E3 2015 Hands-On: Battleborn is a Fun but Flawed Experience

Battleborn is a hard game to define. Part first-person shooter, part multiplayer online battle arena, and part role-playing game, it’s a mashup of everything the team at developer Gearbox Software loves to play. Like a MOBA, it features a large number of unique heroes (twenty-five at launch) that each have their own abilities and play styles. Like an RPG, it features experience progression and level-ups. But ultimately, it finds its strongest place in the first-person shooter realm, with its first-person perspective, frequent ranged battles, and single-player and co-op elements.

Publisher 2K had Battleborn out in force at E3 in anticipation of a launch either in late 2015 or early 2016, and I was able to play one co-op campaign mission with four colleagues from the press.

Prior to playing it, we were shown a lengthy video that introduced us to many of the characters and the world of the game. Battleborn takes place in a distant future where all but one star in the universe have fallen dark and been extinguished. While this will apparently happen eventually, some dark and malevolent force has caused it to happen much faster than it should. With only one star left, all of the surviving races converged upon its worlds, creating many competing factions. However, facing extinction, members of these factions join forces to keep their one star from being forever snuffed out.

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Upon getting set up in the game, we were invited to choose one character from about 10 or so on offer for the demo. I chose Phoebe, a rapier-wielding inventor who can teleport, use a flurry of rapier strikes, or launch a series of rapiers at range towards her enemies. The various characters are colourful and interesting, such as the mushroom-like man who uses spores to damage enemies and his own head to heal his friends, or the gunslinging robotic butler. There is a fair mix of range and melee classes, though it appears that most melee classes also have ranged options.

The aesthetic here is very comic-book like, with one human character easily standing over ten feet tall with biceps the size of tree trunks. The graphics don’t appear as though they’ll strain most PCs, though they work for what’s trying to be achieved here. Weapon effects and ability animations are functional, though rarely eye-popping, and none of the art or environments proved interesting enough for a closer examination. That said, the visuals are presented in a vibrant and  colourful palette, and are pretty enough to keep one’s attention firmly on the game.

The mission we played was a fairly straightforward task to breach a base and defeat a number of enemies that teleport in through dark portals. I was never quite clear on purpose of the mission in story terms, but the linear levels and map prompts ensured that I was able to follow along and join the fight. Combat is enjoyable, with attacks flowing fast and furious, and a plethora of enemies converging on you at all times. Phoebe’s ability to teleport allowed me to rapidly flank larger foes, getting in a series of rapier strikes from the back.

Most enemies posed little threat, though at times it was hard to see exactly where the enemies or my team mates were amongst the gauntlet of foes. It was also difficult, as a melee class, to determine the range at which my sword strikes impacted the enemies. While white numbers pop out above your target’s head upon hit showing your damage, these numbers may appear in a place too high to see against larger targets. Enemies also show little reaction to being hit, leading to some confusion as to whether my strikes were impacting the target or not. With four other squad members, the chaos of battle can be a bit disorienting, especially when all you see is one monster’s belly in front of you. Coordination proved exceedingly hard, and for the most part we simply chased enemies about the battlefield until they were gone. I never felt very much like part of a greater team, and I saw few mechanics (other than a few character abilities) that truly encouraged team-work.

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You gain experience by killing enemies, and at each level you can choose between two perks on the game’s “helix” tree. These generally increase the character’s power or provide special effects or bonuses to abilities. You open the helix and select the ability on the fly, allowing you to do so even in the heat of combat. While this RPG-like system is a nice addition, it does feel a little superfluous, with very limited options and a questionable affect upon the progress of the game. Like a MOBA, each round or mission resets these level-ups, eliminating any sense of character advancement or permanence.

If a team member dies, you can resurrect them by pressing a button by their corpse for a time without being interrupted. This proved necessary on a number of occasions, as while the damage from enemies seems low initially, they can surprise you with a sudden burst of pain. Health regenerates after a time, but as a melee class, throwing yourself into the middle of a large pack can spell disaster. While I didn’t get to play a ranged class during this hands-on demo, I can’t help but wonder if combat is both safer and more understandable for players looking down a gunsight at a distance.

At one point during the mission, we had to escort a lumbering robotic beast that could cut a pathway through the base. On the way, we faced larger boss monsters with enormous amounts of health, though a seeming inability to throw out serious damage. We took these out in stride, not finding our skills particularly taxed, even in the confusion of close combat. I merely threw out my attacks in the same patterns until the enemy had no HP left and disintegrated unsatisfying in front of me. At least my teleport felt useful, as using it ensured that I was never in their sights. And while the combat is fun, there’s doesn’t seem to be a lot to it. I didn’t feel much difference between my attacks, or that mixing them up proved a meaningful advantage. I hope that’s merely my inexperience, but nothing in the game forced me to do anything other than repeat the same offensive manoeuvres over and over.

Then, before I knew it, after one such boss fight, the scenario ended with a mission success.

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It was all a bit bewildering. From combat to the helix to the mission objectives, at no point did I feel the game provided the information necessary to feel engaged or rewarded. Perhaps its simply playing a melee character, but a lack of feedback rendered the experience incomplete and feeling a bit hollow. A few uninspired enemies, a level that did little to fuel my imagination or ignite my senses, and a combat system that feels incomplete all lead to a feeling of a game in its early design stages, not one close to finality.

I hope that with further polish, Battleborn becomes a more inviting space to play, especially in the 5-vs-5 multiplayer that I have no doubt will be the true test of the game’s longevity. Right now, it’s a fun game with fast-paced combat and an exciting and diverse set of characters, but the systems don’t feel like they’re  sufficiently refined to support its ambitious vision.