Four hours into Battleborn I felt a migraine coming on. I’d toiled away with a handful of characters, trying desperately to help my teammates capture objectives, protect minions, and kill heroes – player characters – on the other team.
Time after time, I failed. I’d rush forward to try and kill an enemy, only for three foes to descend on me in a perfectly-timed ambush. Or an ally would break ranks, leaving me and my other teammates outgunned and overrun. Or, most frustratingly, it would take me 10 minutes to find a suitable game, after consecutive lobbies collapsed just before matches started. I had decided: despite its flash visuals, tight controls, and varied cast of characters, Battleborn is tedious.
Each Battleborn map is littered with buildables: turrets, attack drones, friendly robots, and healing stations. Not only are they crucial to keeping minions at bay, but building them also levels you up sharpish. To do that, you’ll need shards. They’re dotted around the map for you to handily pick up – but for big numbers, you’ll need to complete objectives, kill enemy heroes, or destroy shard clusters. You can also spend shards on gear – items that buff your character’s attack speed or boost their shields. And to get gear, you need to spend currency, accumulated simply by playing the game, in the main menu. Complicated, isn’t it?
But then two things happened. Firstly, I met Shayne and Aurox, a duo forming one of the 25 playable characters. And secondly, I was matched in a team of five with four players who were together in a party, all with microphones.
Suddenly, everything clicked.
My teammates barked orders, and I followed obediently, supporting damaged allies, locking down strategic choke points, and initiating attacks using my characters skills – each assigned to a controller button. I triggered Shayne’s Shadow Strike ability to cloak, get close to enemies, and unleash Aurox from the sky, slamming into the ground for massive damage.
As my foe retreated, I used Aurox’s Fetch skill to lasso them towards me and started swinging. If they managed to get away again, I’d finish them off with Shayne’s boomerang – a projectile weapon that bounces off of terrain. For the first time, Battleborn was glorious. We won the round of Capture – one of four game modes – in record time, and I ended the game with a five-kill streak (the first I’d gotten).
I’d experienced both sides of Battleborn. It’s initially an uneasy marriage of the first person shooter and MOBA genres that makes you scream in frustration; and then a rewarding, tactical action game that makes you feel like a god.
The story mode is a let-down – the eight missions, which can be played alone (don’t) or in online co-op, are repetitive, and there’s no checkpoint system. If you fail, that’s it. 45 minutes of work wiped out. I ended up using them as arenas to try out characters for the meat of the game: competitive multiplayer.
Here, there’s three strong modes. Incursion is classic MOBA. Your goal is to destroy two huge enemy turrets – but to do that, you’ll have to push through various chokepoints filled with minions (who hit hard), smaller turrets, and enemy heroes. In domination, you get points for capturing and holding on to three points on the map, and in Meltdown, your job is to escort friendly minions into grinders, fending off player characters and building turrets to keep enemy minions at bay.
With only two maps per mode, I expected to get bored quickly. But while more arenas would be nice, none of the modes have yet grown stale, and the prospect of mastering each character really keeps me engaged with the game. That drive is given a huge helping hand by the game’s wacky personality. Each character is over-the-top: from Marquis, a robot with a tailored tux, bowler hat, and a sniper rifle, to Toby, a penguin in a mech suit with a hefty rail gun. You grow to recognise their witty one-liners, and once you’re bored of one character, there’s 24 others to choose from.
Most importantly, they’re all fun to play. Each character has two primary attacks and three skills: Battleborn is played in first-person, but it’s less about twitchy aim and more about juggling your abilities. After my eureka moment with Shayne and Aurox, I saw battles in a new light.
Mastering these characters is made all the more addictive by layers of customisation. In a match, each character starts at level one, and as you level up – primarily by killing minions and building turrets – you choose perks, one per level. Perks boost one or another of your skills: you can level up Miko so that you move 30% faster while healing, or so that while you’re directing your healing beam at enemies, you also heal yourself. With two options (initially) at each of the ten levels, I am constantly crafting new playstyles, and finding fresh ways to perfect my build.
You can tweak your builds out of matches, too: levelling up individual characters nets you a dizzying array of lore, cosmetics, and perk options. You can also unlock new characters through an overarching XP system - but it’s quicker to do it by completing specific challenges in game. Win five matches with Last Light Consortium, one of the game’s five factions, and you’ll unlock El Dragón, a muscular wrestler with cybernetic arms (he’s unlocked at Command Rank 20 otherwise, which will take you hours to reach).
The system works well: being able to unlock characters by completing objectives gives you something to aim for in-game, as well as a reason to try out heroes that you may otherwiseignore. Sometimes, you’ll stack up new characters without even noticing, and before long you’ll be spoilt for choice.
As much fun as I'm having now, those four hours I spent scrabbling around in the dark are forever a black mark. Battleborn punishes you too heavily for not playing it the right way – and by association, it punishes your teammates too. And when that happens, when you have one or two team members who are blinded by the bright splashes of colours, the cutesy animations, the amusing dialogue, and get greedy for kills, you’re left in the lurch.
Individual deaths quickly snowball. The other team begin to power up quicker, unlock gear, and gang up on your allies, picking them off in mismatches. When that happens, unless you're extremely skilled you feel powerless. You're stuck in a cycle of dying, waiting to respawn, trudging back onto the battlefield, and dying again. That's simply not fun.
But, weirdly, I’m okay with that. Competitive games are not supposed to be plain-sailing. Battleborn will smack you around the face for a few hours, but you’ll come out a scarred veteran, ready to lead the next wave of newbies into battle. I’ve found it easy to forgive the steep difficulty curve and occasional technical hick-ups – especially with a concept this fresh, characters this crazy, and a progression system this rewarding.
Battleborn oozes originality, and for that reason it deserves a chunk of your time. Just recognise that you’re in it for the long haul.