Our Battleborn Hands-On Impressions

by Jeff Marchiafava on Jul 11, 2014 at 09:00 AM

We spent two days at Gearbox's studio learning what sets Battleborn apart from other multiplayer shooters, but you can't divine how fun a game really is until you play it for yourself. That's why we were thrilled when the developer handed us the controller and dropped us into the five-versus-five Incursion mode. Here are our early impressions, based on several hours of hands-on play.

Incursion mode pits two five-player teams against each other in tense, tug-of-war multiplayer matches. The goal is to infiltrate and attack the opposing team's base. Four massive, A.I.-controlled spider mechs (two per team) stand in the way; players attack or defend them during the course of the match with the help of a steady stream of smaller autonomous minion droids. Read on for our impressions of the mode, as well as Battleborn's host of unique playable characters and the rapid leveling system that resets after every match.

Character Diversity

Jeff M: I'm really liking the new trend of shooters offering up a bunch of different playable characters that all have their own unique abilities, and Battleborn is taking that idea to the absurd. Gearbox says it's aiming to have 20 playable characters in the main game, and the nine we saw were all over the map in terms of design and abilities. Battleborn's Call of Duty-inspired grunt Oscar Mike played exactly how I expected him to as a shooter fan, but Thorn – the swift, elf-like archer – was much more agile and required more concentrated strikes. When we first heard that Gearbox was trying to create characters based on every style of first-person game and put them all into one competitive shooter, I was intrigued, but thought it might end up being a disaster. As soon as we started playing, however, it felt totally natural and fun. I don't think any FPS fans are going to have a problem finding characters that mesh with their play style.

Tim: The problem with most competitive multiplayer games is that if you're not great at a specific gameplay mechanic out of the gate – like twitch-oriented first-person shooting – then you have to endure hours of repeated deaths at the hands of veteran players until your skills are passable. What I like about Battleborn is if you're struggling to take down enemies as one character, you have a ton of other heroes to choose from that play differently at a fundamental level. For instance, one day I might be better at lining up single shots than spraying targets continually, so the heavy damage of Thorn's bow works better for me. Or maybe I'm the type of player that prefers sneaking up and delivering swift melee damage before fleeing, so the sword-wielding Rath might be the way to go. Characters have their own learning curve and play style, which I think is going to help keep the match-to-match action feeling fresh.

Ben H: I can't help but root for the underdog. When surveying the roster of potential characters to play in Battleborn, I was just scanning for what would be the least popular choice. I settled on Miko, the androgynous mushroom creature that plays more of a support role. Miko's primary attacks involve throwing blades that regenerate. Outside of the wildly different abilities, Gearbox does a nice job reminding you of the unique properties of the characters within a first-person perspective; one of the first things that stood out to me when playing as Miko is that its "skirt" flaps up in the camera's view a bit whenever you jump.  Miko's ultimate ability (which unlocks at level 7) has the character remove its mushroom cap and set it on the ground, creating an area of effect that can damage enemies or heal teammates. Miko doesn't have a lot of health, but can fully regenerate over time. The most terrifying moment was seeing Rath charging right at me with his swords swinging; all I could do was throw a toxic spore sac his way before running and praying for the support of a beefier teammate. I appreciated the oddball nature of Miko, but it probably isn't the easiest character for your first venture into Battleborn.

After Miko, I was in the mood for some meat and potatoes FPS-action. Oscar Mike fit the bill perfectly. This space marine with a machine gun and grenades spits out action-movie one-liners like "Today is a good day to not die and stay alive." It was satisfying seeing my old rival Rath in a heated battle and lobbing in a devastating frag grenade from a safe distance. Another really satisfying character was also the most visually striking: Marquis, the aristocratic robot sniper. You can look down while running and see his gangly robotic legs flailing about and other players can see him struggling to keep his hat on his head. My favorite ability with Marquis is deploying a robotic owl that circles a small area and attacks enemies that stumble across its path. Battleborn's creative director Randy Varnell aptly compared this ability to the Vulture's spider mines in Starcraft. It was bittersweet to die on the battlefield, and then see my robotic owl enact sweet vengeance on my killer.

Coming Up Next: We discuss Battleborn's Incursion mode, environments, and rapid leveling system...

Incursion Mode And Environments

Jeff M: We only got to check out Incursion mode, and two maps: Unearthed and Worksite. I was a little wary when Andy told us that Incursion mode is structured similar to a MOBA, but FPS fans have nothing to worry about. The matches we played felt similar to other team-based competitive shooters, with the added layer of A.I.-controlled minions. There was more of a tug-of-war feel as well, which I enjoyed; I got a real sense of the progress (or regress) my team was making, that went beyond just a score at the top of your HUD.

I was also impressed by the size and complexity of the maps. We played Unearthed the most, which was set in a lush jungle. MOBA maps are described in terms of lanes, which make them sound boring, but Unearthed had plenty of paths, trees, and cliffs to navigate and hide behind. The maps also showcased how different the characters control; Thorn could effortlessly bound across ledges that other characters couldn't, and Worksite had a small bridge that Montana's massive frame couldn't even fit under, which was pretty amusing – when I wasn't playing as him, at least.

Tim: I'm not a MOBA player, but Incursion mode makes me understand why so many players adore games like League of Legends and Dota 2. But unlike those games, where players click on measly minions until they die, shooting and slashing at Battleborn's NPC robots feels far more satisfying. Their armor dents and falls off as you take them out, which makes me feel like a badass even if I'm not battling other human players. I also really like the reliance you have to have on your mini-map to constantly track other players. I love marking enemies, calling their positions out to my teammates, and coordinating attacks to wipe out threats as they appear. Battleborn's slick first-person shooting makes me feel like my individual skill is of more use in these tug-of-war battles, rather than clicking around an overhead map.

Ben H: I noticed some people commenting that they're not crazy about the art style in the game, and maybe that's just a byproduct of only seeing the trailer, but I think that the in-game art works well. The maps were extremely colorful, and Gearbox even mentioned that they were going to be toning down some of the bloom effects that were really on display in the jungle map called Unearthed. It's not difficult to look around and get a good sense of where you're needed next, and there's also a mini-map to help point you in the right direction. You spawn all the way back in your base when you die, but there are warps that you can use to get you back into the battlezone quickly. I'm curious to see what else the team has in store for maps, and whether some will be more open.

Leveling Up

Jeff M: I play a lot of first-person shooters, but I'm not devoted enough to a particular series to compete with its best players. By the time I get around to playing the newest Battlefield or Call of Duty, most hardcore fans have already maxed out their ranks and unlocked the best perks and weapons. Battleborn's leveling system offers an appealing alternative; everyone starts on an even playing field since levels reset after each match. This also means that you level up much more rapidly than in most games, which I found extremely satisfying.

Each level gives you two upgrade options to choose between, which Gearbox says is to speed up the leveling process. I still found myself spending an exorbitant amount of time mulling over my choices in the middle of battle, and eventually just started levelling up four or five times after I died and was waiting to respawn. I was impressed by the sense of progression; I always felt much more powerful by the end of a match, and I'm eager to see what alternate builds of the same characters would play like. It seems like the leveling system will encourage that kind of experimentation, at least until players find builds they really like.

Tim: Battleborn's Helix leveling system is a clever way to let players gain new skills on the fly during battle. Holding up on the d-pad and pulling the left or right trigger unlocks a new ability then lets you get back into the fray immediately. The Helix is organized for speedy use, too, so I generally knew which side a more defensive or offensive ability might be. I also like how much my chosen leveling path changed how I play. When I was playing the lumbering, Gatling-gun wielding Montana, I could've invested freeze rounds and slowing the overheating of the gun. Instead, I went with flame rounds that do burn damage at the cost of faster gun malfunctions. As a result, I would often burst on to the scene and finish off an enemy with incendiary rounds, then disappear as fast as the hulking man could run.

Ben H: While choosing your skill with each level was relatively quick, I grew to accept that the best time to read through augmentation descriptions was while respawning. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I had a lot of time to read through my options. The skills for Miko were options for things like a faster rate of fire or the ability to gain movement speed while your health was being drained. Oscar Mike could acquire a scope for his rifle or a red dot sight. The menu takes the shape of a double helix and I'm sure you can fly through it and hit the left or right trigger fairly easily once you have the options memorized. Gearbox also mentioned the ability to customize your Helix tree of skills by progressing and unlocking things over time, which sounds intriguing.

Coming Up Next: We discuss what A.I.-controlled characters bring to the battlefield, and our lingering questions about the game...

How NPCs Affect Matches

Jeff M: Having a bunch of non-player characters on the battlefield gives Incursion matches an interesting twist and always ensures you have something to do during matches. I enjoyed being able to take out big groups of enemy minions when not hunting down (or more often being killed by) other human players. Even though they may seem superfluous, your little robot buddies actually make a big difference when fighting the opposing team's spider mechs, which are also A.I.-controlled. The spider mechs are super deadly and require a team effort to take down, but your robot minions can quickly deplete their shields. I usually gravitate towards co-op games, and Battleborn's PvE elements made me feel like I was much more useful to my team than most PvP games do.

Tim: I already mentioned how much I enjoyed slashing the little robotic minions, but the huge spider mechs present a far greater challenge. Individual players can be lone wolves during matches and succeed to some degree, but these huge, patrolling arachnids punish uncooperative teams with swift death. Destroying enemy minions allows your own robot helpers to blast the big spider bot with laser beams that drain its shields. Then it's time for the bulk of your team to gather around the vulnerable NPC gatekeeper and lay waste. I love the sense of camaraderie and accomplishment that comes with watching one of these huge pests finally explode.

Ben H: In the first couple of matches that we played, I frequently made the mistake of charging into action on my own, bypassing all allies and enemy minions, and just charging right for the other human players. Running alongside a pack of minions on your team can be a lifesaver, especially when you're trying to take down an enemy spider mech. It's not much, but I like that the minions are explained in the game's lore as creations from the war profiteer faction, the Last Light Consortium. Also, when you eventually play this game, don't forget to farm the enemy minions. I was consistently the lowest level player on my team and it didn't feel great.

Closing Thoughts

Jeff M: I had a lot of fun during our hands-on time with Battleborn, and am already eager to play more. Trying to balance so many unique characters still seems crazy, but is a lot more intriguing to me than just running around as another clone soldier who has the same abilities as everyone else. I really want to see what other modes Gearbox is working on, as well as what the co-op campaign entails – Battleborn has an intriguing story premise, be we still don't know how it's going to be delivered in an effective way. Ultimately, however, the gameplay foundation is solid, which is what matters most. I have a feeling Gearbox and 2K will be teasing us with new character and mode reveals all the way up until release, and I'm totally okay with that.

Tim: Incursion mode delivers an immediately engaging multiplayer experience. Not only did I quickly understand my role on the battlefield which each character, I also felt like I was using my years of experience from first-person shooters in an exciting new way. While Incursion mode is a lot of fun, I'm still itching to know how much the other modes stray from the MOBA influence and how substantial the co-op campaign is. I'm hoping Gearbox delivers a narrative-driven experience that less competitive-minded players can sink their teeth into. Mostly, I'm excited to dive into the toy box of playable characters Gearbox is making for the game and figuring out which ones suit me best.

Ben H: Battleborn really grew on me. In the beginning, the amount of player-generated chaos on screen was overwhelming. Once I got a handle on each character's abilities, however, it was pretty easy to read situations. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing the game in action with the full cast of characters in play; we were choosing from a pool of six heroes and often encountered our evil twin on the other team.

The core of the Incursion mode that we played is teamwork. This game will be at its most fun when you're screaming at your friends about the insanity on the screen. In the several hours that we played, neither team managed to destroy the opposing base. This was probably a result of poor team communication, and the matches would end and tally a winner after the 30-minute time limit. I think Battleborn will be a fun game to follow the development of. If Gearbox keeps to its plan with the ambitious amount of characters it wants to include in the game, following the roll-out of roster updates should be really entertaining in a Smash Bros.-esque way. In one of our video interviews, design director John Mulkey even hints that there might be some kind of deadly penguin character on the way – have we emphasized that this game is funny? The announcement trailer doesn't really hit on the game's humor, but even in the early stage we played, the character banter during matches is really well done. We'll have a video interview with lead writer Aaron Linde later this month, so stay tuned for that.

Check back next week for a more in-depth look at nine of Battleborn's playable characters, and for more hands-on impressions of the game. To see our entire month of bonus coverage as it rolls out, click on the banner below to enter our Battleborn hub.