Preview: Battleborn's saucy first impressions

Gearbox kicked off the open beta for their big ol' MOBA FPS game Battleborn this past weekend, and considering they're competing neck and neck with some big name titles like DOOM and Blizzard's Overwatch, it's definitely turned into an all out, drag out, FPS smackdown, where only the strong will survive and the weak will…likely still get played by die hard fans of the developers or the genre.

I've been a big fan of Gearbox from the day I set foot on Pandora, but found myself a bit taken aback by their recent moon based adventures. So I've been watching Battleborn with a mixture of excitement that I may have found a game to scratch my competitive itch, and worry that I might not enjoy the MOBA-style game modes that Battleborn is focused around. I've never been seriously interested in the MOBA genre in the past, but I love first person shooters so I was willing to give the title a chance.

In my time with the game I've found that Battleborn is much more than it appears. Yes it's a MOBA, and yes, it's a first person shooter, but the level of character variation, as well as the raid-like story missions, make the game more than worth your time. Battleborn has all the makings of something great, but it still has a few wrinkles that need to be worked out before I can definitively say it'll be able to compete with Overwatch, DOOM, and many of the other FPS and MOBA titles coming out this year.

Pick a Character, Pick a Faction, Find Love on Solus

Battleborn's story revolves around a dying universe, where stars are being both snuffed out by age and stolen for profit for a nefariously mysterious larger goal. Beyond that, there are a number of factions fighting to control and protect the last star in the galaxy, Solus. The elite warriors from these factions are who we know as Battleborn, and each character has a unique and wildly interesting playstyle to go with it.

Whether you like to keep things up close and personal with a melee-focused genius and her arsenal of telekinetic swords, or you're more the type to run, gun, and disappear in quintessential guerrilla warfare-style antics, Battleborn has something to keep you interested. Support, DPS, Tank, every playstyle you can think of is on the board, and the mutation system gives you on the fly match-based control of your spec, allowing players to focus on exactly what their character and team needs depending on the situation.

I played primarily Oscar Mike, the aforementioned guerrilla fighter, and found my place on the battlefield as a harasser and a key distraction to tie up multiple players at one time, or to ambush a lone cane-wielding sniper at the edge of the battle. Using Oscar Mike's stealth field, I could dart past the front lines and work my way into some of the best map positions, or gather resources to build turrets and summon larger minions to send down the lane. In a pinch, I could block a lane with a well-placed airstrike or (once mutated) a grenade loaded up with a napalm payload, then disappear by popping my stealth field when the going got tough, all while getting pumped to the ridiculous but highly comical screams and shouts of Oscar Mike himself.

All the characters bring a very typical Gearbox sense of humor that, although is a bit lowbrow and more than a little meta at times, is worth a laugh or two. Although, if you're not into that sort of thing, or just not a fan of a certain character's personality, it can definitely grind on the nerves long term.

Smooth as a Siren

One of my favorite parts about Battleborn is just how polished the gameplay feels. Aside from the occasional bought of lag on my end, Battleborn ran great through the entire beta and I was clocking over 100FPS on my GTX 970 consistently. Additionally, I didn't experience any crashes or undue stuttering, which makes me think that this was less of a bug fixing beta and more of a chance to perform some server stress tests before the game's May release.

This combined with the fact that there's no noticeable mouse acceleration and consistent gunplay mechanics makes the whole game feel fun and easy to play. I'd still like to see some more specific and fine-tunable mouse options, like individual sliders for aim and from the hip gunfire, but all in all the shooter element to the game felt really well optimized.

I didn't have enough time to really judge every character's balancing, but I rarely felt like I was outclassed by a player simply because they chose a different meatbag than I did. I was certainly outplayed more than a few times, but that always felt like a result of my own stupidity or because I misjudged another class’s strengths, not because the class was overpowered in any way.

Battleborn encourages players to work together to overpower other enemies while still thinking carefully about who and what you're about to engage. Despite this, and partly because of the extremely low cooldown timers on most of the player skills, the action feels extremely fast paced and reactive, allowing players to easily layer their skills and survive encounters off of solid tactics rather than simply carrying the sharper stick.

Stay in the Game

Players had two MOBA-style game modes available during the Beta, with a more traditional FPS node capture to follow in the final release of the game. Of these, I found I enjoyed Incursion more than sacrificing my robot minions in Meltdown.

Incursion focuses on leading minions down your lanes so they can damage and bring down the shields of a larger sentry bot. First team to destroy the enemy's sentry takes the match, which requires you to play a level of offense and defense that can be really tricky to pull off. Within that, you can zoom around the map to build turrets, healing stations, and recruit mercenaries to help turn the tide of the battle in your favor.

All in all, this was my favorite mode to play, and for a player relatively new to the MOBA genre I felt like I was able to pick it fairly well thanks to the in-game tutorials and prompts. My only complaint is that most of the matches felt like they were extremely one sided – after five or ten games I can only think of maybe one where it was really an even fight between two teams. Other than that, usually the skill level of the players was so vastly different that my team was either sweeping or being swept ourselves.

A lot of this occurred when players left the match early, or otherwise disconnected leaving us high and dry. Gearbox definitely needs to implement some kind of matchmaking system that sorts players by rank and skill level, and a system that punishes rage quitters and trolls that leave a match five seconds into the game.

Story on the Brink

Battleborn's story missions are delivered via a series of raid-like encounters that you can tackle either by yourself or with a group of other players cooperatively. All in all, these missions were a blend of fun and boring, where an interesting boss mechanic would lead to an endless damage grind followed by a short to medium length run through hordes of nameless generic enemies. Completing the missions earns gear and loot packs as well as in game experience that transfers over to your characters and overall player rank.

This is definitely the weakest package that Battleborn's has to offer, which is a real shame because it's just short of adding a really fun element to the game. If Gearbox were to focus on creating slightly more dynamic or story driven challenges and shorten the overall grind time they could have something really interesting.

As it is, they’re worth playing through if you're bored and interested in fleshing out Battleborn's world, but the challenge modes are the only really redeeming replay value. Playing in hardcore mode or on higher difficulties can be a lot of fun and a serious obstacle to get around, but the rewards are barely worth sprinting through some of the more bland level design we've seen in recent gaming history.

If Gearbox were to add some more enemy variation, as well as encounters with some of the more iconic Battleborn as bot-like mini bosses or companions, they could create a quality WoW raid-style mode where groups of players could grind and play with boss mechanics to unlock high tier cosmetic items and gear. This could be a huge point in Battleborn's favor, considering the bulk of gamers love some kind of fun story mode and so far much of the competition is falling short in this area.

Who knows if Gearbox was saving the best story missions for the main game, or if they're just rushing this portion of the main game to beat the deadline created by other big names rolling out similar titles. The point is that, from the small bit we saw in the beta, Battleborn is going to have to rely almost solely on the merits of its multiplayer experience to keep players interested.

Final Thoughts

All in all, Battleborn delivers on everything it promises and is a welcome addition to the ever growing list of MOBA games on the market, but whether it can attract and keep a dedicated player base is still in question. It's definitely fun, and it's definitely a game with character and potential, but when you're competing with giants like Blizzard and Valve for ownership of a genre, you need to be bringing a big stick to the party. Which, until we see the full release of the game, we really can't guarantee.