I feel a great deal of sympathy for Battleborn. As a child I lived in the shadow of my eldest sibling’s greatness – there was, it seemed, nothing he couldn’t master, and I was a mere mortal, struggling to make myself seen. I imagine this is how Gearbox’s MOBA FPS mashup feels when stacked against its peers: woefully insufficient.
The team shooter and MOBA genres are both experiencing a golden age of Augustinian proportions and the minimum standard for entry into either market has risen phenomenally. Gearbox is undoubtedly punching high with its latest title, but Battleborn’s decision to engage in a genre mashup loads two sets of colossal expectations on its shoulders. This donkey had its saddle packed with lead weights from the get-go.
There’s also the ‘O’ word to take into account – the one that’s been spraying excitedly from the mouths of gaming journalists for months. By unfortunate mishap, Battleborn has found itself birthed into the world during the same month as Overwatch, a game with vaguely similar aspirations, but designed by one of the most talented games development teams alive. The comparisons are inevitable, and in almost every single regard, no, in every single regard, Overwatch is Battleborn’s superior. It’s akin to ranking Donald Trump against Barack Obama in terms of statesmanship – not so much a contest as an exercise in humiliation.
The deck was never stacked in this game’s favour, but even when considered in isolation, if such a thing is indeed possible, Battleborn suffers from many ailments that have prevented me from enjoying a single moment of its five-versus-five tourneys.
The experience was in complete opposition to my initial predictions that the game would be ‘okay, but not League’. I love MOBAs, I love shooters, and the base ingredients of Battleborn are, on paper, perfectly attuned to the current zeitgeist: ability-based combat, lanes and minions, a fusion of the best elements of FPS fragging and top-down MOBA tactics.
It all sounds like whizzy jolly fun, but to synthesise such a masterpiece of design, which incorporates the three dimensional, physical elements of shooters with the mechanical depth of a MOBA, is an operation that requires constructive surgery of deft precision – something which Gearbox is not primed to oversee. The game studio which masterminded Borderlands is known for bombast, not delicacy, and Battleborn carries with it the same haphazard implementation which, in a genre predicated on finely balanced scales, carries dire consequences.
Battleborn’s game modes are, in theory at least, unproblematic. ‘Incursion’ is a one-lane version of the MOBA classique, ‘Capture’ takes a beat from traditional FPS modes by asking teams to control spaces on the map, and ‘Meltdown’ is a two-lane match in which players must protect their minions as they’re sent on kamikaze missions: essentially a static rework of Team Fortress 2‘s ‘Payload’ mode.
In practice, however, all of Battleborn’s skirmishes suffer the same broad spectrum of fatal issues. First and foremost, the game commits a cardinal sin that any MOBA aficionado will notice immediately: it suffers from a serious lack of clarity. Whilst for the most part I’m a fan of wild aesthetics and wholeheartedly support the game industry’s recent adventures in blooming colour in the stead of joyless grey realism, Battleborn’s exuberant palette is more distracting than it is pleasurable. The handful of environments on offer all seem to clamour for the eye’s attention with their vibrant reds and greens, and when added to the multitude of special abilities being fired at any given time, along with gunfire from minions and turrets, it’s simply more than the visual cortex can comfortably handle.
In fact, it’s safe to say that Battleborn suffers from a dire lack of readability throughout. Even with the advantage of their top-down isometric cameras, League of Legends and DOTA 2 have long struggled with this same problem – as ten players simultaneously activate between one and four abilities in a group huddle, the resulting visual cacophony is about as intelligible as a Sarah Palin monologue about healthcare. Riot has taken many steps to improve the situation: muting the colours of Summoner’s Rift, integrating target reticles and indicators, using global audio cues – but the issue persists.
Where the above two games suffer from niggling annoyances, Battleborn is fatally crippled. During group battles it’s often utterly impossible to see who is where, what abilities are being deployed, or even get a clear sense of the battlefield’s arrangement.
The problem is manifold but mostly arises from the restrictions of first-person perspective along with the game’s fondness for blocks of colour and opaque effects. The effect is akin to conducting an orchestra inside a densely packed child’s play pit, filled to the brim with coloured balls. Awareness of what your teammates are doing, or what abilities are being cast, is difficult unless they’re right in front of your nose, and even then, it’s highly likely that something, be it a minion or neon-striped flash of colour, will obscure your view before long.
This wouldn’t be so much of a problem were the abilities themselves satisfying to use, but most of the toolkits on offer from Battleborn’s cast are underwhelming, and offer none of the uniqueness or dynamism presented by its contemporaries. There is nothing here that hasn’t already been implemented with greater thought and grace elsewhere, and most toolkits feel limp, lacking the slickness of movement or potential for individual outplay that is common in the champions of League of Legends or DOTA 2’s heroes. Throughout my play sessions I never felt superhuman, and in a game obsessed with hyperbolic power, that’s everything.
This feeling of relative impotence, and absence of dopamine, is also related to the game’s transposition of MOBA mechanics into 3D, which carries with it a burden of physicality that its isometric brethren aren’t forced to bear. League of Legends and DOTA 2 both succeed, for the most part, in bringing a visceral, kinetic sensation to their audiovisual scuffles through cunning sound engineering.
Achieving the same effect in first or third-person is a more complex affair – delivering an ultimate ability of bone-crushing satisfaction requires that the physics, graphics, and audio be perfectly attuned to achieve an illusion that is, quite simply, easier to achieve in a top-down view. Epic Games’ MOBA, Paragon, generally succeeds in this: most abilities carry with them a heft indicating that the masters of the Unreal Engine are putting their own creation to good use. Battleborn’s characters and abilities, in contrast, feel quite hollow. This is undoubtedly a symptom of the game’s cartoonish art and animation styles, both of which contribute to the entire cast – even the juggernauts for hire on the Incursion map – seem like holographic versions of themselves. The sensation reminds me of how strangely false games used to feel before the implementation of physics engines, as if every element was simply a mesh covered in paint with nothing on the inside – which of course they were.
Speaking of hollow objects, it’s time to discuss the game’s mechanics. Some may accuse Battleborn of being ‘dumbed down’ in order to attract a less sophisticated audience than most of its MOBA predecessors. In some senses this is true – items are replaced with an upgrade tree and mana has given way to cooldown timers for each ability – but I would argue that this simplification is actually a positive when one takes into account the fact that players now have to deal with the added concerns of verticality, line of sight, and directional viewing. The real issues stem not from the simplification itself – but from the newly added systems feeling either broken or strangely impotent: this prohibits the game from thriving on simplicity.
To illustrate my point, let’s examine Battleborn’s addition of ‘shards’ as a resource. These can be collected from across the map and used to build static weapon emplacements, healing stations, or bots; they can also activate specific player-chosen boosts. Such added objectives are designed to provide more reasons to map-roam and break up the constant teamfight happening on the front lines; more shards theoretically lead to more lane control.
The key word here is ‘theoretically’. In practice, many of the constructible emplacements suffer from balancing issues: the healing station, for example, provides health regeneration at such an astonishingly slow rate that I found it more beneficial to actively fling myself into hostile fire and use respawning as a faster alternative. Only the word ‘broken’ can describe this kind of mechanical sloppiness, which would never be tolerated by any of the games which Battleborn is forced to call its peers.
Matchmaking suffers a similar fate to the rest of the game’s mechanical innards. The most solid mark of an exciting, balanced multiplayer game is that changes in fortune are entirely possible, and happen regularly. When playing League of Legends’ ‘Summoner’s Rift’ map, I can’t count the number of times that unwinnable starts have turned on their head and allowed my team to achieve momentous victory. In all of my time with Battleborn, this kind of reversal hasn’t occurred once: when the momentum of a match swings in one team’s favour it then seems hopelessly locked into place. Whether this is the result of overpowered team compositions, the relative lack of opportunities for riposte once map control has been lost, or simply wildly divergent levels of skill among participants, the result is catastrophic: wins feel meaningless and losses inevitable once the right circumstances are in place.
As a first-person shooter, Battleborn often feels unfair, imprecise, and more like little Jimmy’s water pistol than daddy’s auto-assault rifle. As a MOBA, it fails to replicate the compelling, balanced experience that has launched these games into their age of stratospheric success. Rather than subsuming the best of both genres, Gearbox has birthed a bastard child fated to never be welcomed under the sigil of either family. One cannot help but feel that the studio has attempted a feat of alchemy beyond its capabilities, and produced a result destined to be outshone by the dazzling brilliance of Blizzard’s unmatched wizardry.