Back in 2014, Gearbox Software head honcho Randy Pitchford incomprehensibly described Battleborn as an "FPS; hobby-grade co-op campaign; genre-blended, multi-mode competitive e-sports; meta-growth, choice [plus] epic Battleborn Heroes". While no one could quite decipher just what he was going on about, it was safe to assume that this wouldn't be your usual first-person shooter. While the recent open beta proved – or, more importantly, disproved – certain assumptions made since that infamous tweet, only now can it be judged if the gamble of mashing together an FPS and a MOBA has actually paid off.
The setup in Battleborn is pretty straight forward: the Varelsi, a thoroughly evil race of creatures, has been tootling around snuffing out all of the stars in the universe. This in turn has forced the remaining civilisations to congregate around the last star – Solus – in a last ditch attempt to stop the lights going out forever. With a collection of disparate characters coming together to try and stop the Varelsi, it's the perfect opportunity to offer a varied band of 25 heroes for use in the games different modes, MOBA style.
Whether it's a robotic sniper with a near pathological dislike of the lower classes, a penguin in a mech-suit, or a mushroom man with a skill for healing, the trademark Gearbox humour and stylised, cartoon art-style – honed during years of developing Borderlands games – are both in full effect. As a result, if you have any dislike whatsoever for characters talking like they've spent far too much time on the Internet, then Battleborn will immediately rub you up the wrong way. Fortunately, if you've enjoyed this approach in the past, then you'll find some funny moments here, and while it never manages to be as amusing as Borderlands, it's at least able to raise the occasional smile.
Even with Battleborn's multiplayer focus, there's a story campaign included that can be played either solo or cooperatively. With a prologue and eight missions, it won't take that long to see all it can offer, with each mission running to around 30 to 40 minutes. While these missions are fine when played in a full group of five, they're extremely bland in terms of their encounter design. They rely far too often on having players defend a location against waves of enemies, mainly so that you can engage in the game's light tower defence mechanic, where you spend shards collected during a mission to purchase defences.
For most players, being forced to defend or escort something with limited health almost always guarantees a certain amount of tedium and frustration, but in Battleborn it's even more annoying as it's also coupled with instant mission failure should you be unsuccessful. There are no checkpoints and there's no chance to try a different approach – you're unceremoniously bounced straight back to the mission summary screen where, to add insult to injury, you're given a pathetic amount of experience for your trouble.
At launch this issue was even worse, as even on normal difficulty the objectives would get absolutely mauled by even the weakest of enemies. As a result, if you weren't switched on in terms of how to play your chosen character, or the importance of constructing adequate defences, you'd get very familiar with the failure screen, which only succeeded in leaving a bitter taste in your mouth right from the start. Fortunately, this issue has been resolved in a recent patch by increasing the health of the stationery defence points. So, while the mission objectives are still completely uninspired, at least the chance of losing a mission because of a few seconds of inattention have reduced.
All this is a bit of shame as the combat is actually quite fun, and since each character has their own unique gimmick, it's enjoyable trying them out and learning how to combo their skills with devastating effect. One aspect of Battleborn that also works really well is the character levelling system, as not only do they level-up outside of matches – unlocking new skins, emotes, and lore detailing where they came from – but they also level separately within a match letting you choose between two upgrades each time you level up.
It's great experimenting with new combinations of these upgrades during a mission as you work your way to the level cap, safe in the knowledge that you're not locked into your decisions since it resets at the start of every mission. When this is coupled with the item system that lets you equip three pieces of loot – acquired via missions or from loot packs bought with in-game currency – you can spec your character in a surprising number of ways. So, whether you're stacking attack speed bonuses so that your ranged attacks fire at a blazing pace or bulking up on health buffs so that your resilient character is even harder to take down, you'll find it's an easily understandable and versatile upgrade system.
While the story mode feels a little on the lightweight side, it's the adversarial multiplayer that offers the most interesting gameplay in Battleborn. With three objective based modes available, you'll be scoring points by guiding your AI minions into grinders in Meltdown, taking out the other team's spider bots in Incursion, or battling for control of the map in Capture, and it's in these modes that you'll uncover the Battleborn gameplay that most resembles a MOBA.
While you won't necessarily find the usual three lane layout in the maps, or an established meta-game in terms of team make-up or tactics, there's plenty going on in each match that a coordinated team will be able to use to develop some interesting strategies. Outside of the overarching objective, there are emplacements to be built, shard deposits to be fought over, and powerful AI monsters that can be recruited to your team for a short time – as long as you get to them before your opponents. In fact, it's so mechanically dense that anyone looking for some straight forward run-'n'-gun need not apply.
While there's a good chance Battleborn's multiplayer will have some staying power, there are some speed bumps on the road to longevity. Chief among these is the unfortunate lack of situational awareness the first-person viewpoint brings, especially when all ten players – and the associated AI minions – are duking it out in one area of the map. Too often your screen will be completely filled with animated effects, damage numbers, and characters making it extremely difficult to parse just what the Hell you're looking at.
This is especially problematic for melee characters in the thick of the action who have no choice but to keep swinging in the hope that they connect with someone on the other team. In these moments, you'll struggle to realise you're taking damage at all, and this sensory overload is illustrated perfectly in those instances where you find yourself right behind another player unloading your weapons on them, and they have absolutely no idea you're even there. To make this problem even worse, the framerate at times struggles to keep up with the action, occasionally dipping below 30 frames-per-second, making it even tougher to operate effectively in those more hectic encounters.
Despite these issues, though, you'll find yourself coming back to the multiplayer long after you've had your fill of the story missions. This is mainly because it successfully captures those magical MOBA moments where your team dominates the battlefield and you get to use your character's skills in expert fashion to run rings around the opposition.
With issues peppering its campaign as well as its multiplayer, Battleborn's fusion of first-person shooter and MOBA is far from a complete success. A lengthy list of complaints comes perilously close to overshadowing proceedings, so it's fortunate that its engaging upgrade system and varied roster of characters end up being the true stars keeping you invested in the multiplayer.