Don’t be so quick to call it a MOBA. At first glance, Battleborn might look like it fits the ever-popular MOBA formula, with its colorful cast of heroes, AI-controlled minions trotting towards an opposing base, and 5v5-focused multiplayer modes. But developer Gearbox Software would rather you refer to Battleborn as a ‘hero shooter’, because there’s far more going on here than the three-lane action you’re used to. For starters, Battleborn will cost full price ($60 / £44) when it debuts for PS4, Xbox One, and PC on May 3, 2016, so there’s no need to fear the usual trappings of a free-to-play model. And for everyone who’s played and loved the Borderlands series, the story campaign in Battleborn (playable in singleplayer or co-op, no less) looks like it’ll be right up your alley. If you’re wondering what exactly Battleborn’s bombastic FPS action is all about, here’s everything you need to know.
As with fighting games and other hero-centric shooters like Overwatch, the roster of characters in Battleborn could very well make or break your interest in the game. Battleborn’s roster will include 25 heroes at launch, hailing from five sci-fi factions that blend nature, magic, and tech: the United Peacekeeping Republics, Eldrid, Last Light Consortium (LLC), Rogues, and Jennerit Imperium. These titular Battleborn have been driven from their homes, and now war over Solus – the last remaining star in the universe – to call it their own.
With heroes come abilities, and each Battleborn has six unique traits (counting passives) that dictate their playstyle. Heroes are classified under three easily understood roles – attacker, defender, or support – but vary wildly in terms of complexity, from simple point-and-shoot gunners like Oscar Mike to tricky melee-attacking healers such as Ambra. You won’t have access to all the heroes right from the get-go, but additional characters are easily unlocked as your overall profile levels up – and it won’t take ages to access the entire cast through play alone, unlike most MOBAs. Because you’ve already paid for a full-price game, you also won’t have to pay an additional cent to earn bonuses like new taunt animations or alternate color palettes for your favorite heroes.
The first-person perspective
While thematically similar games like Smite and Paragon opt for a third-person viewpoint instead of the typical top-down perspective, Battleborn is the first game built to deliver hero battles in first-person. To succeed on this atypical battlefield, you’ll need to do everything you’d normally do in a multiplayer shooter: check your corners, watch out for snipers, and hide behind cover whenever necessary. At first, it can be a lot to take in, especially with Battleborn’s incredibly colorful, vibrant aesthetic (and the fact that certain abilities will momentarily zoom you out to a third-person view). But once you’ve learned your way around a map, mastered your own move kit, and know which flashy abilities to avoid, you’ll be golden.
Speaking of abilities, Battleborn’s controls work beautifully on a plain ol’ gamepad, with all your moves and spells mapped to familiar buttons. Right trigger is your primary fire and left trigger is your alternate; the bumpers / L1 and R1 are your two normal cast abilities, and your ultimate ability is set to Y/Triangle once unlocked. The only thing that isn’t super intuitive about this setup is the alternate fire; depending on your character, it can have a completely different effect, from zooming in your scope, to unleashing a specialized melee attack, or gliding through the air as the majestic cyber-eagle Benedict. Luckily, you can test your spell functions freely at home base before the start of each match.
Battleborn almost feels like two games for the price of one, what with the story campaign and the online multiplayer arena. Not much is known about the story mode for now, but like the Borderlands games, it can be played solo or co-op, splitscreen or online. No word yet on the campaign’s total length, but these definitely aren’t just ho-hum missions set on the multiplayer maps against AI bots.
Meanwhile, the 5v5 multiplayer comes in three varieties, set on a multitude of maps: Capture, Incursion, and Meltdown. Capture is the closest to traditional FPS, mixing a team deathmatch mentality with capture points, while Meltdown has you escorting your side’s minions to the center of the map, where they’ll sacrifice themselves for the glory of your team. Incursion will likely be your primary focus in multiplayer, as it’s the most clearly MOBA-influenced mode: two teams battle for territory across a map with multiple pathways, wiping out waves of enemy minions and trying to push their forces into the opposing base where gigantic spider sentries (instead of towers) await.
The flow of matches
Rather than the drawn-out tug-of-wars that can unfold in League of Legends or Dota 2, Battleborn’s Incursion mode has more in common with the rapid, continuously exciting conflicts seen in Heroes of the Storm. Match length is capped at a lean 30 minutes, and whichever team deals more damage to the heavily shielded sentries in the enemy base is deemed the victor. In the event of a sentry HP tie, the team that scored the most points (accrued through hero kills, minions cleared, etc.) takes the match. It’s fast, constant action from start to finish, and during my play sessions on the foliage-covered, flank-encouraging Overgrowth map, it never felt like it was too late to mount a comeback.
There’s also a base-building element that can help you turn the tides: as you accrue crystalline shards by picking them up around the map or from the bodies of dead minions, you can spend your earnings to construct allied towers. Lightning turrets, nodes that speed up and buff your minions, healing stations – they can all be built and upgraded mid-battle, if you’ve got the shards. You can also purchase an additional, damage-soaking minion (known internally at Gearbox as ‘fat toddlers’) to push alongside the usual waves, or recruit Thrall Mercenaries to fight for your side for free by beating them into submission (similar to the neutral creep camps in HotS).
Gear in Battleborn isn’t the usual six-item collection purchased from a central shop. Instead, you spawn into the match with a predetermined loadout of three items, which must be activated to ‘switch on’ and provide any benefit. Activating your pieces of Gear also costs shards, creating an interesting conundrum: do you invest in the greater good of the team by upgrading your side’s buildings, or spend those shards on yourself to power up and potentially carry your team? Gear is acquired via randomized crates (think Battlefield) that are awarded simply for playing the game (though don’t be shocked if you’re eventually offered the opportunity to buy more for cash money).
You can also tune your hero’s particular strengths to your playstyle via the Helix system, which represents your character’s level over the course of a match. Your primary abilities (minus your ultimate that unlocks at level 5) are available from the get-go, so instead of boosting their properties incrementally as you level up, you’re given a choice between two tantalizing options each time you level that might completely change how your abilities function. You’re all but guaranteed to hit the level 10 cap every game, but depending on how you specced your Helix, your plan of attack or function on the team could be wildly different than when the match first started.