The multiplayer online battle arena (MOBAs) genre is arguably one of gaming’s fastest growing. Its tournaments draw the attention of millions of concurrent viewers, and even more play the games on a daily basis. Valve’s Dota 2 remains the most-played game on Steam by substantial numbers, and League of Legends is second-to-none in terms of active players. And everyone seems to want a piece of the pie. Despite their popularity and the excitement had from watching them in action, I’ve found it difficult to catch the same buzz. Surprisingly, Gearbox has managed to do for me what others couldn’t with their latest release, Battleborn, and it succeeds in part by not adhering wholly to the straight formula that has defined so many MOBAs before it.
Battleborn at its competitive heart is still a MOBA, and fundamental to that experience is a large roster of unique playable heroes. There are 25 characters to choose from – five more will be released for free at a later date – all of whom feature interesting personalities and playstyles. And though I have my favorites, such as the fanatical priestess Ambra, none have disappointed. Their weapons, abilities, and flashy ultimates are all exciting to deploy and plan counters for. Better still, Gearbox has infused many of its heroes with delightful degrees of insanity that have often left me laughing out loud in the midst of combat. There are few MOBAs I’ve played that present as lively a cast as this.
As per tradition, heroes begin each match at level one. Killing roaming minions, defeating players, completing objectives, and building and upgrading emplacements grants you experience to further empower your character. Every new level presents a choice through what Battleborn dubs the Helix system. Bringing up its menu, which is visually represented in the form of a coiling DNA strand, allows you to select one of two to three augmentations. For example, as the sword-wielding Rath I may choose to modify my shockwave attack to silence struck enemies, preventing them from using their own abilities, rather than opting for a damaging leap. Those decisions add an appreciable layer of tactical thought to the game’s encounters, and they can make a difference between success and failure. Furthermore, a limited level cap of ten eases the pain of falling too far behind. I never felt wholly ineffective even if my foe had a few digits on me.
Meaningful progress does extend beyond individual battles, however. As you complete matches you’ll gain both command (a measure of total investment) and individual character ranks. Play as one hero enough and you’ll unlock extra augmentations for them, called mutations, as well as skins, emotes, and titles to publicly display. Additional heroes are unlocked in this manner, too. The entire roster isn’t accessible from the start. Instead, they’re earned in one of two ways. You can reach their requisite career rank, some of which are naturally quite high, or you can complete challenges. The latter includes tasks such as killing 800 minions, completing specific co-operative missions, to winning five games as certain heroes. That restriction won’t sit well with all MOBA fans, yet it and the other rewards kept me invested by giving me goals to work toward.
Gear plays an equal role in Battleborn’s progression and combat mechanics. You’ll continually earn items of varying quality (from common to legendary) as you play the game, either by completing co-operative missions, increasing character rank, and by spending naturally-earned currency on loot packs. Meanwhile, command rank unlocks the ability to edit loadouts and purchase higher quality packs. Items brought into battle don’t transform a hero’s looks, but they do have a notable impact on a player’s build. I enjoyed finding better equipment to continually refine my healing performance or the attack speed of my melee brawlers. That said, using gear does come at a literal cost. The shards spent on purchasing emplacements are also required to enable the effects of items. The higher its quality, the more it will cost to activate. Not unlike the Helix system, you’re forced to make some hard decisions on the go. “Do I improve my team’s sentry turret to slow the enemy’s advancement, or do I want to be a more formidable fighter by increasing my attacks’ shield penetration?”
The persistence of ranks, unlocks, and gear act as an addictive mix for Battleborn, but the option to play through four very difficult game modes is an equally powerful draw. There are currently three competitive modes where two teams of five players fight over resources and locations: Incursion, Meltdown, and Capture. For the co-operatively inclined, eight story missions can be completed with up to four friends alongside you.
Incursion is the most MOBA-like. Each team has two sentry bots they need to defend. A single lane serves to keep the action heavily focused as you escort minions toward the enemy’s sentries. Along the way you can build turrets, healing stations, movement accelerators, or spend shards on heavier assault minions. Additionally, mercenaries can be fought and then recruited as powerful allies. There’s a lot to consider at any given time, and thus it’s perhaps the most cerebral of the three competitive modes. That leaves it with a slower build to victory or defeat, a tug-of-war in the center of the map until that final mad rush that determines the outcome. Winning in Incursion feels like a proper accomplishment, a celebratory event heartily earned and “worthy of song,” to reference one of Battleborn’s harder-to-earn player titles.
Meltdown is MOBA-lite by comparison, though no less fun. The objective is to escort minions down two lanes to be swallowed up by incinerators while simultaneously preventing the opposition’s minions from doing the same. Grant your minions sweet death and you’ll earn points. The first team to reach a score of 500 wins the match. It’s not as complicated, but it does feature a fluid, enjoyable dynamic where the teams attempt to counter each other’s moves across both lanes. In fact, I found it more instantly gratifying than Incursion, as the results of our efforts were obvious from the start. I had a blast running around the map ensuring my emplacements were functioning while defending minions from attack. Sadly, I didn’t experience as much give-and-take. The raw numbers game of the mode made the outcome of many matches predictable. It was very easy to see which team had the advantage and deficits were difficult if not impossible to recover from. That’s not a mark against Meltdown. It’s just that string of bad luck may find you experiencing early surrender after surrender.
Capture is the last of the competitive modes. There are no minions to escort and therefore no lanes. Players simply fight to control three areas on the map. It’s not unlike Domination in Call of Duty. Hold any territory and your team gains points. It’s pure player versus player combat amidst the back-and-forth of an evolving battlefield. It’s a fantastic mode if you just want to test your skills in clashes against other heroes.
If co-operative play is more your thing, Battleborn’s five-player campaign is a substantial but flawed alternative. Its story sees you battling against the tyrant Rendain and his mysterious allies as they attempt to darken the last shining star in the universe. It never quite pulled me in, mostly because each mission is a self-contained story absent of thick connective tissue, but the script’s fast and loose humor rarely failed to make me smile. I only wish it served a heartier filling. There are limited cinematics, few interactions with other characters, and the admittedly amusing dialog is largely communicated from persons off-screen. Gearbox probably designed it as such to get players into the action quicker – after all, how many in your team would agree to sit through numerous cutscenes? – but the world they’ve crafted is so colorful and ridiculous that I want to see more of it.
The missions themselves are designed almost like miniature raids. Depending on how well you do, they can half an hour or longer to complete. They’re replete with multi-stage bosses; hidden chests full of power-ups, score boosts, money, and gear; escort and defend objectives; and even a few instances of platforming and trap dodging. They’re fun, frantic obstacle courses to run in a full group. Bring less than the maximum, however, and they start to feel empty. Playing them by yourself is outright boring.
Unfortunately, there are some further issues that mar the experience. For starters, console performance is uneven at best. I reviewed the PlayStation 4 version, and framerate drops were frequent in both competitive and cooperative modes. Incursion suffered perhaps the most as players and minions grouped up at single points. And in a game where the timing and aiming of abilities is critical, heavy hitches can be costly.
The game’s interface is also a bit messy. The command screen, where you can find information on your heroes, see challenges, equip titles, and so forth is a battle in of itself. There are menus upon menus, tabs upon tabs, within. Information isn’t always easily conveyed during matches, either. The minimap doesn’t do an effective enough job of identifying important details. And if you’re a healer, there are no indicators warning you of allies in need of help.
Finally, though Battleborn’s first-person combat is engaging and bombastic, it’s not as tight as it could be. It’s somewhat floaty, and there’s a lack of substantial feedback when attacking enemies. It feels like I’m shooting or slicing through enemies rather than against them.
Nevertheless, Battleborn’s toughest challenge might just be the month it released in. This May is a crowded field for gaming. There are several standouts, from competitive shooters to grand strategy to action platformers. But Battleborn carves itself a deserving spot on people’s lists. Its endearing roster, wild set of abilities, great variety of modes, progression systems, and the promise of free content in the form of new heroes, modes, and maps have left me addicted and turned me into a MOBA fan, a feat I didn’t think was possible.
Battleborn is developed by Gearbox and published by 2K Games. The game is available on the PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 for $59.99. Copies of the game were provided by the publisher to us for the purpose of this review.