There may be a good game buried under Gearbox Software’s first attempt at a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena), but as the title Battleborn implies, too many of its systems are developmentally in their infancy. Colorful visuals and the usual frantic profanity of the studio’s other titles, like Borderlands, aren’t enough to mask poor game design choices.
Battleborn’s cooperative story missions are imbalanced and unclear, both in narrative and combat, and the lack of tutorials for all but one of the 25 characters ensures that competitive multiplayer is a jumble. The way in which the game’s AI interlocutor (called a Magnus) threatens to airlock players if they insist on attempting to equip Gear before gaining at least a little in-game experience is meant to be a humorous riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000. But it’s also an early example of the game’s myriad frustrations, as players will find themselves locked out of higher-end skills and characters, all of which puts them and their team at a distinct disadvantage, especially with the haphazard way in which players are thrown together.
That’s unfortunate, because Gearbox has nailed its character designs. For instance, Miko is a samurai mushroom whose ultimate attack is winningly titled “Fungus Among Us,” and which revolves around dropping a toadstool that heals nearby allies. Since Battleborn is a first-person shooter, those playing as Miko can actually see the way its weapons of choice—kunai—grow from its fingernails, just as those who select the chaos magician Orendi can marvel at her four hands, each with a plasma-spewing eyeball in its palm. Every character has their own unique contribution to battle, from long-range snipers like Thorn and Marquis to massive tanks like the lumberjack-y, chaingun-wielding Montana, sneaky stealth units like the robotic Oscar Mike, and hybrids like Toby, a penguin riding a mechanized suit called Berg who, in addition to dropping mobile shields and crowd-controlling land mines, is also credited in-game with the purely aesthetic skill of being “Adorable.”
Unfortunately, with the exception of a few straightforward heroes like the clone Whiskey Foxtrot, who more or less comes straight out of Halo, many of these characters are difficult to figure out. Complex characters like the tag team of Shayne and Aurox have different stats depending on whether they’re currently united, just as the insane ISIC gains secondary effects if he charges his cannon first, Mega Man-style. This is where Battleborn’s labor pains are most apparent, as there are no tutorials to get acclimated to skills. It’s one thing to read about abilities on a static menu screen, and another to wield them in the middle of an overactive battlefield.
You can play offline, but this solo experience presents its own challenges, especially if you’re trying to learn a feeble support character like Reyna, who boosts her own abilities by boosting those of her allies, or trying to get the hang of a melee attacker who works best when a long-ranged hero is providing lockdown effects. The matchmaking is irksome, as it doesn’t pair people based on skill or desired roles, nor does it allow you to pre-select the maps you’d like to play, all of which often leads to incredibly lopsided battles. In these all-too-common instances, battles become one-sided slaughters.
This can be avoided, to some extent, by choosing to play through the story instead. Teamwork and communication are less vital here, and these eight levels are far more distinct than the six somewhat interchangeable multiplayer maps. Raid missions are the most enjoyable and straightforward, for while they’re not as well-designed or challenging as those found in Destiny, their off-the-wall traps and bosses play into Gearbox’s strengths. (For instance, one mini-boss believes itself to be a spider; squads defeat it by “fumigating” its various hiding holes.) Escort missions aren’t bad either, and actually help to teach the main mechanics for the multiplayer Meltdown mode, which also involves defending specific units. The same can’t be said for Defense matches, which can be failed instantly if the squad’s base is overrun. It’s one thing for this to occur in multiplayer Incursion matches, which are hard-capped at 20 minutes, but each level of the campaign takes roughly twice as long, which makes an abrupt, accidental loss so much more onerous.
Some of these issues rest on the shoulders of random, anonymous players, who will always be the bane of the MOBA genre. But these aren’t new concerns, and the fact that Gearbox doesn’t bother to encourage teamwork or help players learn from their mistakes only compounds the irritation of online matches. The experience earned from a failed level is marginal; far more useful would have been a feature that recommended better gear, or which pointed out uses for the various buildables (like turrets and traps). Battleborn’s most useful feature is a “vote to surrender” button, and it’s telling that the best way to fix imbalances at this point is by not playing.