The studio behind Borderlands delivers fun gameplay wrapped up in an overall disappointing affair.
Borderlands 2 was my jam and several years before it, Borderlands was my jam. There was just something about the game outside of its loot shooting mechanics, customizable classes, crazy missions and awesome writing. It was an appeal that motivated several replays, even with The Handsome Collection because – quite frankly – it was a very fun game. To think that Gearbox has spent roughly four years working on Battleborn alone makes me more sad than angry. Not that there isn’t plenty of anger to go around.
"The prologue does a fitting job of setting up the stakes and introducing its colourful cast, even if you really have to perk your ears up to soak in all the detail."
I wanted to like Battleborn more than I actually did. The story was intriguing and the characters seemed to possess that same self-referential, dark humour that made Borderlands so much fun. The various character classes and Helix system – your MOBA-style leveling up tree that offers alternating choices for your actives, passives and Ultimate – hid a surprising amount of depth. The only real concern was whether the amount of content would really be enough to sustain your average gamer and right off the bat, six maps across three PvP modes and eight story “episodes” with one prologue didn’t seem like a bad bargain.
Yet here I am having spent all this time with the game and feeling like all my hope was for naught.
Let’s start from the beginning. Battleborn is a MOBA/FPS hybrid concerning the end of the universe. Whether you follow all the mumbo-jumbo and the like, you’re immediately plunged into a solar system in chaos. You’re greeted with a cool unorthodox animated intro that sets up the prologue for rescuing Jennerit spy-mistress Deande. Through the intriguing if a little too over the top exposition, you learn that the universe has been losing stars for a while, Solus is the last one, Jennerit Empire warlord Lothar Rendain seized control away from the rulers and ultimately betrayed the other factions to align with Varelsi, creatures spreading the darkness. You’ll need to band all the factions together to stand a chance of defeating Rendain and the Varelsi.
The prologue does a fitting job of setting up the stakes and introducing its colourful cast, even if you really have to perk your ears up to soak in all the detail. The in media res approach works from time to time and honestly, Gearbox did a fantastic job with it in Borderlands 2. The follow-up is disappointing though as each “episode” feels like a self-contained story that only loosely ties into the conclusion.
"We’ll repeat it again – no checkpoints for failing a critical mission objective. Once it’s destroyed, you have to restart the whole mission over again."
The first two missions – The Algorithm and Void’s Edge – are a prime example of good Battleborn missions, divided into multiple memorable sections with interesting bosses and team-based mechanics. The problem arises when you get to the defense-based missions like The Saboteur or The Renegade. Simply stand in a central room, construct some turrets and defeat waves of enemies. On the one hand, it’s kind of repetitive and feels like a cop-out when you have such interesting worlds and characters. On the other hand, it does make for a strong amount of tension as literal waves of enemies pore in to be eliminated. When playing together with friends, for which the game scales the number of enemies accordingly, it can make for moments of pitched bravado.
Until the “core” you’re defending is destroyed and you fail the mission. Did you miss that part? We’ll repeat it again – no checkpoints for failing a critical mission objective. Once it’s destroyed, you have to restart the whole mission over again. It’s for this reason that Gearbox is looking into re-balancing The Saboteur for its difficulty but how in the world did this make it past play-testing? These missions are 30 to 40 minutes long, which is great, but failing a critical step and getting virtually nothing for it is a major slap in the face.
I wanted to love the characters as well. Ghalt, Nova, ISIC and Mellka are fun characters with funny lines. The other heroes you control are practically flooding over with personality which manifests through their in-mission dialogue and taunts. There’s plenty to like about these characters but for some reason, Battleborn‘s writing continuously emphasizes quick “gotchas” and clever quips at a rapid pace. It’s definitely not to everyone’s taste and even as a hardcore fan of Borderlands‘ writing, I wanted Battleborn to take a hint of decaf at times and settle down.
The campaign definitely deserved better. With all these amazing planets to explore, players should be doing more than just guarding Sentry tanks or cores across multiple missions. The ability to unlock lore, taunts and skins for your Battleborn is great – if somewhat daunting at times – because it offers a unique amount of challenges to complete, adding to your overall progression in-game.
"There’s also the issue that there aren’t a whole lot of maps to choose from. I really expected at least three to four maps per mode as opposed to two. But such is the hand Gearbox has dealt."
The various character skills, as noted above, are excellent. Decking out Orendi to deal damage with Shadowfire Pillars while her Nullify increases cooldown for the same, battling up close and personal with Rath or Phoebe, supporting allies with Reyna while dishing out a fair amount of damage and teaming up with others to put all these awesome abilities into play is fun. It’s even more so when you’re playing the missions on Advanced difficulty since you need to properly work together to succeed. Making use of Shards to build turrets and setting up gear load-outs from the various drops in-game is also important, and further diversifies the tactics and gameplay.
For a game that has such a heavy emphasis on replay value, there’s a ton of stuff to do. It’s just that a lot of it comes across as too routine and too safe at times when it’s not outright punishing you because you couldn’t protect some stupid core from a bunch of bullet-sponge enemies. Also, for all the different abilities you need to use on enemies and the varying attacks that your foes will use, nothing changes the fact that they take their fair share of hits before going down. It kind of makes you feel like less of a bad-ass but I digress.
PvP in Battleborn is fun as the various classes are balanced well against each other and the maps themselves are unique enough to facilitate multiple replays. As with the beta, you’ll need to fine-tune your load-outs and abilities along with understanding your Battleborn‘s capabilities to have a fair chance at success. Running and gunning is viable only if you want to rack up a massive amount of deaths. Learning how melee characters fit into the PvP meta is a challenge unto itself, especially with characters like Galilea who can tank a strong amount of damage and still hurt you up close. It’s a learning experience that will demand a good amount of time, as most MOBAs do.
If there’s one major criticism, it could be that Incursion and Meltdown don’t feel as unique from each other as one would like. This is somewhat mitigated by the map structures – Meltdown is three lane-based while Incursion is a more linear straight path – but the criticism still stands. There’s also the issue that there aren’t a whole lot of maps to choose from. I really expected at least three to four maps per mode as opposed to two. But such is the hand Gearbox has dealt.
"Battleborn may be up your alley but in the war of the hero shooters, it’s own failings end up being its worst possible enemy."
In the end, Battleborn is clearly a game filled to the brim with details and things to do. There are missions to complete, heroes to master, loot to earn, matches to battle in, lore to unlock, taunts to be dealt and load-outs to fine-tune. But just know that its massive potential is hampered by a campaign which can be fun if repetitive at best and punishingly stupid at its worst with an uneven story and too much back and forth hamming. The gameplay itself is fun (though its shooting isn’t as enjoyable as Borderlands, let-alone Overwatch or Destiny) and mastering a character for different situations while playing with friends is a blast. Enough also can’t be said about the visuals which are colourful and at times overwhelming with the amount of detail on display.
I just wish there were more PvP maps to battle on. I wish there were more unique missions that didn’t make me feel like I was wasting my time with each failure. In a way, I wish Battleborn could’ve been more like Borderlands. It’s not fair to compare the two and they’re honestly nothing alike mechanically but more in the sense that the latter represents far better design and story-telling overall. Battleborn feels like it still needs a strong amount of polish (especially when it comes to performance on PC) and some major design changes to feel more fun and rewarding.
If you’re willing to put in the time to learn its unique characters and mechanics or want a unique competitive FPS experience, Battleborn may be up your alley but in the war of the hero shooters, it’s own failings end up being its worst possible enemy.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Beautiful art-style that's unique with a sense of immense scale. Fun cast of characters and clever writing at times. Interesting narrative filled with cool bosses to fight and challenges to overcome. Huge roster of characters promises tons of variety. PvP offers an entertaining take on the MOBA genre.
Punishing mission objective failures make you feel like you've wasted your time. Dialogue gets too heavy-handed and hammy. Repetitive and boring mission objectives at times. Not enough innovation given the potential of its story and characters. PvP map selection feels barren. Performance could be better on PC.
Battleborn feels like it's squandered the majority of its potential with its execution. If enough polish is applied and the objectives made less punishing, it could warrant investment for the PvP. But the limited number of PvP maps, lack of unique missions and shabby story are still severe negatives.