I'm Not Sure What Battleborn Is, but I Want to Play It

Beyond Borderlands.

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A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a theater room as a handful of Gearbox staffers ran through a presentation of Battleborn, the latest project from the studio behind Borderlands. In between thoughts of wondering whether or not I could pull off a shirt collection half as cool as Randy Pitchford's, there was one consistent refrain running through my head: "This game looks pretty neat. Also, what in the heck am I looking at?"

Battleborn, I could tell, is the sort of game that you can't fully grasp until you've had the chance to sit down and play it for a good chunk of time. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. In fact, it speaks to just how broad the pool of influences is that Gearbox is drawing from.

This is a hybrid of genres, much in the way that Borderlands blended the first-person shooter with the loot-heavy, Diablo-style role-playing game. But Borderlands was a much simpler game by comparison. You had Column A, and you had Column B. Battleborn is a little tougher to nail down.

Battleborn's art design is a vibrant mixture of sci-fi and fantasy.
Battleborn's art design is a vibrant mixture of sci-fi and fantasy.

"This game goes wider than Borderlands," says design director John Mulkey. "We're influenced by fighting games, role-playing games, shooters, real-time strategy games...there's MOBA influences, too."

"The idea was to pull in certain aspects from different types of games that we thought were cool and could blend together really well."

And that, I think, is why Battleborn is the sort of game that really needs to be played to fully grasp. On the surface, it looks like a MOBA--at least if your first point of reference is Incursion, one of the game's competitive multiplayer modes. Here, two teams of five compete over a series of capture points before ultimately going after the enemy team's base. Heroes unlock new abilities within the match. AI characters provide some extra cannon fodder. It's all very League of Legends.

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But what piques my interest is the way Battleborn takes those ideas and applies them elsewhere. In this case, it's the co-op story campaign. There's a five-player narrative component that unfolds with the sort of boss battles, set pieces, and humorous storytelling you'd expect from the studio behind Borderlands. But instead of leveling up your character throughout the entire game, you level them up from scratch within each 30-or-so-minute campaign mission.

It's an interesting idea, and one that should make for a very different campaign experience from Borderlands. I can't help but wonder how it will shake out, though. That type of progression system works well in a game like Dota 2 because each match is its own standalone experience. But in a campaign, if you're plowing through five or six missions in a row, is it going to feel strange starting at level one over and over again within the same overarching storyline? (There is a meta progression that stretches across the entire campaign, but Gearbox didn't dive too deeply into that system.)

Either way, it's great to see Gearbox taking that kind of risk within the well-trod world of first-person shooter campaigns. And make no mistake: this is an action game first and foremost. When you level up your character, you're greeted with a helix menu that presents you with a quick binary choice to help streamline the progression process. Red dot sight or ranged scope? Fire elemental damage or ice? Choose quickly, because there are weird little alien things that need shooting.

That progression will vary depending on which hero you've selected, as Battleborn features a broad assortment of characters. A few examples include Oscar Mike, the tough-guy robot clearly intended as a spoof of military tropes; Thorn, the nimble archer who could easily pass for an elf; and Montana, the hulking heavy with a minigun whose torso is about 900 times bigger than his head.

Montana is a big dude.
Montana is a big dude.

And that's the other part of Battleborn that makes me so interested in what Gearbox is doing. Not only do these heroes use different weapons and unlock entirely different abilities, they all seem to move and interact with the environment in very different ways. Where Montana is the slow, lumbering brute who unloads on enemies with his devastating minigun, Thorn is the acrobatic gymnast who quickly jumps this way and that loosing arrows and throwing knives. Some heroes, like the katana-wielding Rath, don't even rely on ranged weapons, instead preferring the up-close nature of melee attacks.

I can see what Gearbox is saying when the team says it's taken some inspiration from the world of fighting games. But inspiration and execution are two very different things. Will those differences in movement and abilities amount to meaningful, strategic choices when selecting which hero you want to play? And how well can Gearbox pull off the tricky task of balancing all of them in a competitive setting? Those are big questions looming over Battleborn, but boy are they intriguing.

At any rate, I'm eager for a chance to sit down and play this new project from Gearbox. I haven't fully wrapped my head around everything that's going on in this hybrid of genres, but it's certainly grabbed my attention.

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