As I sat in a darkened theatre to get my first look at Gearbox Software’s Battleborn, I heard a number of things that sounded familiar. Matches take 20 to 30 minutes to play. You level up from 1 to maximum during the span of a single round. There are NPC minions. Characters fit a variety of roles and play-styles in five-versus-five competitive scenarios.
Gearbox is not calling Battleborn a MOBA. It’s a “hero shooter,” and the studio is leaning on its successful history of genre blending with Borderlands to get away with dodging the League of Legends bullet. The only thing is that while there are a ton of MOBAs from every corner of the game development world, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room to innovate.
Gearbox seems scared of using “that word,” but I think the studio is jumping at shadows. Battleborn looks pretty darn good at this early stage no matter what you call it.
When the title was featured on our cover in August 2014, we went in-depth with the first nine heroes, the art style, the writing, and the elements that set Battleborn apart from other games (including MOBAs). Now, Gearbox is ready to talk about the cooperative elements of the game, which play out as you and your friends hop from planet to planet completing sets of objectives.
“Calling Battleborn a MOBA would be like calling Borderlands 2 a Diablo clone,” says Gearbox president Randy Pitchford. It’s in the cooperative gameplay that Gearbox breaks away from the core of the MOBAverse and uses those elements to create something different, giving weight to Pitchford’s claim.
Just like the competitive play, you’ll start each mission at level one. As you earn experience and level up, you’ll access new rungs of the helix, at which time you’ll choose one of two upgrades.
As we mentioned in our earlier coverage (be sure to check out our hub from August), these are typically two different expressions of one facet of the character. For instance, you might have the choice between a red dot sight or longer range scope or improved base movement speed versus boosted sprinting.
Unlike the tug-of-war competitive gameplay that apes so many MOBAs, the cooperative campaign takes a page from a different book. In the demo we watched, a team of five progressed from one setpiece objective to the next, moving through varying terrain and fighting hordes of creeps.
It reminded me of Left 4 Dead, though without the AI director. It had a similar flow with set chokepoints designed to create localized firefights. The objectives are varied, and the mission we watched included a defense section, a target destruction task, and then (right as the scene ended) a fight with a large boss.
Even though these will likely play out in similar ways each time you do them (similar to a mission or strike in Destiny, for instance), the character variation will give you reasons to return. Gearbox is flexing its creative muscles to create a stable of characters that represents a wide range of tropes from across game development.
“In Borderlands, it was really fun to have all these different guns. We could say, ‘Any gun that’s ever been in any first-person shooter, you can find something like that in Borderlands,’” said Pitchford says. “We’re doing that with characters in Battleborn. That’s why we call it a ‘hero shooter.’ Any kind of character trope you’ve ever imagined in an FPS, we want a representation of that in Battleborn.”
There is still so much we don’t know about the game, partially because Gearbox hasn’t yet finalized some of the decisions internally. As a first look at a second pillar of gameplay, it’s easier to understand why Gearbox cites MOBAs as a reference but not a complete overlap. Still, the multiplayer looks like what we might expect from a first-person Dota 2 or League of Legends and you know what, Gearbox? That’s ok.