Battleborn for anti-social gits

marquisLet’s get something straight right away. It’s pretty clear that Gearbox’s new game Battleborn is primarily intended to be a multiplayer game in the same vein as Blizzard’s Overwatch and Boss Key’s Lawbreakers. As a primarily single player gamer I’d normally ignore all three of these titles, but Gearbox has gone the extra mile and added Story Missions that you can play alone. I wanted to see if there’s enough to this mode to make the game worth a purchase, and the open beta (running now on PS4 and starting next week on Xbox One and PC) gave me that opportunity.

I know my buddy Chris will be angry that I’m ‘reviewing’ an unfinished game but my intention is to talk about broad design choices rather than bitching about the fact that there was a queue to get in. (Which is all I’m seeing at some sites…people please pull your heads out of your collective asses; you WANT there to be queues when a beta test is running because it means the servers are being stressed and the developers are gathering data they can use to make the launch go smoothly.)

For my first story mode mission I let the RNG pick a character for me and wound up with Marquis, a dapper faux-British robot with a sniper rifle, time dilation bubble and robot owls that attack enemies. Think of a horribly twisted C-3PO with weapons and you’ll get the general idea. Off I went to fight Isic, a maniac disembodied head in a robot suit that has an extensive lair for us to infiltrate.

Gearbox has put a lot of work into building out a huge selection of heroes to choose from. They list 25 on the site now and I think at least 5 more are confirmed to be coming in the weeks and months after launch. They’re all kind of twisted in some way; these are the people that brought us Borderlands after all. It’s worth noting that the same kind of humor is in Battleborn; lots of sadistic comments from the head baddie, directed at both the player and the evil henchmen. If the humor in Borderlands bugged you (~raises hand~) the humor in Battleborn probably will too. And vice versa.

Taking a page from MOBAs, Battleborn starts you out with a level 1 character and you gain levels during a match/mission. Each time you gain a level you get to pick one of two tweaks to your base skills. I really liked the trait “Time Killer” that caused enemies in my time bubble to take damage. There’s a ton of stuff to pick up as you play, but rather than the constant rain of weapons in Borderlands, here you’re picking up various currencies and short term boosts like speed buffs. Some of these currencies you spend in a match to buy gizmos from dispenser units, others I think are used to augment your character with permanent benefits (or cosmetic items) between matches.

It all sounds really good on paper. But sadly I have to say I didn’t find Battleborn to be very much fun to play. And again, I’m talking about playing it as a single player game. You can do the Story Missions co-op with friends which I imagine makes them much, much more entertaining. I wish I could tell you what was wrong with the game but I’m no game developer. From time to time Marquis will kill someone and quip “That felt curiously un-satisfying.” and every time he did I’d nod my head in agreement. It was all curiously un-satisfying for me too. I realize this isn’t very helpful, but let me tease out a few specific issues.

First was the length of the mission. It took me something like an hour to play through and while you can pause the game, I didn’t see any way to save your progress. If I can only play when I know I have a solid hour ahead of me, I won’t be playing much. (I have the same issue with Epic’s Paragon MOBA which I’m also testing, by the way.) I know there are plenty of folks who play competitive games that run this long, so this is definitely a personal issue. Actually all of these will be personal issues.

Second, even though it’s a story mission, it feels like a combat arena. So while you progress from section to section, it still doesn’t feel in any way like a story. It’s just a solo arena, really.

Third, the boss encounters take forever. I get why this is; if a boss is meant to be fought by 1 person or a party of 4, it has to be a big encounter. If a solo player could kill a boss in 3 minutes a party of 4 would steam-roll over it and not even notice it was a boss. So the solo player is left spending a lot of time whittling down the boss encounters. Oddly they weren’t particularly hard. I died 3 times during my story mission but never to one of the bosses. To me they just felt kind of tedious.

Fourth, the loot system. I guess I miss that rain of new guns from Borderlands. Getting a wad of credits just doesn’t feel as satisfying. But Battleborn isn’t a shooter-RPG or an anything-RPG. It’s at its core a competitive MP game and since your character progress persists between single player and multiplayer missions, letting solo players farm missions for awesome weapons would probably cause a balancing nightmare.

So what’s the common theme here? All of these issues would either be mitigated or would vanish completely if I was playing with a group of friends. With the company of other players the mission would go faster, the bosses would die quicker, and I’d get my entertainment from interacting with friends and not miss that there’s not much story to the story missions. I think the loot issues would go away if the missions were over quicker and I could get to the between-mission stuff to spend some of those currencies.

Bottom line: I applaud Gearbox for putting in a single player mode, but I think it’s a mode for us to use now & then when no friends are around. I don’t think the story missions are enough to make the game worth purchasing if you intend to play it solo. I DO think it’ll be really fun game to play with your buddies, though. Think of the solo story missions as a side-show to the main event of MP co-op and competitive matches and you’ll be good.

Here’s a random 5 minutes of non-boss fighting. I’m playing on Normal difficulty and even though I clearly suck, it wasn’t overly difficult. This is pretty early in the mission and you can see I’m still figuring out what things I should shoot to get loot and such.