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Battleborn: what the hell is Gearbox making?

Battleborn is a story-driven co-operative campaign shooter, except when it's a competitive MOBA-like arena shooter. Look, you better sit down; this could take a while.


Some years ago Gearbox asked itself the question "what if shooters had RPG mechanics?" or perhaps "what if the combat in RPGs was like in a shooter?" and consequently gave the world Borderlands. These days the hybrid genre makes so much sense that it's hard to remember it ever seemed strange or improbable.

With this in mind, I'm quietly interested in Battleborn, because it feels like an answer to the question "what if the combat in MOBAs was like in a shooter?"

There are lots of reasons why it seems weird, and it's not just that it hasn't been done before. Those who are familiar with MOBAs understand there's a lot more going on than just the combat itself, and wonder how a first-person game can replicate that. Those who aren't familiar with the depth of MOBAs don't see why cobbling the two genres together is such an interesting prospect.

Gearbox itself seems a bit shy of playing up the whole "shooter MOBA" angle, preferring to list a whole range of genres its borrowing elements from, and calling the whole thing a "hero shooter". So what exactly is Battleborn?

As far as I could tell from a pre-recorded demo shown at Tokyo Game Show 2014, the answer right now is half "it's complicated" and half "we don't know yet, what do you think?" And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"At heart, Battleborn is a first person shooter," product manager Chris Faylor said. "Gearbox Software got its start with first person shooters. We've been making them for over 15 years."

"With Battleborn we're blending many of our favourite genres and influences together. Obviously you can see the first person shooter. Then there's strategy, role-playing, MOBA, even fighting games were an influence here with the diverse cast of characters."

Faylor first showed us an objective-based PvP mode called Incursion. Players are charged with infiltrating and capturing an enemy base guarded by sentient samurai spider bots. Incursion supports up to ten players in 5v5, but we were shown a 3v3 match.

In addition to charging around blowing each other up and keeping mobs under control, players had to complete objectives like escort AI minions. It was sort of hard to draw any conclusions from the video; I'd really want to sit down and watch it with freeze frame to really figure out what's going on.


My impression was of a very busy arena shooter with on-the-fly progression - and, post-match, persistent progression - and bullet-sponge players; I didn't see characters dropping to ambushes and headshots so much as succumbing to drawn-out firefights.

The level design seemed interesting. Again, without a much closer inspection I'd be hard pressed to say it emulated the lanes of a MOBA map, but there were clear paths and choke points, and some verticality. I was interested in how often the map broke open into space where two or three opponents could battle it out in relative comfort, without exposing themselves to sight lines from nearby areas. I don't think snipers would flourish in this environment.

That's just one of Battleborn's co-operative mode; there will apparently be several more. But there's also a co-operative, PvE story campaign, set across multiple worlds.

This mode will make a lot more sense to those of you familiar with Borderlands, which makes it easier to see identify and understand mechanics like the character's special abilities. Gearbox has released footage of this, which you can watch below.

Battleborn is set at the end of the universe - that's chronologically, not geographically, when all but one of the stars have died off and the entropy is approaching its inevitable victory.

"Based on what we know about our universe, this is something that will actually happen," Faylor said. "All the stars will be extinguished; there will be one last remaining star.

"You can imagine that at that time any remaining civilisation will gather around that star, literally the last light in the universe, to try and survive as long as they can. If there's more than one civilisation there, they will fight over those resources."

Hence the game's multiple factions - the power hungry Jennerit Empire, the space police Peacekeepers, the Elf-like Eldrid, the misfit Rogues and the profit-hungry corporation known as the Last Light Consortium. This last faction will throw its weight behind the underdogs in order to perpetuate stalemates and continue the conflict.

"We want each character to be so well-defined that they could, to you, be the only character you play as; they're the star of the game."

There is a common foe, though, so you won't be walled off from your friends. A mysterious race with a complicated name is seeking to hasten the end of the universe, and all the Battleborn must fight against them. It's this enemy you'll ultimately face in the story campaign shown off above.

Each faction includes multiple characters, of which only nine have been revealed so far. Gearbox hopes to make each character distinct in terms of appearance, personality, signature weapon and gameplay. Weapons include swords, bows, throwing knives and of course guns, as well as more yet to be revealed.

It seems like the developer wants to differentiate characters more dramatically than in Borderlands. One example is Montana, a huge Peacekeeper who wields a chainsaw and moves very slowly compared to other characters.

Gearbox doesn't know how many characters Battleborn will ship with yet; it's still working on the cast.

"We want each character to feel unique. We want each character to be so well-defined that they could, to you, be the only character you play as; they're the star of the game."


In general, characters are split into three different roles: assault, support and disruptor, which "hop in there and really mix things up, and allow you to change the flow of battle".

"Exactly how that works within matchmaking we're still playing with," Faylor said, commenting that gearbox is looking for feedback on this topic. Would players want, for example, the ability to have five of the same character on a team?

As in MOBAs, players level up their character on-the-fly mid-match, choosing from one of two options on a lengthy list arranged on-screen as a double helix strand. The Helix menu gives you quick access to lock your choices in quickly; matches in all modes are designed to last about half an hour, so you don't have time to be hemming and hawing over a skill tree. At each level, players are offered a binary choice - between ice and fire ammo, for example, or between faster movement speed or higher jumps.

This allows you to play as the same character during each match or scenario if you like, but adapt them to suit the composition of your team or the task at hand. Maybe your crew needs a tank to protect a bunch of squishy disruptors, so you spec for defence. Or maybe you're the best damage dealer today, so you spec for offense.

"The Helix system, while it looks very simple, with each different choice you make the permutations are quite numerous actually," Faylor said.

"Where Borderlands has bazillions of guns, with Battleborn you have bazillions of builds."

Then there's persistent player progression, which Faylor likened to the Badass system in Borderlands, which allows players to further customise their characters. Faylor also made mention of a "global counter", which I guess had something to do with the faction battles.

These RPG mechanics - and MOBA influences - mean there's gameplay there for those who aren't into the pure skill-based play of shooters. Faylor said Battleborn rests somewhere between traditional MOBAs and games like Mario Kart in terms of whether one-sided matches can suddenly swing back in the opposite direction.

The Battleborn announcement trailer.

Some of the competitive modes, like Incursion, will require more than twitch skills; you'll need to co-ordinate with teammates all the way from team composition through to the results screen. That's exciting to me, because I find vanilla PvP shooters pretty dull and inaccessible, but I'm also concerned about the learning curve for those who do love PvP shooters - MOBAs are not easy to learn.

Faylor said that Gearbox is hoping to offer "a variety of experiences".

"Not just say, this is the only mode, this is the only game," he said. "We know some people love competitive, and love objective based competitive. We know from Borderlands that many people love co-operative as well.

"It's not the same map. It's not like we used the same map and said 'this is the campaign now, with bots'. Each mode is unique, is catered to a different style of play, and each character offers a different play as well.

"Our hope is to appeal to a variety of different players - your Call of Duty player. Your League of Legends player. Your Borderlands player. And have something that everybody can enjoy."

I asked Faylor where Gearbox had a plan to unite this disparate user base, and to entice each kind of player to try different parts of Battleborn. Faylor told me that yes, there are plans in place, and I'll be following up with later interviews on what these plans are, because right now this is what concerns me most about Battleborn. Although I think Destiny's doing a pretty good job of offering different kinds of game for different kinds of people, there seems to be a lot of backlash to it from people expecting a more pure or lengthy experience in one specific realm (be that story campaign, PvP, Strikes or Raids). There's a reason games usually specialise rather than generalise, and I wonder if Battleborn, which seems to have even greater ambitions than Destiny for packing in different things, can overcome genre schizophrenia.

The first gameplay footage shown to the press and public.

This seems to be something the developer is hoping to work out as it goes; Faylor kept stressing that the game in its current state is "pre-alpha". This surprised me, actually. At one point Faylor indicated an explosion on screen to point out a Studio Ghibli influence on the game's aesthetics, and said it was created by the game's physics and rendering tools. Until he said this, I thought we were looking at a piece of concept art.

Of course, developers have a lot of tools at their disposal to create glamour images - or "bullshots" as we unkindly call them - but even so it's hard to deny the game's graphics are, at this early stage, spectacular, although subject to change. Part of this is Gearbox's clever choice of a cartoony style, which allows the disparate design elements to blend together without jarring; Faylor said the game's look, tone and humour has been inspired by movies and TV shows, citing Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers and Star Wars as examples of a much longer list. Even so, it's looking much better than I'd expect of a game so early in development, which may be a product of Gearbox's decision to develop this game in the public eye, as is fashionable nowadays.

"Typically we don't show games this early, but with such a character and community driven game, we want to get feedback on it," Faylor told us.

Disclosure: Brenna shares house with a 2K Games employee. He almost never answers her emails and she makes him do the dishes.

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