Battleborn could well be your new favourite shooter - if you make it up the learning curve.
Battleborn has an entry barrier like a migraine
Migraine aura varies from person to person but here's what it's like for me: my perception narrows to whatever is directly in front of me. I can't parse anything outside a tiny cone of awareness, like a baddie in a stealth video game. Swinging my head back and forth like that of a great heavy beast, peering into the tiny functional space left for me, a bull trying to stare past its own brawn.
Playing Battleborn for the first time felt like that. My vision was flooded with information, but it wasn't presented in a language I could understand; the data span and swam and shook in a mass of glooping colours and blinking lights, refusing to coalesce into a Matrix visualisation. I felt assaulted from all sides by blaring, bleating, indecipherably textured dump trucks of sound. If I focused very carefully on one element alone, I could take it in - but the unrelenting torrents of stimuli wouldn't wait for me to process them all one by one.
Over-stimulation from Gearbox is nothing new. The finer aspects of the Borderlands series are overlooked, time and again, by those who never make it past the eyeball-drying blast of wackiness. Battleborn carries forward some lessons learned from Borderlands but forgets many others to make the same mistakes over and over again.
The prologue mission, a tutorial of sorts, is as polished as it ever seems to get, and even so it doesn't quite make it. Simple little things, like text prompts too easy to miss in an unsatisfactory UI overwhelmed by chaotic environments, like instructions on how to use your gun after you've shot a zillion baddies but no prompts for more esoteric systems.
It starts to make sense as you go along, as you learn to read the assets and get into the rhythm of your skills, eyes flicking from cooldowns to enemies and back again, a driver checking their mirrors. You learn to leave yourself a back door out of the swarm, and the advance-circle-retreat pattern of managing aggro. You get an AI pal and accept that this is not a game designed for solos.
But then: the shock, the horror! You're out of the tutorial and its seventy zillion (now skippable) hours of cutscene and there's even less sense. Want to keep playing as the rad, stab-happy, alt-lifestyle haircut Eldrid you've just learned to use? Tough! She's locked. Want to change your character? You can't, until you finish matchmaking - and if the host locks duplicates you may end up with a choice between two Advanced-level characters you've never looked at and ten seconds left to decide.
It feels a bit pointless, this lore, these characters, this zaniness; there’s no time to take it in, and it doesn’t seem to matter.
The first menu option dumps you right into competitive multiplayer, which is no place to be a newb. The story mode is two taps down, but you can't do it in order unless you get lucky with votes, and even if you do, the cutscenes and paced narrative are over. Now it's unrelenting minions and co-op buddies who sprint through the maps, giving you no time to listen to the voiceovers and learn the area before you're drowned in explosions and shouting. It feels a bit pointless, this lore, these characters, this zaniness; there's no time to take it in, and it doesn't seem to matter.
You've only just loaded in and you're already in the thick of it. Do you know what your hastily-chosen character's specials do? I went white. The melee button had turned into iron sights and both my abilities required AoE-style placement to trigger. We were already fighting a mini-boss somehow.
Thrown into the action with insufficient handholding; RTFM, says Gearbox. Fair enough? Well. But frantic, chaotic and demanding is one thing, and painfully presented is another. Slogging through crowded menus, groaning through loading and matchmaking waits, trying to pick useful information out of voice over tutorials that sacrifice comprehension for jokes delivered without understanding of pace and timing. Overwhelmed by pages and pages of information on screens that show Gearbox is determined to hold onto certain design ideals I will never more than tolerate.
It feels like a fever dream, like a muzzle on your brain, like someone else's glasses or a smudge on the lens. It shouldn't be this hard to learn.
Worth fighting through? Yes. It comes together. Even with randos, standing patiently by the lock to the next area while they run around in circles fighting worthless grunts or walk into death traps over and over again. Herd them into the right zone and combine your powers, hit the boss hard, keep it turning between you, feed each other health and buffs and slam dunk it. A lot of fun.
Pretty happy with one character, now. Can hit with this targeted AoE attack maybe three times out of four, have worked the augments to snap cooldown timers in half, have almost mastered the timing on the ultimate. Time to graduate? Check the character manager.
Oh, god. So much still to earn, so much still to learn. I could play for the rest of my life and maybe not max out this one guy. And there are at least three guys here I want to learn, just because they look cool. (Gearbox, there's so much awesomeness going on in character design I almost believe some of your staff get out in the fresh air sometimes, in defiance of general industry trends of staying inside, in the dark.)
It's too much. It's too much right now. There's too much on screen for me to deal with. There are too many audio cues for me to pick out the sounds I need to hear, let alone the ones I want. There's too much to see and do and achieve. Barely scratched the surface of loot and load outs. Haven't even loaded up PvP. There's a third game in here, too; some sort of MOBA business.
I need to lie down in the dark.