Battleborn is not a bad game, but it is an utterly ordinary one. Gearbox’s latest FPS, which the studio dubbed a “hero shooter”, oozes mediocrity from every pixel and frame. It’s clear what Gearbox was gunning for, but Battleborn in many respects feels superficial and uninspired.
It really is a shame as well, because that vision did have such potential. Set in a universe on the brink of death, it pits all surviving species against each other in a battle over the last remaining sun. It’s a great idea that is never capitalised on in the slightest.
Battleborn has a campaign which can be played solo or as part of a group of up to five, with missions that can be tackled in any order. Each jaunt to capture this or defeat that contains half-hearted attempts at lore and story, but a general lack of substance here means neither rises above the level of background noise. As a consequence, there is little distinction between the game’s factions beyond looks and names, and little personality conveyed, either.
Gearbox instead has chosen to emphasise the comical tone of the game, and the results range from idiotic to obnoxious. The comedic aspects of Borderlands were hit or miss for some people, but even as a fan of that series’ tone, I reckon Battleborn has very much veered into “miss” territory thanks to a ceaseless stream of dumb jokes and one-liners. Some of the banter aims – unsuccessfully – to build character and story, but more often it is just nonsense, an attempt to ingratiate players via sound and fury alone.
Although its missions are unsuccessful at telling a story, the campaign does provide the most fun Battleborn has to offer. Built very much like the raids you find in MMOs, missions are based on a unique map, and require you to fight through hordes of mobs, with intermittent boss battles sprinkled in. Though the whole structure is derivative, at least it’s inherently fun: fighting off waves of enemies as a group is both intense and exciting.
This excitement rises in spite of how lacklustre fighting itself feels. The combat is so completely unsatisfying and unresponsive that with many characters, I wondered if I was even firing the weapon properly. The fault lies in the design, with the visual, audio and tactile aspects of combat offering little to no feedback to the player. This applies to the characters’ special abilities as well. Many are cool conceptually, but in execution often feel unwieldy or ineffectual.
The effects never quite meld or interact naturally with the world around you either. An example is minigun-toting heavy Montana’s dash ability, which has him charge headlong into a group of enemies. However, enemies and the environment don’t react in a believable fashion to the action by staggering or even getting pushed aside, making the whole ability feel janky and completely unsatisfying.
Battleborn has a roster of 25 characters, with five characters from each of its five factions. Like the factions, however, characters are completely one-dimensional, characterised by nothing more than a series of obnoxious quips. Adding to this banality is how utterly cliché and formulaic the character designs are. In the entire roster there doesn’t seem to be one original form, with every character clearly filling either an archetype or being in some way derived from an existing character or franchise. Even so, it’s satisfying unlocking them all through finishing missions or by accomplishing specific goals.
The other major component of Battleborn is its multiplayer, which offers three game modes and two maps for each. All are unabashedly MOBA-inspired, particularly Incursion, which requires you to destroy the enemy’s base with the help of rolling waves of AI mobs. The map and mode design for multiplayer is surprisingly good, and Incursion in particular offers the same challenge as a good game of DOTA or LOL. However, once again the impotent feel of combat sucks all of the fun out.
Battleborn honestly isn’t worth the exasperation it causes. Not because it is irredeemably terrible – there is some fun that can be squeezed out in places – but because there is nothing it tries to do that isn’t done better elsewhere. For a game so wide-ranging and ambitious in concept, there’s a real lack of design vision on display here. At least Borderlands 3 is on the way.