Battleborn Review: More than the Sum of its Parts

Battleborn isn’t Overwatch, it’s not Team Fortress, and it’s not League of Legends or Borderlands 3 either. With this new first person shooter moba-hybrid, Gearbox’s departure from the Borderlands series creates both a unique and compelling experience, although one that isn’t without its set of limitations. Despite this, Battleborn manages to be one of the most interesting first person shooters on offer in recent years, and one that shooter or moba enthusiasts shouldn’t dismiss.

Although Battleborn features a vast array of gametypes and modes, ranging from a co-operatve story mode, to various types of online battle modes with distinct objectives, it’s Battleborn’s characters that sit at the heart of the experience. Each character in Battleborn stands out on its own, being entirely unique from one another in both aesthetic presentation and gameplay style. Gearbox have done a remarkable job integrating all of these characters and playstyles into an experience that doesn’t feel broken or unfair from anyone’s perspective.

Characters and their capabilities range wildly, from Thorn the bow wielding Eldrid who relies on accuracy, landing cursed arrows to stack extra damage on enemies and supporting her team mates by controlling space with her large area of effect attacks, to Rath, a melee orientated assassin with tendency to drain life from his foes, healing himself in the process. Each character has a distinct set of powers, a unique primary and secondary attack, and a passive trait that interacts with their playstyle to craft an entirely unique gameplay experience from one member of the cast to another. It’s this uniqueness that makes both character experimentation and long-term time investments feel incredibly rewarding.

The character designs themselves can have a lot of appeal too, albeit they’re perhaps less familiar than similar iterations in other games. While characters in games like Overwatch or Paragon tend to derive inspiration from very obvious sources that often recur in popular culture, Battleborn’s characters felt a little more creative and all together unusual. I enjoyed the character designs and that’s a sizable component in determining why I wanted to keep playing to try out each member of the cast. Of course.

In terms of Battleborn’s moment to moment gameplay, almost everything takes place within the first person perspective (only shifting to third person when you become stunned by a crowd control effect) and as such affords the game a point of familiarity for those experienced with typical shooters. Characters like Oscar Mike seemingly exist to make the experience seem familiar to fans of games like Call of Duty and Halo, as his gameplay style involves little more than firing an assault rifle with attached grenade launcher at his opponents. More unique characters like Orendi depend on more creative use of their abilities however, as you’re required to chaining her magic spells in order to deal massive damage you get a distinctly different feel to your standard first person shooter. Going from one character to another often feels like you’re playing an entirely different game.

At times Battleborn’s gameplay can give the impression that it’s attempting to do too much within the first person perspective however. With melee characters, it can be difficult to target the enemy you’re intending to attacking when they begin to shift out of your view, and while this is easier with a greater field of view available on PC, it’s still very easy to lose track of your target especially when the screen can get rather chaotic. After gaining familiarity with the game, this style of melee based first person gameplay becomes more natural and you learn to rely on your albeit, awkwardly small mini-map when enemy players seem to go astray, but it doesn’t feel natural at first and it’s hard to escape the feeling that certain characters might just plainly be more enjoyable to play if the games action took place in third person.

In addition, the relatively large quantity of visual effects that can occur on screen at any one time can make the player feel as though the game may be a little too cluttered at times. Large explosions, persistent areas of effect and other projectiles and particles all occupy the screen at the same time, many overlapping. Sometimes this can create confusion and there’s a sense that not everything is as well defined as it perhaps could be. For instance Overwatch made an intelligent decision to ensure that allied and enemy super activation are easily discriminable with very clear audio cues, this compensates for the potential ambiguity, however no such system exists in Battleborn. Despite this many of these ambiguous characteristics become less of an issue with time, and these visual features are more a barrier to initial accessibility than they are long-term capacity as you gradually learn to identify each characters powers and their accompanied effects.

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The perspective isn’t without its merits though. With the game taking place in first person, this allows for an abundance of different strategies that simply aren’t feasible in traditional MOBAS. You can reliably determine the direction your opponent is facing and thereby, what they can see and what they can’t. This opens up all manner of avenue to for flanking and stealth. I found coordinating this types of strategies with teammates to be an incredibly satisfying component of the game and something unique to the first person perspective. Additionally, it does grant the combat a more visceral nature, giving you a good view of your strikes as they land on an opponent, and giving you a greater sense that you’re in control of the action, rather than a mere spectator directing a character around the map.

A big component of what makes Battleborn’s and its characters as compelling to play as they are is the games unique skill system. Unlike traditional MOBAs where you simply determine the order in which certain skills are levelled, in Battleborn when you level up within each game, you get to select a variation of a particular ability. This can drastically change the functionality certain skills and allow you to develop new and unique playstyles surrounding your selection of variations. The game also allows you to unlock a number of additional skills which reward repeated play of certain characters and further diversify the potential skill outcomes. It’s a compelling system that facilitates the capacity to play each character in a number of different ways, and tailor their abilities to your playstyle preferences. Despite this, I did find some of the skill choices felt a little one sided, as certain skill variations were just too good to pass up on, removing the decision making process entirely, fortunately only a relatively small number of options felt as clear cut as this.

All of this gameplay diversity takes place across an equally varied set of maps and modes, ranging from co-operative mission based gameplay where you face off against AI, to moba-like modes that feature a sizable element of strategy. Co-operative play will be a highlight for players looking for that kind of experience, though it’s likely to be seen as the most disappointing component of the overall package. While there are a good number of gameplay hours in the games 8 story missions, some of these are less enjoyable than others. The very first mission features several spectacular, large scale boss fights, however it feels like this focus is toned down in later missions focusing on smaller, singular fights and strategic elements like defending objective areas. Some of this ends up being quite repetitive with a sense that there’s little reason to replay these missions compared to those with bigger, and tougher fights which also tend to feature more loot.

Despite these weaker missions, Gearbox’s Borderland’s esque writing shines through and helps keeps the experience entertaining. Characters banter on various subjects contextual to the particular mission, and I found it difficult not crack a smile in response to some of the dialogue, even when I felt fatigued by the repetitive nature of certain objectives. It helps that the dialogue changes from one replay to another too, and it made me want to replay certain missions with an interest in hearing additional lines of dialogue. Loot is another factor encouraging replayability, as you’re rewarded with various tiers of loot packages by killing enemies and opening chests. When equipped these loot items become purchasable in matches and add an additional layer of strategy allowing you to shift a characters strengths and weaknesses around with particular items.

Despite being dependent on a randomly distributed looting system – which thereby infers that not everyone will have access to the best loot, and some, with more luck may benefit more than others – Gearbox have done a very good job in managing this system in a way that prevents it from unbalancing the player versus player experience. Gear costs currency to activate in-game, and worse gear costs less, therefore even if you don’t have the best loot, you can activate it far sooner in the match, which in itself has its own set of advantages. One player might have all of the rarest loot in the game, but it doesn’t matter much if his team begins losing ground before he has opportunity to activate any of it. That, and Gear itself doesn’t influence any character to a degree in which it dramatically changes their functionality and overall efficacy, merely offering mild modifications of existing properties such as a 6 percent cooldown reduction, or a small boost to health regeneration.

Beyond looting and co-operative play, the real meat of Battleborn’s experience is in its competitive player versus player matches. At launch the game features three gametypes, Conquest, Incursion and Meltdown. Meltdown and Incursion are modes which take some inspiration from MOBAs like League of Legends or Future Cop LAPD, featuring non-playable enemies that you must work with in order to successfully complete the objective. Incursion tasks you to destroy two enemy sentry robots, while meltdown tasks you to escort many non-playable robots to enemy incinerators for points. Both modes were enjoyable, featuring sufficiently distinctstrategic elements, resulting in completely different gameplay styles between the two. Gameplay variation across modes helps the game remain compelling for a longer period of time, as even when you achieve a sense that you have mastered a character, you need to adapt and relearn how to play the character within the framework of the other gametype. The same can be said for Conquest, which is the more traditional mode of the bunch, featuring three objectives across the map that your team must control, it’s a lot of fun and has a very distinct gameplay style to the other modes.

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Obviously all of the games depth and coordination does mean that at least to some degree, the extent to which you will be entertained by Battleborn will be contingent on the quality of the players that you share your virtual space with. Players whom are vastly below your skill level can be frustrating as team mates and these scenarios often feel unavoidable without crafting a party of your own. That isn’t to say the game can’t be enjoyed with an assortment of random players from online matchmaking, but it certainly has more ups and downs when played in this way. There’s only so many times you can watch team mates throw the match out of sheer stupidity before feeling that the game is failing to offer an sense of reward that’s appropriate to the amount of effort you’re inputting, yet this didn’t stop me wanting to come back for more in the long run.

All of this action does however take place across an unfortunately small number of combat arenas, with Battleborn featuring just six maps at launch, split evenly across the three gametypes. Despite this, I felt that the low number of maps didn’t have that much influence on my overall impression of the game scope, as each gametype feature a lot of potential for in depth and strategy in itself, which could then make the game rather overwhelming if it were a factor across a large and diverse array of distinct maps. As Rath for instance I need to constantly think where I can go with my mobility, what the best locations are for my character, and how these might be affected in-game with my helix selection. Layering too many map variations on top of these strategic choices may have made the game overwhelming, and it could be argued that a smaller map pool promotes a more focused learning of map specific strategies.

Technical aspects are perhaps one of Battleborn’s most significant limitations however, as regardless whether your on PC, XBOX ONE, PS4 the game appears to struggle where it should not. While Battleborn’s cartoon stylized artstyle is very pleasant to look at, it’s not exactly pushing the total polygon count to new heights, or even boasting the highest of texture resolutions, and in turn it’s difficult to understand the performance issues that the game faces. Framerate is the biggest disappointment for the console versions of the game. When games like Uncharted 4 and Paragon can perform at a reliable sixty frames per second in multiplayer, it’s hard to comprehend why Battleborn can’t pull off a stable thirty. Although gameplay is largely undisrupted by these issues, this underwhelming performance gives the game a sense of lack of polish in comparison to similar titles. Some odd decisions were also made regarding the games user interface, as you cannot view character specific statistics and some stats aren’t separated between competitive and co-operative play. Together with the games technical limitations these are clear oversights with no objective benefit, and areas that Gearbox will need to work on if they want Battleborn to grow in the future.

With all of these limitations in mind though, it is important to stress how refreshing the overall package is thanks to its unique gameplay, and diverse set of characters. Battleborn is undoubtedly trying something very new, and although it makes some missteps along the way, the overall experience on offer is unlike anything else that’s available on the market. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the likes of Halo or Call of Duty providing more thoughtful, tactical gameplay, while at the same time manages to retain a sense of familiarity to those experiences so that helps the game feel accessible and approachable for newcomers.

Ultimately, Battleborn presents an original blend of first person shooter and strategy gameplay that Gearbox have managed to meld together into something both unique and fun to play. Although it could be considered a little rough around the edges due to a number of technical and performance issues, the overall package still manages to be very compelling due to its unique adaptation of a wide variety of gameplay systems. Together these systems come together to compose a vibrant and compelling package that’s both packed with character and a tremendous amount of gameplay depth. This unique blend certainly won’t be for everyone, but for those who want a little more substance to their first person shooter, Battleborn is there to offer exactly that.

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Author: Jozef Kulik

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