… It’s not Borderlands. I don’t know why I expected something more like Borderlands – maybe it’s because it’s got the same hallucinogenic, Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic and the same mostly incoherent plot exposition and the same voice actors and the same HUD markers and, like, even the same fonts – but this definitely isn’t it. So, what exactly is Battleborn?
It’s kind of a mess.
The first problem is that even Battleborn doesn’t know what it is. The eight-mission co-op campaign is a series of humdrum, repetitive trudges from one point to the next, stopping to escort a thing or kill a thing or defend a thing for reasons that got mixed up in the middle of all the other things going on in between. I won’t tell you what the story is about, because I can’t. Something about a planet or, um, something. I don’t know, everybody was shouting at the same time.
You can play these missions solo, but the inconsistent difficulty and sometimes overwhelming number of enemy goons makes this a dubious prospect. So, you can jump into public matchmaking and – if you can actually find a session and the game doesn’t dump you from the lobby while it’s loading – team up with other random players instead, but then you have to vote between three missions, and you could easily get stuck playing the same mission over and over, or playing the missions out of order, or playing a mission with that guy who grabs all the loot (seriously, that guy is the worst). Theoretically, I suppose, you could hook up with your chummies and conveniently preclude that frustration, but besides my husband, nobody else on my Xbox Live friend list has the game. Boo.
But Battleborn‘s campaign has even more problems. The most scandalous of these, perhaps, is that failing to complete an objective in a mission – even if it’s the very last objective in a 45-minute mission – means game over. And I don’t mean game over, reload checkpoint, game over. I mean, game over, game over, game over. Like it wasn’t bad enough, this is also exacerbated by the limited number of respawns (?!) available in a mission – I’ve been in a game where I was the only player still alive, while everybody else was in the penalty box. For 15 minutes. And then I failed to complete the objective anyway, GAME OVER, and nobody can reclaim those 15 tedious minutes of their lives, Gearbox.
Somehow, though, it’s not an entirely unadulterated catastrophe – otherwise inexplicably, Battleborn‘s campaign manages to ding the fun-o-meter in its most dizzyingly chaotic moments, and it has a lot of dizzyingly chaotic moments. It’s like schadenfreude. You know you probably shouldn’t get a cheap thrill out of it, but you do. The game’s clever levelling system and charismatic ensemble cast also make up for some of its other problems, but I’ll get back to that.
So that’s the campaign, but what about the competitive multiplayer? Guess what – oh, you guessed what! – new problems. Some of them the same as the campaign – finding a session can take forever, and about half the time, you’ll get dumped from the lobby – but the other significant problem is much more blatant, if perhaps not altogether unprecedented in 2016. Battleborn has three competitive multiplayer modes – okay, it’s not heaps, but okay – and only two maps for each one. Two maps. That’s six maps in total for a mostly multiplayer game. Oh, more maps are incoming but you’ll need the R299 season pass for those. Date night dumpster diving for last week’s polony chuck outs isn’t this stingy.
The Incursion mode is the best of the bunch, but only by default because I couldn’t find a match in the Capture or Meltdown modes, despite multiple attempts over a whole week (I have 10 Mbps DSL and an open NAT; I have no problems with online matchmaking in other games; it’s not my connection). Much like Uber Entertainment’s Monday Night Combat and Hi-Rez Studios’ Smite, Incursion is a MOBAish rumble, where each team must nuke the other team’s sentry robot for the win. I can’t fault the presentation – it’s all very dazzling, I’ll concede – but it’s in desperate need of some balance adjustments. Every game I’ve played, one or the other team has more or less locked out its opponents halfway through, with no real comeback possible.
And it’s a bit of a tragedy, because parts of Battleborn have real potential. Somewhat similar to other MOBA games, Battleborn employs a single-session, in-game character levelling system, plus a persistent overall rank for yourself and each character class. Basically, you start a campaign mission or multiplayer match at level one, and and at every subsequent level, you choose a new ability from two or three different options. There’s nothing esoteric or convoluted about these abilities – it’s stuff like “more grenade damage” – and as you boost your class rank, you also unlock some additional abilities, and increasing your global rank unlocks additional characters.
The 25-character roster is also one of Battleborn‘s more extraordinary features, and there’s a class for every type of player. Me, I loved Oscar Mike, a grunty gunner with a grenade launcher, cloaking device, and orbital missile strike, who writes poems about spiders. Every character exudes a distinctive personality and inimitable charm, and the game’s copy-pasted enemies seem drab in comparison.