. Despite this, this new IP from Gearbox is a worthy addition to the online shooter genre.
Battleborn was reviewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Battleborn is a solid title that deserves to be kept an eye on. It's a fast and action packed shooter with a humourous vibe in it. It has some flaws that prevent it from reaching even higher peaks but nothing that few content patches can't fix.