The battle that’s long been brewing at Gearbox Software is finally ready for release, but we won’t be able to issue a verdict for another few days. Though the Borderlands creator’s latest project Battleborn officially launches tomorrow, its multiplayer servers didn’t switch on until tonight–which means we haven’t yet been able to assess the final version of the game’s online component. Given that competitive multiplayer accounts for a great deal of Battleborn’s appeal, we’ve decided to withhold judgement until we’ve sunk a healthy number of hours into some online matches.
However, I recently played through its story-driven cooperative missions in a controlled, offline setting, so I can offer some concrete impressions of Battleborn’s campaign, core gameplay, and jam-packed character roster. Ostensibly, the game is a first-person shooter, but only a handful of its 25 heroes actually wield guns. Several have no ranged attacks at all, opting instead for melee weapons like ancient war axes, futuristic katanas, or massive mechanical fists. Still others function mainly as support units, absorbing damage, healing allies, or stripping enemies of their shields.
The variety of mechanics on offer is, at first, totally overwhelming. If you roll into battle without reading up on your character’s weapons and abilities, you’ll frequently find yourself saying, “I have no idea what I just did.” For example, Oscar Mike’s assault rifle makes sense immediately, but you probably wouldn’t guess Ambra’s flaming staff siphons health from nearby enemies while simultaneously generating heat that powers her other abilities. Thankfully, the Command menu provides concise descriptions of each character and their unique ability set, and not all heroes are available immediately, which limits the amount of up-front learning.
Plus, I found that once I got to know a character, I generally fell into a predictable gameplay loop. Each hero has a primary weapon, a secondary attack, three active abilities (including one super move with an extensive cooldown timer), one passive buff, and a basic melee attack. That may sound like a lot, but consider this: there’s no crouch, dodge, stealth, cover system, or other mechanics that typically add depth and nuance to a shooter’s moment to moment gameplay. As a result, Battleborn’s action feels not quite mindless but certainly fast and arcadey–far more frantic “run and gun” than strategic “stop and pop.”
That’s where the gameplay loop comes in. Character’s distinct skills give them a natural role within the chaos: melee attackers charge right in, healers follow behind and try to keep them alive, snipers offer cover from a distance, and so on. I ended up relying mostly on mid-range damage-dealers, which meant repeatedly draining my clip into bad guys, deploying my special attacks as soon as their cooldown timers expired, and retreating to let my shield recharge whenever necessary. Battleborn’s AI enemies are, for the most part, mindless fodder that simply charge straight at you, so I never really needed to change my tactics, especially since my teammates were able to cover all the bases I couldn’t.
In some ways, this repetition makes the gameplay feel rote, but with a full five-man team, the action remains surprisingly satisfying. Enemies stream in from all directions before colorful bursts of energy explode from your allies to meet their charge; you dash at extreme speeds around obstacles and dive onto cartoonish villains with invigorating ferocity; together your team beats a boss to pulp so efficiently he can’t even counter-attack. There’s enough going on that I always felt empowered and entertained, and when I grew tired of throwing out the same old supers, I switched to a new character to start fresh.
It’s possible this character-hopping approach won’t be enough to sustain players’ interest in the long-run–especially given the relative simplicity of the gameplay once you surmount a character’s initial learning curve–but in theory, the competitive multiplayer’s hero-on-hero matchups should force players to find creative ways to utilize the skills that become routine when fighting off baddies in the campaign. Co-op can be entertaining with a team of five (far less so for a solo player), but in many ways, the eight straightforward, disconnected missions feel more like practice than a rich, set-piece and story-driven campaign.
It’s a little underwhelming, but that’s exactly why I still need to dig into the competitive multiplayer before I can offer a firm verdict. With more characters to try, more customization options to unlock, and many hours of multiplayer left to play, Battleborn’s true potential could still lie ahead. Check back later this week for more analysis and our final score.
GameSpot participated in a review event at publisher 2K’s offices as part of this review. Review copies of Battleborn were also provided by the publisher.